Angela Rayner’s housing scandal: storm in a teacup or nightmare scenario for Keir Starmer?

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner’s travails over allegations about her past living arrangements have presented party leader, Keir Starmer, with an acute problem. Rayner has denied any wrongdoing but she has not been able to answer all of the questions surrounding the matter. Consequently, the story rumbles on in a way that is potentially damaging for Starmer.

If Rayner were almost any other shadow cabinet member, the most likely outcome would be that she would be pressured by the leader to “step aside” (as the euphemism goes) from her role in order to clear her name. She would be offered the prospect of returning to the shadow cabinet in the future provided she resolved the matter satisfactorily. But the special circumstances of Rayner’s role in the Labour Party have made this option very awkward.

While Rayner’s posts in the shadow cabinet – shadow deputy prime minister and shadow secretary of state for levelling up – are held at Starmer’s discretion, her deputy leadership of the Labour party is not. The office-holder is elected in a ballot of Labour’s individual members, and Rayner was chosen in a contest that ran concurrently with the leadership election that Starmer won in 2020.

Starmer could sack Rayner from the shadow cabinet, but he could not sack her as deputy leader. Rayner has offered to resign if an investigation into her living arrangements proves she committed a criminal offence but doing so would trigger a distracting deputy-leadership contest just months out from a general election. This explains the hesitancy Labour has shown towards the saga.

With reports of an expanding police investigation involving multiple alleged offences, there is the possibility that Rayner’s hand may be forced. If she did decide to resign as Labour’s deputy leader, what would happen next?

Step 1: getting nominated

Labour selects its leaders and deputy leaders through a one-member-one-vote system mediated by parliamentary controls. The procedures are set out in chapter 4, clause II.2 of Labour’s rule book.

When a post is vacant – as would be the case if Rayner felt compelled to resign – candidates must surmount two nomination hurdles. First, they must obtain nominations from 20% of the parliamentary Labour party (self-nominations count towards this threshold).

There are currently 201 Labour MPs so 41 nominations would be required, and the names of nominators would be made public. In the event that Rayner resigned and also had the whip suspended, then hopeful candidates would need 40 nominations.

The PLP threshold had been increased from 10% in 2021 in a move widely interpreted as an attempt by Starmer to prevent Labour’s radical-left faction being able to field candidates in leadership and deputy-leadership elections. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the threshold had been decreased from 15% for the opposite reason – to facilitate leftwing candidacies. It has long been one of the most contested details in Labour’s rule book.

Second, candidates must secure nominations from either 5% of constituency Labour parties (there are about 630 constituency Labour parties in total), or three affiliated organisations comprising 5% of total affiliated membership. The affiliates would need to include at least two of the 11 Labour-affiliated trade unions and no more than one of the small socialist societies that affiliate to the party.

Step 2: member ballot

If only one candidate secured sufficient nominations, they would be declared the winner. If two or more candidates passed the thresholds, there would be a ballot of the Labour selectorate.

This consists of Labour’s approximately 366,000 members, as well as members of Labour-affiliated trade unions who have signed up as “affiliated supporters” (217,000 were entitled to vote in the 2020 deputy leadership contest, with 69,000 eventually doing so). All votes are worth the same – there are no separate sections or weighted votes.

A membership freeze date of six months prior to the publication of the timetable for the contest is an extra eligibility requirement, made mandatory by Starmer’s 2021 reforms. It rules out the type of destabilising rapid mass recruitment of new members that took place during the 2015 and 2016 leadership elections.

One of the most controversial features of the system that elected Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 – the provision for individuals to sign up as “registered supporters” and cast votes for just £3 – was abolished in 2021.

A preferential voting system is used, with voters ranking the candidates in order of preference. First-preference votes are counted and if a candidate wins over 50% on the first count, they are declared the winner. If no one passes this mark, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated and their votes reallocated on second preferences. This process continues until a candidate passes the 50% mark.

Separate mandate

The timetable for a deputy leadership contest would be decided by Labour’s ruling national executive committee. It could opt for an accelerated contest that took place over a few weeks (if a quick resolution were desired), or a longer contest over the summer months, with the result declared at the party conference in September. The possibility of a summer or autumn general election could militate against that option.

The 20% PLP nomination threshold is likely to mean Starmer would be spared the embarrassment of a radical-left candidate being able to enter the contest and then carrying the membership. Any contest in 2024 would probably involve loyal soft-left or centrist candidates. Party chair Anneliese Dodds and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy would each have their supporters.

Even so, a contested campaign for the deputy leadership could bring problems. Candidates would make pledges to the selectors and the winner would claim a mandate. If their pledges were at odds with Starmer’s policy positions, it would cause a headache.

The highly contentious issue of the war in Gaza would almost certainly become a flashpoint in a deputy leadership election. The candidates could end up outbidding each other in their criticisms of the war and calling for an immediate ceasefire, which Starmer has resisted.

A better situation for the leader would be if MPs united behind a single candidate to avoid a contest, a feasible outcome with a 20% PLP nomination hurdle. Either way, any change of deputy leader will be seen by Starmer as an exercise in damage limitation.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Tom Quinn does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.