How Jeremy Corbyn could change the electoral arithmetic

Think back to 2010, when Diane Abbott's presence on the ballot helped elect Ed Miliband


Much is made of Jeremy Corbyn’s presence in the Labour leadership race, and his potential impact on the debates. Rather less is being made of Corbyn’s impact on the electoral arithmetic.

Thanks to the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV) system, the abolition of the Electoral College, and the new ‘registered supporter’ rules, Corbyn could change the electoral maths every bit as much as he changes the debate.

Use of an AV system undoubtedly changed the outcome of the 2010 Labour Leadership race.

David Miliband was initially 3.5 per cent ahead on ‘1st preference’ across the Electoral College.

Using a First Past the Post system, he would have won and become Labour leader. It was only after the 2nd preferences of those who had voted for Abbott, Balls, and Burnham were tallied up, that Ed came through — by just 0.5 per cent.

For the 2015 contest, the Electoral College has gone but the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV) remains. Voters will rank their candidates in order of preference. Each voter can list as many or as few candidates as they please.

Candidates need more than 50 per cent of the vote to win. If the leading candidate does not get 50 per cent of 1st preferences first time round (as David Miliband didn’t), the candidate with the fewest 1st preferences drops out and their 2nd preferences are then tallied up.

And so on and so on, till a candidate gets over the 50 per cent mark.

According to Stephen Bush, the well-informed editor of the Staggers blog, there has developed something of a consensus amongst some Labour Party members that the presence of Diane Abbott, a black woman of the old-fashioned left, helped – via the AV system — push Ed through in 2010.

The theory is this: significant numbers of lefties / Diane Abbott fans, who without Abbott on the ballot would not have voted at all, voted in the race. Let’s call these voters Because Abbott is on the Ballot Voters (BABVs).

When BABVs turned out, they tended to put Ed Miliband — the non-‘Blairite’, non-Iraq war candidate — as their 2nd preference on the ballot and, as a consequence, Ed was sufficiently helped and David was sufficiently hindered to account for Ed’s margin of victory.

From the 2010 Summary of Voting by Round, we see that Ed gained 2 per cent on David overall when Abbott dropped out of the contest.

Looking just at the members’ section of the Electoral College, the figures show that among those Party members who put Abbott first, three and half times as many put Ed second as put David second.

To uphold the Stephen Bush theory, two assumptions are necessary.

1. Abbot’s 2nd preferences were (roughly) evenly distributed between BABVs and those who would have voted whether or not Abbott was in the contest.

2. Around two in three of Abbott’s 1st preference voters were BABVs.

If these assumptions are both correct, we can confidently say that Abbott’s name on the ballot would in effect have been (more or less) responsible for the entirety of the 0.5 per cent margin that Ed won by.

Both assumptions seem fairly plausible, but of course we can’t make them with any certainty.

BABVs may have contributed to the margin of victory but not to the victory itself. We simply don’t know how many BABVS there were. But we can confidently say that as long as there were significant numbers of BABVs voting – and it has been reported that there were — they helped Ed and they cost David.

That was 2010. What about 2015? Could Corbyn change the arithmetic in the same way as Abbott did in 2010?

Yes. Indeed he could have much more of an influence.

As Abbott was in 2010, Corbyn is the only solidly socialist candidate and, with the Electoral College gone, each member’s vote is effectively worth more than it was in 2010.

It is also much easier and cheaper to vote in the contest than it was in 2010. Any ‘registered supporter’ can now vote for a £3 fee.  Who knows who might pay the fee?

Conservative supporting writer Toby Young has openly urged his readers to derail the Labour Party by becoming ‘supporters’ and voting for Corbyn (#ToriesforCorbyn).

He paid the £3 fee himself and he registered to vote. Since then, the Labour Party has tried to ‘weed out’ these mischievous ‘Tories for Corbyn’.

In registering as a supporter now, you not only represent yourself as supporting the Party’s aims and values, but must also sign up to the statement ‘ I am not a supporter of any organisation opposed to [the Labour Party].’

Much more likely, though, to make a significant difference to the end result, is that lefties and anti-austerity protesters etc., who would not otherwise have voted, will register and vote for Corbyn in fairly large numbers.

Let’s call all these voters BCBVs: Because Corbyn is on the Ballot Voters.

Corbyn, at 16 to 1 to win the race, may well still finish last on 1st preferences. But the 2010 example shows that this doesn’t mean he won’t alter the arithmetic. Very likely the 2nd preferences of the BCBVs will matter.

In the 2010 race, 94 per cent of Labour Party Member voters whose 1st preference was Diane Abbott put a 2nd preference on their ballot paper. It seems safe to assume that significant numbers of BCBVs will assume a 2nd preference too.

Of course some won’t. Having entered the race on account of Corbyn, they might put Corbyn as first preference and leave it at that. But once a voter has a ballot and a list of candidates in front of them, the temptation is surely to put a ‘2’ against a 2nd name.

It’s very little effort, and who knows? You could stop your least favourite candidate from leading the Labour Party. Liz Kendall, whom many BCBVs will brand a ‘Tory’, is likely to be least favourite among BCBVs.

The conventional wisdom is that Cooper, whose politics sits somewhere between Kendall and Burnham, is most likely to benefit most from the AV system. While she may not win on 1st preferences, she may mop up the majority of the 2nd preferences of both Kendall and Burnham, so the argument goes.

She may indeed. But the conventionally wise fail to take account of BCBVs. If Burnham wins in a close contest, then Corbyn’s name on the ballot may well play a part in getting him over the line.

David Miliband famously urged his MP supporters to get Abbott on the ballot, something that he surely came to regret. He wanted a broad debate, he said. But he must rue not having paid more attention to how the arithmetic would play out.

Burnham also urged his MP supporters to get Corbyn on the ballot. He also said he wanted a broad debate. But it could be that unlike David, he has been paying careful attention to the arithmetic, and knows that he will be helped by a more left-wing electorate.

Peter Wiggins is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter

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32 Responses to “How Jeremy Corbyn could change the electoral arithmetic”

  1. swat

    I, and many others, warned against giving JC a leg up onto ballot by some weak minded MPs that wanted an ‘Open Debate’; it just means that JC could steal the Leadership by stealth, in the same way that Ed Milliband did, and that would damage Labours chances of victory in 2020.
    However, JC has improved his profile and we may well have found our next Mayoral candidate, just like it helped Di Abbott.

  2. swat

    …. he being more credible, and popular, than Tessa and Di in London.

  3. stevep

    The Tories will damage their own chances of victory in 2020 with 5 more years of austerity and an idiotic economic policy. Not to mention Tory party bloodletting and backstabbing before and after the EU in/out vote. No Lib-Dems to take the blame for them this time.
    Labour should present a clear alternative to how the country is currently run, formulate a clearly-costed manisfesto and choose the leader best able to deliver the message and front the party.
    Labour is the party of the people, not the Tories. We must have policies that represent the many, not the few.

  4. AlanGiles

    “David Miliband famously urged his MP supporters to get Abbott on the ballot, something that he surely came to regret. He wanted a broad debate, he said. But he must rue not having paid more attention to how the arithmetic would play out.”

    As I remember D. Miliband was so full of confidence and entitlement, I am sure he felt his election was a foregone conclusion. I don’t think any of the current quartet are as arrogant as he was, that said, I think this election is far too lengthy and I suspect in the end the candidates will become as bored with it as the rest of us are.

  5. alednam

    Yes, that’s right. There’s hope yet. From September on, for the next 4 and a half years, Labour must BOTH say what’s wrong with AND say what they’d do different and why, every time the Tories try to implement a policy principally designed to keep their vote and/or mislead the electorate. In the shorter term, I hope Chris Leslie’s ready for 8th July.

  6. Alexander Mahdavi

    Interesting article, but I don’t think Corbyn will finish last. I sense that the buzz around Corbyn is much greater than it ever was for Abbott. While direct comparisons are difficult because of the electoral college system, Abbott beat both Ed Balls and Andy Burnham in terms of numbers of real people (party members and affiliated members) giving her their first preference. It was only the PLP which kept her from reaching the third round. I suspect Corbyn could do even better. With the union members no long having an automatic vote (they have to register to claim their ballot), a lot of the ‘soft’ union support will be stripped away, and the people actually voting will be much more engaged, which would favour Corbyn, I would argue. I would not be surprised with a Corbyn v Cooper or Burnham final round.

  7. Torybushhug

    Labour is not the party of the people, it is the party of minorities and spongers.

  8. AlanGiles

    I am astonished that Her Ladyship (Jowell) is seriously being considered for this role based on the remortgaging scandal alone (there are others). Her campaign has been given the hideous catchphrase “Two for Tessa” – if that means fingers she has my support. Double For The Dame might have been better

  9. Jacko

    Well said Torybushhug.

    A hard-working guy with ambition and plans can get on for himself and his family under the Conservatives. Labour despise people getting on. They’d rather you just stayed down in the same crappy job, on the same crappy housing estate, with the same crappy state benefits because it serves their vision of a 1970s style us-vs-them class war type Britain. More working-class people have improved their lot under the Tories than ever will under Labour.

  10. LesThompson

    personally my vote will go to Jeromey Cornyn first and second chise i have no desier to exspt the labour partey with no defonishon lets face it we our labour not tory and our socelist roots do not leen towords tory retorik but there are lesons we can lern buy obsorbing tory tactiks and becoming a force for the people in the use of our values

    ok i will explain myself lets take the right to buy. So council home sold of, and the ability to purchase them; abandoned , we put up a valiant effort to stop the sell of; and failed even alienating our core vote into the bargain. The answer then was to not fight against, But to embrace the concept and move it on to a new concept ; for right to buy we need to say ok,

    let’s accept that with the shortage of homes, we need to help the asporashenal renter; to buy his new home so then it follows that we say private for profit landlords should be in the position to renting a home, ues the right to buy law, to purchase the home they rent using the right to buy law,

    so center left policy making as got to be updated to deal with our aspirations for our people, it that old saying again if you’re not in the position to fight them; join them by using that which you have to enrich the people .

    the ends then do represent the menas to wich we should act …les

  11. stevep

    No, you`re wrong. The Tories are the party of minorities and scroungers. A minority own most of the power, land and wealth of this country while corporations, landowners, banks and wealthy individuals scrounge money off the taxpayer in the form of subsidies, bailouts and tax evasion.
    The wealthy have been tailoring their horizons since time began to grasp benefits and freebies, in the form of indentured and slave labour to build their empires.
    The Tories support companies who won`t pay their employees a living wage (most of them), necessitating more taxpayer handouts subsiding the wealthy. Reverse Robin Hood or what?
    You would do well do adopt the old maxim that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

  12. stevep

    And you have the statistics to prove your assertion?
    You`re just trotting out the same old far-right wish-wash that even the SunMail is too embarrassed to print these days.

  13. lcfcsr

    The problem with this is I don’t believe for a second that many people voted in the last leadership election just because Diane Abbott was on the ballot, and I’m sure that the vast majority of people who voted for Abbott would have voted for someone even if she wasn’t on the ballot. Diane Abbott didn’t inspire people to vote in the way that Corbyn will (it’s fair to say that a significant amount of people will vote in this election just because Corbyn is on the ballot), Abbott, whilst at times I quite like, is also a bit nutty and totally unelectable, along with not being the best and most coherent political operator (unlike Corbyn), that was the view on the left of the Labour Party as well, for example I would consider myself to be about as far to the left of the Labour Party as can get, but I wouldn’t even consider voting for Abbott at the last election just like numerous left wingers that I know wouldn’t vote for her, so for me it’s impossible to say that Abbott made the difference in the last election, she didn’t inspire anyone who wasn’t already going to vote to do so.

    Corbyn is a different matter, and he will inspire people to vote and if they use their second preferences that could make a difference (who knows, if enough of them vote Corbyn may still have an outside chance, unlikely but far from impossible, he will get a huge amount of support more than Abbott had), but where the article falls down again for me is the assumption that Corbyn’s second preferential votes will go to Burnham. The left do not consider Burnham to be the next best option, the left consider Burnham and Cooper to be all but identical politically and ever so slightly better than Kendall, plus Burnham has a lot of baggage from the past which is starting to emerge and annoy people particularly on the left regarding certain people he has employed and his actions in political office. For me I’ll be voting for Corbyn and Cooper in second, mainly because I don’t see much difference between Burnham and Cooper and I think having a woman as leader will be a good step if Corbyn doesn’t win, I know people on the left who agree, the only thing that we can probably bank on is that having Corbyn on the ballot will probably hurt Kendell, as I don’t see anyone who is supporting Corbyn supporting her!

  14. Peter Wiggins

    If Corbyn comes third, the argument stands. His 2nd preferences will almost certainly still be counted up. If he is first or second, that’s a different story of course. I don’t see him getting a lot of seconds fwiw.
    *Abbott came last amongst in votes amongst party members in 2010 but, as you say, she was 3rd in affiliated org votes.
    So far, the evidence is that not many ‘affiliated orgs’ members are signing up. But we shall see, long way to go.

  15. Iain Fletcher

    I think assuming lefties will put Burnham as second vote is a bit presumptuous. I’m a new member who joined to vote on the contest. I like Corbyn’s politics if not his ability to win an election, and originally my default second vote would’ve gone to Burnham. But after having watched 3 hustings including one live, Burnham has looked less and less impressive and Cooper more and more. I know a few other lefties planning to vote Cooper. Burnham just isn’t very impressive.

  16. Peter Wiggins

    It is presumptuous yes. It’s a guess. I might be wrong. If lefties such as yourself opt disproportionately towards cooper, Corbyn will have helped her and, for my money, she’ll be in a very strong position. Your sample is small of course. We shall see.

    Corbyn’s name on the ballot certainly does not help kendall. I don’t envisage many 1st preference corbyn-2nd preference kendall ballot papers. I think we can agree on that.

  17. Peter Wiggins

    That’s interesting, thanks for the comment. In response, I don’t assert that Abbott did help all the way across the line. I just say that she might have helped.
    In terms if Corbyn’s second preferences going disproportionately to Cooper. Maybe – I might be wrong. In that case, for my money, corbyn will have put cooper in a very strong position. The premise of the article stands up, if not its predictions.

  18. Matthew Blott


  19. lcfcsr

    Yes I take that point, the premise that people who are only voting because Corbyn is on the ballot may make the difference could end up being true. I personally don’t think that will be the case though, it’s a very interesting election that is hard to call with the new one member one vote rules, it will be interesting to see where the party membership stands and how many people return to Labour as registered supports to vote for Corbyn (there won’t be many people who make a point of registering as a supporter for £3 just to vote for Cooper, Kendall or Burnham). My money personally would be on Cooper winning relatively comfortably, but the anomaly is just how well Corbyn is going to do, which is very difficult to say given that there is no real test case in recent years. I think a mistake you seemed to make, and correct me if I misinterpreted it, is to compare Diane Abbott to Corbyn as if they are similar and are likely to attract a similar vote. Corbyn has created a lot more buzz, he will have huge support on the left of the party and amongst people who are a bit disillusioned and may not have voted otherwise. On the other hand I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest that Abbott probably didn’t command even half of the support from the left of the party that she was supposed to represent.

    Still only time will tell, and though I disagree with you on Corbyn’s second preferential votes making a huge difference and I hugely disagree that Abbott made that difference in the last election, it was still a very interesting read from a different perspective.

  20. CopernicusRising

    I think that a major problem with the reasoning here is that there is no other even vaguely left-leaning candidate on the ballot this time around. In 2010 Ed Miliband represented a fractionally less New Labour centrist position. So Ed Miliband was the natural choice of left-leaning voters who had given Abbott first preference. This time, it isn’t at all clear who would be the 2nd preference for those with a left-wing preference. I suspect many will leave it blank. The difference even between Kendall and the other two I don’t think is very great. Burnham uses this stupid talk about “getting on” which is as much taking the framework from the right-wing tabloids as any of the nonsense Kendall is spouting. And Cooper isn’t going to apologize for New Labour any less than Burnham or Kendall.

    My suspicion (and my hope) is that there will be a surprise Corbyn victory. He is just so much more articulate, principled and decent than the other three. The momentum will be with him. He will inspire people to sign up to vote including swaths of young people and marginalized groups who have been exiled from mainstream politics. You’re seeing something similar in the United States with Bernie Sanders. The financial crash and the bailouts to the bankers has pushed young people to the left, they will turn out on election day if there is someone running who really speaks to their concerns.

  21. Alexander Mahdavi

    The introduction of registered supporters is another unknown. Anecdotally, I know a certain number of casual/disillusioned Labour supporters are paying the £3 to get a vote in for Corbyn. If I had to guess, I would bet Corbyn could pick up somewhere between 20-30% of the 1st pref votes, probably enough for a top 2 finish, but you’re probably right about him picking up few 2nd prefs.

  22. Peter Wiggins

    @lcfcsr:disqus Thanks for your response – to take your points in

    I am indeed comparing Corbyn and Abbott – they are both interesting and independent-minded individuals and I don’t wish to caricature their politics. However insofar as there is a left-wing or a socialist vote, they’re both going to be in receipt of it. To varying degrees, no doubt. And the dynamics in 2015 are different to 2010. In both cases though, they are far to the left of the other candidates and, for this reason, there is bound to be quite a lot of cross-over in terms of their voters.

    Corbyn has created more buzz than Abbott, I agree. That’s of course not to say that there isn’t a similarity in their politics or their potential supporters. I think a lot of the buzz indeed comes from the new ‘registered supporter’ rules. That’s part of my argument.

    To be clear, I am not saying that the presence of Corbyn on the ballot will make a difference to the eventual winner. It might well not. What I am saying is that it’ll make a difference to the arithmetic. Which I am sure it will. So, as I say, if the race is close it may play an important part. As longs as there are BCBVs who put 2nd preferences (and you seem to think there will be plenty), Corbyn will change the arithmetic. Some commenters have said that Cooper not Burnham will get the 2nd preferences of BCBVs. Maybe. This is consistent with my argument though not my prediction. If that’s right, Corbyn will have put Cooper in an extremely strong position as IMO Cooper will be getting the majority of Kendall’s 2nd preferences too.
    Remember, it’s all to do with proportion. Even if Corbyn’s 2nd preferences are split evenly between Burnham and Cooper, that still affects the maths (though probably not the eventual outcome). In that scenario Corbyn’s name on the ballot will have been very bad exclusively for Kendall.

    Again, I simply don’t say that Abbott helped Ed over then line. It’s a theory, not mine. I simply identify what would need to be true for this to be the case. This is an academic exercise.

    Perhaps we don’t disagree as much as you think?

    What is true – and I think this is a big part of your point — is that if Corbyn comes first or second on 1st preferences – and you seem to be flirting with this possibility — my argument is out the window. In that case he’s a contender and he won’t be changing the arithmetic so much as changing the whole race. For what it is worth, I doubt this will happen; and I also don’t think he’ll get many 2nd preferences himself (so that
    will make it hard for him to win and become leader).

    As I have said to a few people now: if you think he is going to do really well, get some dosh on there. The odds are very long.

  23. AW1983

    I think it’s a big assumption that voters will put Burnham as their second choice. Last time around, the voting was much more restricted to Labour members and I can understand why Abbott voters would have cared enough about their party to add a second preference. Many non-party member, anti-austerity voters would probably prefer the party to collapse if Corbyn can’t win, to help another party that is more aligned to their views (like the Green Party).

    As a Green Party member myself, I won’t be voting in the Labour Party election and even if I did I’d vote Kendall to destroy their party (with Kendall as leader more of the begrudging support Labour gets from the left will collapse ‘SNP style’ towards the Greens whilst I also struggle to see why floating voters would decide to switch back from the Tories and cause a loss of continuity for no real philosophical change in government). However, I guess a lot of the Green left will get involved for Corbyn. However, they generally could not care less about the other candidates and might well vote Corbyn, Kendall for the reasons I’ve given above.

    I would advise them not to do so. The Green Party has a distinct philosophy of its own that would be at odds with Labour no matter how far to the left it goes. Despite a growing problem with Trots and an obsession with raising taxes for no particular reason in the last election, the Green Party is still a more liberal party than Labour could ever hope to be and will attract people with a variety of backgrounds who would never consider voting Labour.

  24. lcfcsr

    Yeah fair enough I take those points, Corbyn’s presence can make that difference and you’re right will make a difference to the arithmetic, I’m sure there will be people voting who would not have otherwise, though I don’t expect that to make the difference in the result. I still struggle to draw the comparison between Abbott and Corbyn in terms of the effect they will have on the ballot (though I do understand the comparisons), because whilst both will attract the more left wing vote, the major difference is I believe Corbyn will command the vast majority of the left wing vote in the party, whilst I doubt very much that Abbott commanded even close to half of the left wing vote at the last election, and that’s even before we take into account the registered supporters vote.

    You’re right I am flirting with the possibility of Corbyn coming second or first, it is very difficult to tell with the new voting rules, I sense a buzz around Corbyn in the party that doesn’t exist for the other candidates and I also believe that Corbyn is a much more dynamic, engaging performer than the other candidates. However I do tend to agree with you that it probably won’t happen, I actually do have some dosh on him anyway because I think he has a much, much better chance than the bookies have given him credit for, the only person I can’t see winning currently is Liz Kendall, but my prediction would still be a fairly comfortable win for Cooper, with Burnham finishing second, Corbyn third and Kendall last.

    Thanks for replying again, your article and comments have been an interesting read.

  25. Cole

    Why do you keep typing out this evidence free rubbish? You’ve clearly no idea who votes Labour and are too lazy to even look it up.

  26. Bernard Crofton

    Now I am assuming that the Toby Young fraudulent voters will have a conundrum about second choices. Do they vote for Kendall to find the Labour party as any sort of leftish force, or do they vote for one of the slightly socialist candidates who will beat Boris in 2020?

  27. Bernard Crofton

    Your total ignorance of real British people is astounding. Are you one of the Barclay brothers living on Sark and reading only what you allow to be published in your own newspaper ?

    in other words one of the real major spongers profiting from the British but dodging your share of the costs of a civilised society.

  28. Norfolk29

    Somehow I remember this was the aim of Ed Miliband in 2010. Nothing came of it as they all retreated to a bunker to formulate policy. When they emerged the reality did not suit them and they lost the election. Just hope we are not about to repeat this exercise.

  29. Norfolk29

    Whets this, another reason to dislike Diane. Surely we have enough already.

  30. Patrick Nelson

    A 1970s Britain where a single worker could look after a family?

    A Britain where weeks and weekends were weeks and weekends?

    A Britain that still had a manufacturing base?

    A Britain where workers had rights?


  31. Mike Brooks

    Corbyn benefits from the fact that his supporters are not just more committed, but more savvy. Some of the older, more traditional party members may not realise you don`t have to preference any candidate if you don`t want to; some may make a genuine mistake and put Corbyn as a second preference. The Corbynistas are too clued-up to make any such mistakes. Once Corbyn is elected, he will convert the £3.00 price of a (Northern) pint supporters into full members, in order to facilitate their infiltration into local Labour Parties so that the mass de-selection of those Labour MP`s who in Corbyn`s words `don`t toe the line` can take place. It is to be hoped that these new Corbyn created members will be made to pay the full subscription if they want to continue their party membership in future years.

  32. Mike Brooks

    Don`t forget that McClusky supported Burnham when he thought Corbyn had no chance of making it on the ballot paper, so it`s a reasonable assumption that most Corbyn supporters will put Burnham as second prefference, if they put anyone at all.

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