How to vote for Labour’s leader: more complex than it looks

This week I was going to vote for 1. Diane Abbott, 2. Ed Miliband,  3. David Miliband, 4. Andy Burnham, and 5. Ed Balls.  But I have been persuaded by an expert’s analysis of the voting system for the leadership election that this would be risky. I now plan to vote 1. Ed Miliband, 2. David Miliband, 3 Andy Burnham,. 4. Diane Abbott, 5  Ed Balls. Here’s why.

Of the two candidates for the Labour leadership with the basic qualities required in a party and national leader, Ed Miliband seems to me to have the edge over his brother on policy and values, and to look reasonably papabile.  But of all five candidates, only Diane Abbott’s views on almost all major issues chime with mine – on the UK nuclear deterrent, Iraq and Afghanistan, other foreign wars, prisons, terrorism, civil rights, taxation, the economy, and more.  Until recently I accordingly planned to give Diane my first preference, on the basis that if she gets a respectable number of votes that will oblige the new leader to take her and her supporters’ views seriously. But I don’t think that she has the personality or skills to be an effective party leader or a credible candidate for election as prime minister (sorry, Diane). Moreover, I don’t think she can win enough first or second preferences in the parliamentary or union sections of the electoral college to stand a realistic chance of winning the Labour party leadership election itself, however well she might do in the constituency section – although it’s never safe to base one’s votes on assumptions about how everyone else will vote .  All the same, it seemed reasonable to translate these views into votes by giving my first preference to Ms Abbott, in the confidence that at some stage she will be eliminated and that my second preference, for Ed Miliband, will thereupon be reallocated to him.  Mission accomplished!   But is it?  Now read on….

This plan seemed to be confirmed by the advice in a letter in the Guardian on 27 August which advocated exactly what I was proposing to do:

Seumas Milne is absolutely right that those who want to return the Labour party to its correct place within the political spectrum should ensure Ed Miliband beats David (Ed is the only Miliband who offers a genuine alternative, 26 August). However Ed Miliband is young and untested, and his leadership will not just be determined by his platform; it will be shaped by context. The first context will be the dynamic within the party following the result. A radical confident leadership from Ed will most likely emerge if the starting point is a strong Abbott vote that transfers to him. It is therefore imperative that Diane Abbott supporters hold firm in their first preferences, determined, as Milne describes, “to see a voice for the left in the country’s main party of reform”. Vote Abbott 1, Ed Miliband 2.
Daniel Blaney
Basildon, Essex

However, I had a nagging suspicion that I might be missing something here.  So I sought the advice of a Labour supporter who understands the electoral system better than I do.  Here is what she said in reply:

Let’s start with the simple case, in which your only interest is who gets elected (that is, ignore for a moment your desire to use your vote for the additional purpose of “sending a signal” as well).

Then it is all simple.  One of the principal merits of AV (some would say the only merit) is that it is simple for the voter to know what to do, even if it is not simple to explain how the system works.  The voter should simply number the candidates according to her ranking of them.   There is no way to vote tactically. Even if a voter knew exactly how everyone else was going to vote (which of course she doesn’t) there would not be a reason to do anything other than number the candidates in order.

To answer specific questions that have been raised:

– In an election with five candidates, putting preferences by four of them, and leaving the fifth blank is identical to ranking the last candidate fifth.  (Your last preference votes won’t ever be counted because it is not possible for four candidates to be eliminated and their second or lower preferences re-allocated in a five-candidate election.)

– If you want “anyone but Balls”, your best strategy is not to put a number next to Balls.  Putting a number next to a candidate can’t harm them. If it is the lowest possible number (ie 5 in a five-candidate election) it won’t help them either (see above).  If it is any number other than last, it might help them.  If you don’t want them, don’t vote for them.

– Your votes have to start with 1 and go down as far as you have preferences. In some elections a minority of voters put a “1” next to the candidate they want and “5” next to someone they detest, without putting the numbers 2, 3 and 4 in between.  Some electoral officers will count this first preference; most will just declare the paper spoiled.

Now we make it more complicated, by acknowledging that some voters want to use the election not only to choose a winner but also for the secondary purpose of sending a signal.  In the normal case, the signal a voter wants to send is aligned with her preferences in the election (that is, if a voter wants to send the signal that she likes what Ed Balls has to say, she is also likely to think that Ed Balls would make the best leader).  In that case, we are back to the simple case – the voter should simply number the candidates according to her preferences.  It is more complicated for a voter who wants to send a signal that is not aligned with her actual preferences for leader.  So a voter prefers Ed Miliband to be leader, but wants to send the (false?) signal that he prefers Diane Abbott to Ed Miliband.  If the voter is trying to pursue these two objectives simultaneously, that reintroduces the possibility of tactical voting.  The optimum strategy for the voter in this special case depends on (a) the relative weight the voter attaches to these objectives; and (b) what the voter thinks other voters will do.

In the actual case at hand, in which the voter reasonably expects that Diane Abbott has almost no chance of winning, he might put Diane Abbott first and his actual preference for leader (in this case, Ed Miliband) second.  This would achieve the secondary objective (sending a signal) but there are two ways it might backfire on the first objective (choose Ed Miliband to be leader):

*      first, there is a possibility (probably small in this case) that Diane Abbott might actually win, which is not what the voter intends;

*       second, if enough people who want Ed Miliband put someone else first for the purpose of sending a signal, then there is chance that Ed Miliband could be eliminated early on. Suppose Andy Burnham goes out first, and most of his second preferences go to Diane Abbott.  Then Ed Miliband might conceivably still be below Diane Abbott in the next round, and he’d go out before she does.  She’d go out next, and then would be a straight race between David Miliband and Ed Balls.  So in this story, the voter who has put Diane Abbott ahead of Ed Miliband to send a signal would have inadvertently made it more likely that Ed Balls gets elected leader, even though the voter has correctly anticipated that Diane Abbott herself has no chance of success.

Whether the voter regards this as a risk worth taking depends on (a) the relative weight he attaches to the two objectives of electing the right leader and sending the signal; and (b) his view of the probability that Ed Miliband might be eliminated ahead of Diane Abbott.  (Note that this is not the same question as whether Diane Abbott might get more first preferences than Ed Miliband).

I have to say, my guess is that it is probably quite rare for a voter to prefer one candidate but want to send a (false) signal he prefers another.  So in general, the aphorism that there is no tactical voting in AV is correct.

So the conclusions are:

*       In the case where your objectives are limited to choosing a leader, you should number them in order of preference as far as you have preferences, and then stop. If you specifically don’t want a particular person, don’t put a number next to them.

*      In the case where you want to send a signal that is different from your preferences for leader, it is more complicated.  You should only vote for a “signal” candidate ahead of the candidate you really prefer if you are pretty confident that the signal candidate will be eliminated ahead of your true preference.

I am persuaded by this.  If the argument in Mr Blaney’s Guardian letter, no doubt also being advanced by others in Labour groups and forums up and down the country, influences enough voters to do what Mr Blaney recommends, which of course is also what I had been planning to do, it could conceivably cause Ed Miliband to be eliminated before Diane Abbott, who would then either be eliminated in her turn — or else even go on to win, if (for example) we have all guessed wrongly how the voting in the parliamentary and trade union sections is likely to go. The more first preferences go to Ed Miliband, the less the risk that he might be eliminated before a candidate who has received a significant number of purely gesture preferences.  If you think that of the five candidates Ed Miliband would make the best leader of the party, best leader of the opposition and potentially the best prime minister, you should give him your first preference, and resist the temptation to use your first preference to make a political statement in favour of a candidate whose views you like but who you know lacks the personality and other attributes to lead the party, the opposition or the country.  If  – out of loyalty, sentiment or bloody-mindedness – you insist on giving your first preference to, say, Diane Abbott or Andy Burnham, you can limit the damage, or at any rate the risk, by being careful to give your second preference to Ed Miliband.  Take care to number the rest of your remaining votes also in order of your assessment of their leadership qualities:  even your fourth preference may be counted and thus affect the outcome, if your first three are all eliminated.  Only your fifth preference will not in any circumstances be redistributed or counted: reserve that for the candidate whom you think a seriously unsuitable choice for leader. Either number him 5, or don’t give him a number at all – provided that you have numbered all the rest 1 to 4.

Thus whichever your preferred candidate and order of preference, a first or even second preference vote for a candidate who you know lacks the qualities required of a future leader but for whom you want to make a gesture of support, is not only a waste of your opportunity to influence the election’s outcome in favour of the candidate whom you really want to win:  it may actually damage the latter’s chances.    With First Past the Post there’s scope for tactical voting (e.g. if you’re a Labour supporter who used to think that the LibDems were the next best thing and the Tories the worst, and you vote in a constituency where Labour always comes a poor third, it’s sensible, or used to be, to vote LibDem).  With AV, you should always give your first preference vote to the candidate who you think will be the best leader, however good or bad you rate his or her realistic chance of winning, and your second to the second best choice, and so on down to no. 5.

Next year we shall all need to consider, in the light of all these ifs and buts, whether we really prefer this Alternative Vote system for electing our MPs to the existing system of First Past the Post – the choice which will confront us when we vote in the referendum promised as blood money for the LibDems by the Con-LibDem coalition in its founding document.  But that’s for another day and another post.

Meanwhile some of us will have the opportunity to vote this week for a new leader of the Labour Party. I conclude from the analysis above that those who share my view of the best (and worst) achievable outcome should vote 1. Ed Miliband, 2. David Miliband, 3. Andy Burnham, 4. Diane Abbott, 5. Ed Balls.

PS:  Don’t forget that if you’re a member of the Labour party and also a member of an affiliated trade union, and of the Fabian Society, and of the Society of Labour Lawyers, or any other affiliated organisation, you get a vote in respect of each.  MPs and MEPs don’t need to be told that they get another one too, and one that will carry far more weight than the vote of an ordinary party or union member.  Vote early, and vote often!

Any questions?


7 Responses

  1. Sid says:

    I’m a member of the COOP party, a member of the GMB, an ex 46 year member of Labour, and I have no intention of voting for Labour again, so i will let you worry about Abbott being a good enough person to lead the party, because I’ve just about had enough of the spin Meister’s within Labour.

    It’s hard to believe i got sucked into voting Labour since 1963 what a waste of time money and also the traveling to meetings and speaking on radio and TV for all those years fighting to keep open the remploy factories.

    I will of course vote because I think voting for a government is important, sadly it will never again be Labour, once bitten twice shy

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Sid. Few people, and especially few remaining members and supporters of the Labour party, will dispute the self-evident fact that Labour in government got many things wrong — in at least one case, and maybe more than one, catastrophically wrong. But two things about that: first, Labour in government also got very many things right, things that no Tory or Tory-LibDem coalition would have done in a million years, and the country is immeasurably better for them. Secondly, that era is over now. Blair and Brown, Straw and Blunkett, belong to history. No-one is going to ask you to vote for them any more. Whoever is elected this month as Labour’s new leader, he (or she?) will bring a fresh face and a new Labour philosophy and principles to the table. However disappointed and disillusioned you may feel, in many ways with good reason, you surely have a duty to weigh up the options at future elections and decide which party’s core values and aspirations for the future are closest to your own. It’s all too clear after three months of a Tory leader back in No. 10 that the Conservatives haven’t really changed: and we can now see very clearly how flexible Liberal Democratic principles are. Of course there are worthy small parties such as the Greens, but the Greens are not going to be forming a government yet awhile. What kind of government do you really want in future? Do please keep an open mind between now and the next elections, however firmly you have made up your mind about the past.

  2. John Miles says:

    I’m afraid I have to agree with Sid.
    I can’t see myself ever voting Tory, but, if we’re condemned to have a right-wing government anyway, I suppose I’d rather have one honest enough to call itself by its proper name.
    I admire your optimism, but apart possibly from Diane Abbott, the rest of the field come across, for all their windbaggery, as the self-seeking, smooth-talking political heirs of Blair, Brown, Mandelson and Co.
    Their only saving grace is they’ll probably be less efficient at carrying out any mischief they try to perpetrate.
    As for Diane, her views on many important questions seem reasonably sensible and enlightened, but so were those of Michael Foot, and look where they got him.
    And what do you think of her take on education education education?

    Brian writes: John, you’re entitled to your views, of course. But I don’t think it’s necessary to be quite so pessimistic about the candidates. I can imagine either of the Milibands and even conceivably Burnham growing into the job, if elected. Look what gravitas and authority David M gained by being Foreign Secretary for a few years. Ministerial office and leadership of a party can do wonders for people who previously seemed hopelessly unpromising. Moreover, I don’t at all agree with your dismissal of the quality of the debates and campaigns surrounding this election. Much of it has been remarkably high quality and all five candidates have come across as intelligent, serious and constructive. Not one of them has fallen back on spin (which is anyway an irrelevant concept where candidates for leadership of an opposition party are concerned — what is there to spin?), and the windbaggery level has been strikingly low. Tagging any one of them as being an heir to Blair, Brown, Mandelson or any of the old superannuated New Labour gurus strikes me as extraordinarily old-fashioned and without justification. I believe all that Old/New Labour stuff is history.

    As for Diane Abbott’s views on education, I take it that this is a side-swipe (I was going to use a more disapproving word) at her decision to send her son to the school she thought was best for him, knowing how the bigots among her party comrades — comrades! — would score cheap points against her for doing so. In my view, to have sacrificed what she believed to be her son’s best interests to her political career would have been despicable. There’s nothing un-socialist about recognising that some, perhaps many, state schools are either educationally sub-standard or else not suited to a particular child, and acting accordingly. Diane acted bravely and deserves recognition for it, not sneers. But this is a far cry from the mechanics of the AV voting system for the new party leader, which is the subject of this post. My reluctant decision not to give Diane my first preference vote[s](assuming that I eventually receive my ballot papers) has nothing to do with her choice of school for her son.

  3. John Miles says:

    OK, I’d probably have done the same as Diane if I’d been in her shoes.
    But I’m not a Labour MP.
    How can you trust someone who doesn’t practise what she preaches?
    Why can’t she preach, Gerald-Ratner-like. what she actually practises?
    “Its posh, independent schools for us rich’s children, but grotty old comps for yours.

    Brian writes: John, are you suggesting that there’s a special code of behaviour for Labour MPs, different from that which the rest of us are supposed to live by? Where is your evidence that Diane Abbott has ever ‘preached’ a sermon calling on those who are in favour of the principle of state (and comprehensive) education, but who recognise that many state schools have a long way to go before they can compete on equal terms with many private schools, to send their children to state schools even if they’re inferior or simply inappropriate in specific cases? I would like to see our railways re-nationalised, but that doesn’t mean I’m failing to practise what I preach when I travel on a privatised train. We all take the best things that are available (if we can afford them!) while at the same time working to make other things better. Diane Abbott did the right thing by her son according to any credible moral code, and should not be subjected to sneers and abuse from those who would have done exactly the same as her in similar circumstances.

    PS: If you think it’s a straightforward ethical choice with a neat right answer trumping a manifestly wrong one, I suggest you try reading the cautionary tale in today’s Guardian at

  4. Phil says:

    I don’t see why Diane Abbott should drop from first to fourth place: why EM/DM/AB/DA and not, say, EM/DA/DM/AB or even EM/DA/AB/DM?

    Brian writes: Thanks, Phil. The reason for my relegating Diane Abbott from first to fourth place was my (reluctant) acceptance of the view that for maximum effectiveness, one’s preferences under AV should be focused exclusively on an assessment of each candidate’s skills and character as leader of a major political party, as leader of the opposition and potentially as prime minister. I originally intended to give DA my first preference because her views on the great issues chime with mine more than those of the other four, but sadly I don’t think she has what it takes to lead the party or the country, or that she would be widely seen as a credible aspirant for No. 10. Both Milibrothers and (I hope) Burnham would make more credible and effective leaders than Diane, unfortunately. I now believe that that alone should determine the order of a voter’s preferences. If we introduce other criteria — which is the most left-wing, or which got it right in the vote on Iraq, or has seen the light on Trident — we risk contributing to a result that will be the opposite of what we really want and which could be disastrous for Labour.

    In short: it’s about choosing a party leader and a future prime minister, not a doctrinal beauty contest.

  5. Diarmid Weir says:

    I came here from our mini-debate over AV on Labour List. I would have thought your strange approach to the ballot would be an argument in favour of AV rather than against! After all you have no such ‘signalling’ option under FPTP!
    My advice – for what it’s worth – vote according to whom you think would be the best leader! After all what happens if everyone tries to signal…?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. Whether or not my ‘approach to the ballot’ is ‘strange’, you seem to have arrived at the same conclusion as I did — to vote for who you think would be the best leader, and resist the temptation to use preferences to ‘send signals’. An attraction of FPTP, not a defect, is that you can’t send signals with it, only vote for the candidate you think the best (or the least bad); and a defect of AV (and even more so of all forms of PR) is that it makes hung parliaments likelier, and makes them even messier by encouraging parties to fragment, with the consequences we saw last May: the LibDems, with fewer votes than the Tories or Labour, deciding in their infinite wisdom which of them to put into No. 10 on a compromise programme negotiated after voting had finished, so that the eventual outcome was something that not a single voter could have voted for. Of course in May that was an outcome produced by FPTP, but FPTP has that result far more infrequently than any other system. For elections to bodies that don’t produce governments, that’s fine. For the house of commons, which does, AV or PR is unpredictable, capricious and undesirable. (I have an open mind about its suitability for electing the leader of the Labour party.)

  6. Iain Orr says:

    I prefer proper PR to AV. However, it seems a pity not to take the opportunity AV offers both to send a signal on policy and to vote for the person you think best qualified as leader of the Labour Party (in this case); or as your MP if there were AV for single seat parliamentary elections. There is, as you point out, the risk that by giving your first preference to someone other than the person you hope will win, your preferred candidate for leader will be eliminated earlier. The question is, how great is the risk? In this case, I’d be astounded if Diane Abbot were to stay in the contest longer than Ed Miliband. So, why not strengthen her policy influence within the Labour Party as well as voting for Ed M ahead of any of the others?
    Let me give a parliamentary analogy. I am sufficiently attracted by some of the policies of the Green Party and by the contribution Caroline Lucas has already made in Parliament to want to indicate in the next general election that I’d like the UK body politic to have a greater Green influence and a reduced Conservative influence. But I do not expect there to be a Green government and I do not want to waste my vote. Thus, if in my constituency there were a Green candidate (as well as the three main parties and UKIP, BNP – total 6), and if the election were under AV and the sitting MP were Conservative, I would make Green my first preference and give my second and third preferences to whichever of LibDem/ Labour I thought had the better chance of defeating the Conservative. I would not use any further preferences,  even though I would rather have a Conservarive than a UKIP or BNP MP. 

    If traditional Labour voters had voted in that spirit at the last election we might well have a Lab/LibDem Coalition. AV slightly increases the options for tactical voting (without it I would of course not vote Green), but they are there under FPTP.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Iain. But for all the reasons in my original post (above), trying to use AV to vote tactically or to send a signal is really a minefield. If enough people try to use it tactically or to send a signal, there’s a real danger that the result will be badly distorted and indeed may be an outcome that almost nobody wanted. For example I suspect that Diane Abbott may get quite a large number of first or second preferences from voters — not just voters in the constituency section, either — who realise that she would not be a suitably qualified leader of the party or prime minister but who want to signal support for her views, assuming (almost certainly correctly) that she will be eliminated at some stage, and (almost certainly incorrectly) that there’s no harm or risk in signalling approval for her views. If so it’s quite possible that Ed Miliband could be eliminated before her, and as in the scenario described by the ‘expert’ quoted in my post, this could wind up perversely increasing the possibility that Ed Balls might be elected leader!

    In some circumstances it’s possible to be too clever by half, and this is one of them.

    This is not the place to set out yet again all the multiple and compelling objections to PR for elections to the house of commons. It may work reasonably satisfactorily in countries where there’s a broad measure of national consensus on ideology and political views and where there’s a culture of compromise and consensus in the constitutional, political and judicial systems, but for better or worse the UK is not one of them, and PR is not going to make it one. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice!

    As an illustration of the scope for guessing wrongly about how the voting will go — for example, the likely relative strengths of the support for Ed Miliband compared with Diane Abbott, have a look at Your assumptions may be less well founded than they look!

  7. Diarmid Weir says:

    Hi Brian,
    I don’t share your dislike of coalitions, probably because I have little faith in parties to represent their own voters much anyway, and I want to see more power in the hands of individual MPs.

    ‘An attraction of FPTP, not a defect, is that you can’t send signals with it, only vote for the candidate you think the best (or the least bad)…’

    But the problem with FPTP is that voting for the candidate you think best or even least bad is frequently pretty pointless, or may actually allow the candidate you think worst to win!

    Brian writes: Thank you again. I’m afraid the possibility of the candidate you least like winning despite your having voted for someone else is a characteristic of all voting systems, as is the danger that your vote may seem ‘pretty pointless’, and no amount of fancy juggling with the procedure will make it otherwise. In any case, an election designed principally (although not exclusively) to choose a government may be most appropriately be conducted under one kind of electoral system where an election mainly to choose members of a debating or even legislative body may be better suited to a different one. In my view FPTP is by far the best system for the former (e.g. the house of commons) while some kind of PR will be essential for the latter (e.g. the elected second chamber or Senate, when we get round to having one). Discussion of the relative pros and cons of electoral system without a context is mostly futile. As for elections to, e.g., the leadership of the Labour Party, these are probably more akin to elections to choose a government and best conducted under FPTP. But you and thousands of others are of course fully entitled to disagree!

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