British political journalism continues to plumb the depths. The latest case in point is their reporting of the contest for the Labour leadership. This applies both to the factual coverage and analysis. Nobody seems to have thought through the implications of the party’s electoral system, know as the Alternative Vote (AV). This system was put to referendum in 2011 for parliamentary elections, but alas the argument that referendums promote education and understanding falls short here.
Last week news was made by the leaked results of a private poll. This showed that left-wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn might just squeak home to victory by 51% to 49%. after second preferences had been distributed, over Yvette Cooper. The poll was interesting, if at all representative of how the Labour selectorate is planning to vote. There is health warning here: as a leaked private poll its rigour is unknown, it is unlikely that anybody has paid a sophisticated poll. The main interest is not that Mr Corbyn is doing well, which is old news, but that Ms Cooper seems to be his challenger. Previously a third candidate, Andy Burnham had been considered the favourite. The battle between Mr Burnham and Ms Cooper is the the most interesting thing about this contest, at least if your want to predict who is going to win in the end. It is quite possible that Mr Burnham would be able to beat Mr Corbyn in a two-way fight – but it could be that the AV system is counting against him.
Now let’s look as how some of the media reported this poll. Start with Sky News, which comes top of my Google search. This headlines “Corbyn Takes 20 Point Lead in Leadership Poll”. This reports the distribution of first preference votes in the poll, with Mr Corbyn on 42%, Ms Cooper on 23%, Mr Burnham on 20% and the fourth candidate, Liz Kendall, on 14%. The distribution of first preferences is important news, but of limited significance. What it shows is that Corbyn’s support is sufficient for him to reach the final round of the decision process, but not enough to win without second (or third) preferences distributed from other candidates. It also says that Ms Kendall is likely to be eliminated first – and that the battle to challenge Mr Corbyn is a close fight between Ms Cooper and Mr Burnham. The gap between either of these candidates and Mr Corbyn does not tell you very much at all. The brief article does not mention how the second preferences were distributed. Sky’s Chief Political Correspondent, Jon Craig, is quoted as saying that the poll is interesting because because it shows Ms Cooper ahead of Mr Burnham, which is true enough, but then he spoils by saying:
Obviously it is a battle to stop Mr Corbyn, who is ahead. But what this poll suggests is that she (Ms Cooper) – not Andy Burnham – might be the person who can stop Mr Corbyn.
The whole contest is being reported as if it was held under First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral rules, like parliamentary elections. In that event the game is to mobilise votes behind the leading challenger to whoever is in the lead. Under AV the crucial point is which of the challenging candidates has more second preference votes for Mr Corbyn – as that candidate would then be in a better position to challenge him in the final round. That could well be Mr Burnham, who has positioned himself to the left of the field, compared to Ms to Ms Cooper, who resists saying much at all apart from pointing out her sex.
Next on the search is the Telegraph, with headline “Jeremy Corbyn takes 20 point lead in Labour poll with Andy Burnham in third place”. This article again concentrates on the first preferences, but at least this article reports the distribution of second preferences, and makes it clear what the voting system is. It does not delve into the implications of all this, and the headline tells you nothing very useful, but this article is the pick of the bunch.
The next mainstream article in the search is The Independent: “Jeremy Corbyn takes a 22-point lead in Labour leadership race”. This article again focuses on the size of the gap between the first two contenders as if it actually counted for very much. Well actually it reports the gap between the first and third contender: the newspaper is clearly struggling to take Ms Cooper’s campaign seriously. The paper does report that the vote is being conducted under AV, but not what the implications of this are; it doesn’t report that final distribution, which was clearly available, and which is the most important part of the whole release.
Other examples of shoddy journalism abound. The Economist blithely states that the AV system favours the most inoffensive candidate. This is patently untrue, as has been repeatedly shown in places like Australia, which uses the system for parliamentary elections. The inoffensive candidates tend to get eliminated in the early rounds because nobody can must enough enthusiasm for them to give them first preference votes. Often voters are left choosing between two extremes. To win, candidates must achieve a critical mass of first preference votes. Being inoffensive is clearly Ms Cooper’s strategy, and she could pull it off, but it is a risky one. It is not clear how being inoffensive is any more successful strategy under AV than it is under FPTP, which is often decided by “tactical” voting.
Another paper (I can’t remember which, or even if it was a paper) reported that Mr Burnham was positioning himself to the centre-left in order to pick up Mr Corbyn’s second preference votes – long after it was clear that Mr Corbyn was going to make it into the last round, and so that his second preference votes were not in play. And another example: a BBC interviewer suggested to Ms Kendall that she withdrew to improve the chances of the other anti-Corbyn candidates. And yet this makes no sense for her as fourth-placed candidate. It would make for sense for Ms Cooper (or Mr Burnham come to that) to do so.
I suspect what is happening is this. Many Labour members are signed up to the left-wing, anti-capitalist, anti-austerity narrative. Trade unions, for slightly different reasons, tend to think in a similar way: their main concern is to extend the reach of the public sector, where they have more influence. This coalition at first backed Mr Burnham, who tried to position himself to scoop up some of these supporters, while not burning his bridges with the parliamentary party, who are more concerned to pick up floating voters leaking to Ukip or the Conservatives. Mr Burnham became the easy front-runner. But Mr Corbyn entered the race, and proved to have a certain charisma – he tried the novel technique of saying what much of the selectorate was actually thinking, and sticking very closely to the official trade union line. Mr Burnham’s vote rapidly leaked away. This now seems to have reached the point where Mr Corbyn’s campaign has achieved critical mass – about one third of the votes – which means that he gets into the final round. This means that the second preferences of his supporters don’t count.
Meanwhile it does not look as if any of the other three candidates has reached critical mass. But it does look as if Ms Kendall is lying fourth. Which means that her second preferences do matter. It is safe to assume that very few of these votes will go to Mr Corbyn. One popular idea is that most of them will go for Ms Cooper, as being both female and apparently more centrist (Ms Kendall leads the right of the field). That could be enough to ensure that Ms Cooper gets past Mr Burnham and into the final round. If so, the decisive question is how Mr Burnham’s second preferences split. If he’s held on to some of his left leaning voters, they might opt for Mr Corbyn, and allow him to win.
So if you are taking part in this election, and you want to stop Mr Corbyn from winning, it matters a great deal how you rank Ms Cooper and Mr Burnham. If you think that Ms Cooper’s supporters will have fewer second preferences for Mr Corbyn than Mr Burnham, then you should rank Mr Burnham ahead. Which is a pity, because Ms Cooper is the better candidate.
Which speculation leads to an interesting conclusion. The AV system can favour the extremes by hollowing out the centre. The system could let Mr Corbyn in by knocking out the best placed candidate to beat him. Perhaps it’s as well the public rejected AV in 2011.