Sebastian Payne

The second preference conundrum and why Liz Kendall shouldn’t drop out

The second preference conundrum and why Liz Kendall shouldn’t drop out
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Is Liz Kendall about to quit the Labour leadership race? The Times reports comments from Labour sources who say Kendall's time is up — given her poor showing in the recent YouGov poll and CLP nominations — and she should drop out for the good of the party. One MP told the paper ‘it may have to be Liz saying, "Look, I’m not going to win"'. Another senior Labour figure said ‘there’s quite a bit of private pressure building up on Liz.'

These Labour figures do not appear to understand how the party leader is elected. The preferential Alternative Vote system means that candidates will be knocked one by one out until someone has a majority. In 2010, there were five rounds until Ed Miliband reached 50.65 per cent of the vote. Therefore, assuming Kendall remains in this race— as her campaign are adamant  she will — and finishes in 4th place, her votes will be redistributed elsewhere and not wasted.

There is an argument that Cooper and Kendall are closer in their views than Burnham and Kendall, so the former should drop out and tell her supporters to back Cooper in order to stop Jeremy Corbyn. An ally of Cooper told the Times that Kendall should copy what Gordon Brown did to make way for Tony Blair: 'the moderates came together to make sure they didn’t split the vote in 1994 — something like that needs to happen again.’

If all the attention of the Labour leadership race was focused on Corbyn and one other candidate, there is an argument that Kendall dropping out would focus Labour's minds and the media attention on the two-horse race. But at present, it’s still very much a three-way contest and the second preferences matter. Therefore, there is no logical argument for Kendall dropping out.

The question of how the second preferences will break is one of much debate between the campaigns. The YouGov poll said Kendall would be knocked out in the first round, putting Corbyn on 40 per cent in the second round, Burnham on 29 and Cooper on 26. Therefore, Cooper would be knocked out and YouGov say Corbyn would be on 53 per cent in the third and final round and Burnham on 47.

But the Cooper campaign argue the preferences would break another way and their candidate is the only one who could beat Corbyn in the last round. Based on the assumption that Kendall's supporters would en mass put down Cooper as their second preference, they believe Burnham would be knocked out after Kendall and a good chunk of his second preferences would also go to Cooper. If these two significant assumptions are correct — the Cooper camp believe they are because their candidate is ‘more of a centrist’ as Burnham is moves leftwards — they say it would be a dead heat between Cooper and Corbyn. A campaign source says:

'These figures actually show that Yvette is the only candidate with broad enough support right across the party to win in the final round against Andy or Jeremy. Andy simple can't do that.’

The Burnham camp dismiss the idea that Kendall's second preferences will mostly go to Cooper. 'It's nonsense,' says one Burnham source. 'Why would backers of Liz, who has been talking up how Labour made mistakes on spending, back someone else who is saying there were no mistakes at all? It shows how desperate the campaign is after the poll that confirmed was nowhere in the race'.

Predicting what happens with the second preferences is very tricky, particularly as we have little knowledge of how the new 50,000 members will go and where their loyalties are. But all of the campaigns will be aware that the preferential voting system means that second preferences matter and their strategies will continue to be informed by this.