Over the weekend, it became official: Unite are endorsing Jeremy Corbyn to be the next leader of the Labour Party. When you look at the stated aims of Len McCluskey and then compare them to Corbyn’s political goals, that doesn’t seem so strange on the surface. But when you consider that Burnham must have felt he had Unite sown up a few weeks back, this wrinkle may possibly change the contest – most definitely for the worse for Andy.
Burnham probably wanted Corbyn on the ballot so much for two reasons. One, which is simple, is that he didn’t want to get painted as the most left-wing candidate. He mostly likely felt that if that were to be the case, Yvette’s people could have successfully spun her as the sensible centrist. The second one is more complicated, psephological, but actually more important than the first reason: he almost certainly figured that those voting for Jeremy, and Corbyn probably will get some people to vote in the contest that otherwise would not have, will give their second preferences to Burnham in large numbers. To remind you, the Labour leadership elections are held under the Alternative Vote (I know, the irony, huh?).
But Andy surely didn’t see Unite backing out of backing him (which again, he must have thought was in the bag) and openly supporting Jeremy. If he had, I think he would have seriously thought twice about trying so hard to get Corbyn on the ballot.
Yes, AV opens up the terrain to think about second preferences, something not available under First Past the Post. Yes, the voting system made a difference in 2010, where David Miliband would have won on first preferences. But this can be priced too heavily into the equation. AV is really just a minor variant on FPTP – first preferences are still king to a large extent. Perhaps Corbyn will get out the left vote in a way we wouldn’t have seen had he not been on the ticket, much like Diane Abbott did last time round. Or perhaps, just perhaps, there are Labour members out there who would have given their first preference to Burnham begrudgingly, who are now going to give it to Jeremy instead. How that affects the contest no one will ever know, since we can’t re-run the thing leaving Corbyn out, but it could all fall badly for Burnham.
How much one thinks the Unite support for Jeremy Corbyn will affect who becomes the next Labour leader depends greatly on how much power one truly thinks the unions have within Labour. One theory points to the paltry numbers of affiliate members the unions have been able to get registered to vote thus far, reminding us of the fact that under the new one member, one vote system, the unions no longer have a one third bloc guaranteed. The alternative theory asks us to look back at how much of a supporter of the change to one member, one vote Len McCluskey was when Miliband announced it, and wonder if Unite have some sort of card up their sleeve. Like a whole bunch of affiliate memberships they are going to shove into Labour HQ just before the deadline, the timing meant to lull party hacks into a false sense of security that everything’s under wraps.
Or something more simple happens than all of that, namely a lot of Corbyn people give their second preferences to Yvette Cooper instead of Andy Burnham. However much you estimate the standing of Unite’s Machiavellian abilities, or the second preference tendencies of your average socialist, one has to wonder whether Burnham is now seriously regretting his enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy for the leaderership.