Forget letters from 20 MPs. Remember Scotland

Here’s an astonishing piece of journalism from last weekend’s Labour mini-crisis. Daniel Boffy, The Obscurer‘s policy editor tells us:

Even more significantly, this newspaper has learned that 20 Labour frontbenchers have indicated they are “actively considering Ed Miliband’s future”. The information came from a senior Labour MP who last week canvassed the parliamentary Labour party for support for a coup. “There isn’t a letter. But there could be one very quickly,” the Labour MP said.

Boffy was re-using a quote from Nicholas Watt at the Guardian earlier in the week. So much for the Observer being a totally different paper to the Guardian.

But why would anybody care if there was a “letter” or if 20 MPs, not a penny more, not a penny less, signed it? In the Conservative Party, 20 MPs can write to the 1922 Committee chair in order to start the leadership election process. This is, though, something that exists in the Tory charter and nowhere else. The process to elect a Labour leader is as different as it could be and the number 20 is not significant. Neither are MPs as such.

Actually, the number is 15% these days although I think it used to be either 20% or 20. See Nick Barlow’s comment below

The rule book states that the leader is re-elected by the party conference, annually, and that’s it. (Where were these guys at conference, then?) In between times, the only mechanism I can see to initiate a leadership election would be if the National Executive Committee were to call a special conference, with the Conference Arrangements Committee putting the matter on the agenda.

This is a pretty high bar as the plotters would need a majority of both committees as well as among the MPs, the union members, and the activists. When the party is in government, the bar is set higher still, as a simple majority of conference is required on a card vote to have an election at all. Where the Tory charter gives a great deal of power to backbench MPs to overthrow the leader, the Labour one gives them very little and involves the membership early on. In the Tory system, the MP makes the party; in the Labour one, the party or rather the movement makes the MP.

You’d think being familiar with the main political parties’ constitutions, at least as they apply to something as fundamental as sacking the party leader, would be a basic skill for a political journalist. But apparently not. After all, Alan Watkins maintained a reputation as a sage for many years by pointing out that you need a hands-up vote at conference to sack a Labour prime minister, and therefore this week’s ration of Blair/Brown drama was going nowhere. They never learned, though.

Part of the problem, I guess, is that if you’re a national political journo, there is no story that is more exciting or more suited to your contacts book than a party leadership crisis. Because the Tories have more of them, everyone in the business has learned all the drills for a Tory crisis. Are there 20 MPs? Is there a letter? (Note that there are only 24 frontbenchers, so they were either bullshitting or counting has-beens.) You’ll notice that no coverage at all last weekend even mentioned the NEC or any of its members.

In this light it’s unlikely indeed we’ll get any meaningful reporting from Scotland. Scotland? Yes. Look at this chart. I was arguing with various people on Twitter about this, and I pointed out that if you want to argue that the Labour poll lead is collapsing it helps to trim the X-axis so you only get the exciting bit. Trust me – I used to be a Lib Dem, so I know all about dodgy charts. Here’s a plot of poll leads since the 15th September.

Screenshot from 2014-11-16 20:04:53

First point: Wow, there’s a lot of noise in there. Second point: I’ve marked the Labour conference between 21-24 September on the chart – that’s the first grey box. The Tories were the week after. Didn’t we do well? If there’s been a “melting” of the lead, it sure as hell didn’t happen at conference and in fact it happened in mid-October, which leads us to the second grey box. That’s the week Johann Lamont resigned as Labour leader in Scotland.

If you look at the Ipsos-MORI poll (the green triangle on the chart), about 11 per cent of the weighted total sample is Scottish. Therefore, the 39 percentage point uplift in the SNP share of vote they picked up in the November political monitor translates to 4.3 percentage points of national voting intention.

So it’s just a pity it’s practically an official secret that the Tories have given up on English-votes-for-English-laws. Labour said “no deal”; William Hague made a fuss; and Ed Miliband got his way.

representatives from all parties agreed on Wednesday that enhanced devolution should “not be conditional on the conclusion of other political negotiations elsewhere in the UK”.

This is what I predicted would happen. But EVEL as a scare seems to have worked up to a point, by sticking a rocket under what seems to be the SNP’s “whatever it takes to get revenge on Labour” strategy. I do think, though, that Scottish Labour politics at the moment has become very important and nobody seems to care.

6 Comments on "Forget letters from 20 MPs. Remember Scotland"

  1. One minor quibble – the rest is all accurate, especially journos not bothering to understand how political parties actually work – but the Tory leadership trigger is 15% of the MPs, not a fixed number. So it was 24 to get rid of IDS, but 46 to get rid of Cameron (though could be 45 if the defections keep going…)


      1. It’ a sobering thought that Thatcher might have gone on and on and on, if her campaign manager hadn’t been distracted by worries about who knew what about his leisure activities.


  2. Journalists appear to have also been led astray by what happened in the Blair/Brown years. It is now clear that Blair and Brown dominated the party to such a great extent that the rule book didn’t apply. In practice only Brown could get rid of Blair. It is to be hoped that the Labour Party has now gone back to using its rule book. Journalists, though, may think that some MPs can meet in a curry house and bounce in a new leader.


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