How Lisa Nandy Can Pull Off A Shock To Become Labour Leader

The outsider has a "preferential strategy" that could work - but time is her enemy.

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Preferential treatment?

Outside the office of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), deep in the bowels of the House of Commons, Emily Thornberry punched the air with delight. It was 2.18pm and, just 12 minutes before the deadline for Labour leadership nominations, she had crossed the line.

Fellow shadow foreign affairs frontbencher Afzal Khan had sauntered in to give her his promised vote, the 22nd and crucial nomination needed to go through to the next round. Reading MP Matt Rodda was the 23rd nomineed (he joked that if he’d demanded a charitable donation to his local party every time he was asked to back a candidate, his party would have a very healthy fighting fund).

So, despite all the chatter that it would be fellow women who got Thornberry into the next round, it was two blokes who actually did it. In fact, three blokes if you include Clive Lewis’s decision to drop out and tell his supporters to switch sides. Still, a result is a result and there was an added spring in her step, and zing in her barbs, when she squared up to Dominic Raab in the chamber a few minutes later.

Yet while Thornberry (who had said yesterday “I’m gonna be fine!” despite having just 10 nominations) now deservedly goes through to the second phase of the contest, she knows it’s going to take some kind of earthquake to propel her into genuine contention for the top job.

A few miles to the east of Westminster, in working class Dagenham, Lisa Nandy was already on the next stage of the race, trying to reach out to party members, affiliates and trade unionists to convince them that she really does have a chance of coming out on top.

Her speech (delivered without notes) had no new policy nuggets but did repeat a warning she’d issued last week the PLP hustings: “If we do not change course, we will die and we will deserve to.” Yes, deserve to. “I am asking you to make the brave, not the easy choice, in this leadership contest,” she added. The bigger message was unmistakable: Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey were each, in their own ways, the ‘easy choice’.

Nandy shares with Jess Phillips a claim to be the ‘bold’ choice, rather than a ‘safe’ one. And although MP nominations really aren’t a reliable guide to the outcome, there felt a significant symbolism in the fact that Nandy came third today on 31 MPs - just two behind Long-Bailey (and miles behind Starmer).

Why does that third place matter? Well, because Nandy may be the only contender in this election who is capable of pulling off a surprise by building from a low base. And just as any party leader has to deal with the realities a first-past the post voting system, the Labour leader first has to deal with the realities of their own party’s leadership alternative vote (AV) system.

With AV meaning voters get a first and second preference, the Nandy campaign are throwing the kitchen sink at making their candidate the second choice of supporters for all her rivals. In what they call their “preferential strategy”, the game is to woo Phillips (and Thornberry) voters who want a woman leader, while ruthlessly targeting Long-Bailey voters with her long-established soft-left credentials (for a while she was considered ‘too left wing’ to be in Miliband’s shadow cabinet).

If (and it’s a big ‘if’ at present) she can somehow force her way into second place, Nandy’s allies are confident they can beat Starmer with a mass transfer of Long-Bailey supporters’ second preferences. A snapshot of social media (and it still plays a part in internal Labour elections) shows lots of members already saying Nandy will get their second preference.

The ‘preferential strategy’ worked for Ed Miliband in 2010. David was ahead of first preferences at every stage until the final round when his brother pipped him to the post by a wafer-thin margin. Under rules closer to today’s, Sadiq Khan overhauled Tessa Jowell among party members (he led among affiliates) only on the fifth and final round to win the London mayoral selection in 2015. “Keir is either your first preference or he’s your last preference. Same for Becky. But Lisa is the person who few people really don’t like,” one ally says.

Several non-aligned MPs told me Nandy was the clear winner of the PLP hustings last week after she neatly analysed why Labour lost and what it has to do next. If she can repeat that performance at the hustings organised by both the party and by the media, she could pull off a big shock. If (another important ‘if’) a big union like the GMB backs her, she won’t even need the really tough target of 33 constituency party nominations to get on the ballot.

The hustings may cause a fresh problem for Starmer. Lined up alongside four women, female Labour members in particular may feel uncomfortable about giving their second preference to a man. And that may cut across left-centre-right boundaries.

With a lower profile than the other contenders, Nandy’s real enemy is time. Although right now it looks like we have more than 11 long weeks to go, candidates who clear the second phase have only a week in which they are given access to crucial membership data before the first ballots can be returned.

The Nandy camp’s hope is two-fold: they make enough of an impression in the early hustings stage to build momentum; and that there are more ‘soft’ voters this time (38% of members returned their ballot in just a few days in 2016) who want to hold back, see more hustings and make their minds up later.

The next few polls of Labour members could prove crucial. The last YouGov poll gave Starmer a clear lead over Long-Bailey, with Nandy languishing way behind. Yet although she suffered on name recognition, among those who had seen her many really liked what they saw.

The one big downer for Nandy could however come this week. The 48-hour window for ‘registered supporters’ could well favour both Starmer (with centrist voters deciding they need to act) and Long-Bailey (with left voters returning), but it’s hard to see how anyone will join simply because they want Nandy to win. If those registered supporter numbers are big, then we could be heading for a two-horse race with little time for the also-rans to catch up.

Then again, in the Labour party debate matters. And debates can upset the bookies’ odds. Jeremy Corbyn’s policy director Andrew Fisher (himself likely to back Long-Bailey) put it thus: “I would like to remind people we haven’t had any [party member] hustings yet.” He’s right.

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