Something to count on, after all these years

Click to follow
AT LAST, some good news is heading Labour's way. The party's elections for leader and deputy leader will be sufficiently decisive to kill debate about the legitimacy of the victors. For three months, Labour's nightmare has been that its crazy system would produce winners with precarious, disputed mandates. Instead, John Smith and Margaret Beckett have now secured sufficient support in all sections of the party to put their authority beyond doubt.

Mr Smith's victory has never seriously been in question. But early returns from local ballots are astonishing even his keenest aides. Of the first 120 constituencies to declare their results only one, Birmingham Selly Oak, has chosen Bryan Gould. The rest have opted for Mr Smith, typically by margins of around two-to- one. But because of the winner-takes-all system of counting votes, Mr Smith looks set to win at least 90 per cent of individual constituencies - and hence 27 out of the 30 per cent of electoral college votes allocated to local parties.

All the big trade unions, and most small ones, are also backing Mr Smith; their 40 per cent of the college looks like dividing 35-5 in his favour. MPs and members of the European Parliament have the remaining 30 per cent. Their votes are slightly harder to predict, as some left- wing MPs have yet to decide whether to back Mr Gould for the leadership, or abstain. I should be surprised if Mr Smith wins the backing of fewer than two out of three MPs; this would give him a 20-10 victory in the MPs' section.

Add those figures together, and my best current guesstimate of the leadership vote is 82-18 to Mr Smith. Things could change during the remaining eight days, but not enough to deny Labour's shadow Chancellor an emphatic victory. He is certain to achieve a significantly higher

score than Neil Kinnock's 71 per cent in 1983.

The arithmetic of the deputy leadership contest has been less clear cut. John Prescott and Bryan Gould have both conceded that Mrs Beckett is the front runner; their strategy has been to deny her victory on the first count, and hope to overhaul her on the second count. Returns from constituency and trade union ballots indicate that Messrs Gould and Prescott will be disappointed.

I have spoken at length to each camp this week. Their figures differ - not least because each has better information from constituencies where their supporters are active than from places where they are weak. Each side is also understandably anxious to talk up its support in order to sway people who have yet to vote. The following analysis, therefore, is subject to bigger than normal health warnings. However, taking a deep breath and making it clear that this column is making no money-back guarantees, I believe the likely outcome will be something like the following.

Constituencies: Mrs Beckett will win around six out of ten, with John Prescott winning slightly more of the rest than Mr Gould. This suggests that the 30 per cent of the electoral college decided by constituencies will divide Beckett 18, Prescott 7, Gould 5.

MPs and MEPs: last-minute switches and abstentions cannot be ruled out; but 223 MPs have already declared their loyalty by nominating one of the three candidates. The likely division of the MPs' and MEPs' 30 per cent is: Beckett 12, Prescott 10, Gould 8.

Trade unions: the three largest unions - the transport workers, engineers and general and municipal - have already decided to back Mrs Beckett. So has the health workers' union Cohse; and the shopworkers' ballot is expected by all three camps to back her. So far, Mr Prescott's aides claim the support of 10 small- to middle-sized unions such as the bakers, miners and construction workers, while Mr Gould's team concedes that it has made little progress beyond the communications workers. Doubts still remain about Nupe, the public employees' union, and MSF, the manufacturing, science and finance union: their ballots will be counted this weekend. Leaving them aside, Mrs Beckett can count on 23 out of the 40 per cent of the electoral college allocated to unions and affiliated societies. Mr Prescott can be sure of 7 and Mr Gould only 2.

Add those figures together, and the totals for each candidate become: Beckett 53 per cent, Prescott 24, Gould 15, with Nupe and MSF yet to declare. Mrs Beckett is set to win the deputy leadership on the first count, by two-to-one over Mr Prescott. If she wins Nupe's support, her final tally will be around 60 per cent. Mr Gould looks certain to trail third. His decision to fight both for the leadership and deputy leadership seems in retrospect to have been a misjudgement. He is heading for less than 20 per cent of the electoral college vote in both contests.

It remains just possible that Mrs Beckett will fall short of 50 per cent on the first count. Mr Gould would then be eliminated, and the second preferences of his supporters reallocated to Margaret Beckett and John Prescott. This would merely delay the inevitable. All the signs are that Mr Gould's supporters divide evenly in their second choices between Mrs Beckett and Mr Prescott. But I should be surprised if a second count is needed.

If these calculations are right, we can forget the threat of a new contest when the party modernises its rules. Mr Smith would have won overwhelmingly, and Mrs Beckett comfortably, whatever system had been operating this summer. In particular, the early voting figures from individual constituencies point to a clear members' mandate for a Smith-Beckett leadership. Perhaps this outcome will persuade the party that its fate is safe in the hands of ordinary members - and that the electoral college system is not only daft but unnecessary.