Strategy-proofing the Labour nomination process isn’t possible

tl;dr version: you can’t stop people playing silly buggers when nominating candidates

The process of nominating candidates for the leadership of the Labour party seems to have left many people disgruntled — over and above the normal or background level of disgruntlement in the party.

A key source of dissatisfaction is the way in which MPs have used their nominations. In particular, some people are upset that MPs have nominated candidates who are not their most-preferred candidate for the leadership of the party. This is a common criticism of those MPs who have nominated Jeremy Corbyn (who has disavowed the practice).

This kind of voting isn’t necessarily insincere, or strategic, or evidence of bad faith. MPs have preferences about the type of leadership contest as well as the outcome of that contest. MPs may wish to see a contest with at least one female candidate, or at least one ethnic minority candidate. Sometimes these process preferences can trump preferences regarding the outcome. This certainly happened in 2010, when Diane Abbott was nominated by some Miliband (David) supporting MPs precisely so that the leadership contest would not be fought by four white men.

But strategic voting is certainly present. One trivial example from the deputy leadership ballot demonstrates this: Rushanara Ali’s most preferred candidate for deputy leader is Rushanara Ali; but given that she had too few nominations, she strategically nominated Ben Bradshaw.

I find the strategy element of nominations in the leadership contest harder to understand. The most intuitive form of strategy comes in the form of a quid pro quo — if your supporters nominate me, I’ll ask my supporters to give their second preferences to you later.

Yet most work on strategic nomination doesn’t look at quid pro quos, but at what we might call spoiler effects, often involving one side of the spectrum strategically nominating from the other end of the spectrum. In his book Securities against Misrule, Jon Elster gives a useful (but rather scurrilous) example from the French presidential election of 2002:

“It is possible – but unproven – that the 2002 election of Jacques Chirac as President was due to the strategic withdrawal of one candidate (Charles Pasqua) and by strategic action to prevent the withdrawal of another (Christiane Taubira). The election used the “two-past-the-post” system… given the near-certainty that the Far Right candidate (Jean Marie Le Pen) would obtain 15-20 percent of the vote, the system gave the major candidates on the Right (Chirac) and on the Left (Lionel Jospin) an incentive to encourage the proliferation of candidates in the other camp (to reduce the oponent’s chances of beating Le Pen) and reduce the number of candidates in his own (to increase his chances of beating him. It is possible that Chirac prevented Jospin from getting to the second round… by exploiting this possibility [since it was rumoured that Chirac’s party helped to finance Taubira’s campaign]”

Two-round systems are more vulnerable to strategic nomination than the Alternative Vote system used in the leadership election proper. If Corbyn is on the ballot, he’s likely to be eliminated in the first two rounds of voting, and so may not be a very durable spoiler. In any event, this kind of strategic nomination sits uneasily with quid pro quo exchanges. The ideological distances are too far to span.

More generally, it’s unsurprising that the system Labour uses should give rise to strategic voting. It’s a bit of a stretch, but we can think of the system of nominations as an electoral system in itself, similar to the single non-transferable vote system used in Puerto Rico and previously in Japan. Like SNTV, each voter can express one preference (their nomination), and there are multiple “winners” (who go on to become leadership candidates). Unlike SNTV, the number of winners is not fixed in advance: any candidate who gets over the quota can become a candidate.

Just as in SNTV, strategic considerations are widespread. Factions within the party have to ensure that their votes are not spread too thinly. In extremis, a faction within the party might find it has nominated three candidates, each of whom has the support of 20 MPs, all of whom fail to become candidates (similar to the position of a centre-right [Blairite?] grouping in the deputy leadership election before Rushanara Ali’s decision to drop out).

If strategic voting, or systems which encourage it, are A Bad Thing, then surely the answer is to find some electoral system for selecting multiple winners which is immune to strategic considerations of this kind?

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that such a system exists. The Gibbard-Satterthwaite and Duggan-Schwartz theorems show that single and multiple-winner electoral systems respectively are always susceptible to voters misrepresenting their preferences.

As such, there is no “institutional” fix for removing strategic voting in nomination. The only solution is to remit the problem to the broader party electorate, where tactical manoeuvring may be less visible, harder to organize, and in any case less likely to provide lobby-fodder. This can be done by drastically lowering thresholds for nomination. Comparatively, the thresholds for candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats are far lower — and in the case of the Liberal Democrats, the thresholds are now so low that strategic considerations are entirely absent. With a threshold of 0.8 MPs, any leadership candidate need only convince themselves that they are the best person for the job.

Of course, lower thresholds have their own problems. Modulo the distribution of opinion within a party, they’re likely to lead to more candidates with extreme positions. But with nomination systems, as with most things, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

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