Labour's new leader next year could be ...

Should Labour lose the election next year, there is a chance a surprise candidate may take the leadership
  • @johnrentoul

However marvellous Ed Miliband may be, there is still a 42 per cent chance that he will lose the election next year, according to the betting markets. Which is why it is odd that there is so little interest in who could be the new Labour leader in a year and a half’s time.

If Labour loses, Miliband would not get a second chance, despite recent attempts to shore up his base, and the contest to replace him would probably be between two women, and the winner would be … But, no, I am getting ahead of myself. Before we get to that part, we have to ask: under what rules would the leadership election be held? Then we can assess the possible candidates. What is surprising, though, is how wide open the contest still is, at what might be this late stage.

First, the rules. One of the best and bravest things that Miliband has done is to say that the Labour Party needs to make its link with trade unions even more democratic, so that union members make a positive decision to support the party and have the chance to take part in its activities directly, rather than through executive committees and general secretaries.

To this end, there will be a Labour Party special conference on 1 March, which will be asked to agree historic rule changes. I understand that Lord Collins, the former assistant general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union who is in charge of the reform, has done the business. Some union leaders don’t like what he has come up with, and it is time for Miliband to insist that what he said last July, he meant.

The big change is that no union members should pay money to Labour “unless they have deliberately chosen to do so”. Members will have to “opt in” to paying part of their union subs to the party rather than just having the chance to opt out, as now. Once they have opted in, however, they will have a direct link with Labour, either as members or as registered supporters (this hasn’t been decided yet).

The significance of this is that these new Labourites would be able to vote in selections of Labour candidates – and for Labour leader. I am told that the plan is to abolish the electoral college for leadership elections, in which MPs, party members and union members have one third of the vote each. Instead Labour MPs would vote to choose two candidates to put to a ballot of all members, including union members who have opted in: one person, one vote.

The crucial point is that the opted-in union members would be registered with the Labour Party. The party would send out ballot papers and allow both candidates access to the lists. This is huge. This is Ed Miliband’s admission that the way he was elected, though it was just about within the rules at the time, was wrong. He beat his brother because the leaders of Unite and the GMB used their control of members’ information to send out “Vote Ed” flyers with the ballot papers and to use phone banks to canvass for him.

Much else follows. It means that the 50 per cent trade union block vote at Labour conferences would have to go, as Labour-supporting union members would be represented directly. No longer would a Labour leader have to negotiate his party’s policies with union general secretaries on late-night university campuses. And the union money, through a higher Labour affiliation fee, would be channelled through the choices of union members rather than wielded as an influence-buying cheque by a union boss. These consequential changes are not going to happen straight away: the precise timetable is a measure of Miliband’s squishiness.

But, if the special conference votes for them, the new leadership election rules would come into effect on 1 March. So that is how Miliband’s successor would be chosen. And that means, in turn, that the first hurdle would be the voting among Labour MPs.

The last time they voted in a popularity contest among themselves was the shadow cabinet election of October 2010, which had been an annual event when the party was in opposition, until Ed Miliband abolished it. Anyway, Yvette Cooper, now shadow Home Secretary, topped the poll. Ninety per cent of her colleagues voted for her. If she, rather than her husband, had stood for the leadership a few months earlier, I think she would be leader now. And, with the Balls-Brown machine faction behind her, I think she would be one of the candidates if there were a vacancy next year.

The other candidate might well be one of the 2010 intake. It could be Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves, Stella Creasy or Tristram Hunt. All clever, with a bit of TV star quality, but each a little short of easy popularity among other MPs. That is why I think Gloria De Piero, shadow minister for Women and Equalities, might be the surprise candidate. She is well-liked, seems more modest than some of the others, and she is northern, as are most Labour MPs.

And she has visited many local Labour parties for her “Why do people hate me?” campaign to understand why voters are so fed up with politics, building up reserves of good will at the grass roots.

I think she could win.