So why are they all running? I doubt there are more than half a dozen candidates who are entirely deluded about their actual or potential levels of support. Certainly, those who can finish in the top six, even top ten, outside the Shadow Cabinet may feel that is a job done well on putting down a marker of future potential, if they have not been at the top table before. Others suggest that not standing would be taken to declare that they have "no ambition", so feel compelled to do so even if finishing 30th, or avoiding the foot of the table, marks the limit of their electoral ambition this time around, as offering a reminder that they exist when it comes to allocating other frontbench roles.
For those expecting to get on, the stress is greater still. Steve Richards in his excellent new 'Whatever It Takes' offers this illustration of why Brown took topping the poll in 1992 so seriously.
I recall seeing Robin Cook emerge from a meeting that had announced the shadow cabinet results in 1987. He was pale and had aged about twenty-five years in the space of half an hour. I asked him what was the matter. He could not speak. Shortly afterwards, I found that he had been voted off the Shadow Cabinet, the equivalent of being sent to Siberia.
Most people I have spoken to suggest that the most mysterious candidacy is that of Shaun Woodward, who must be the longest-odds candidate in Shadow Cabinet history among those to have sat around actual Cabinet tables, both red and blue. My hypothesis is that he has shown genorosity towards his more tribalist colleagues by giving them the chance to revive and update that old (and rather prescient) anti-Woy Commons tearoom jibe from the leadership contest of 1976: "Nay, lad, we're all Labour around here".
So how many votes will the candidates need?
Top blogger and shadow cabinet candidate Tom Harris asks, and flags up this link to the 1994 results. A further more detailed breakdown of the Shadow Cabinet results across the 1992-97 Parliament makes it possible to offer a rough projection of how many votes our 2010 hopefuls will need.
The most recent (1996) elections demonstrate the capricious nature of voting within "the most sophisticated electorate in the world", as Gordon Brown plummeted from 3rd to 14th place, well behind those who topped the poll, namely.
That Brown had increased his PLP vote that year from 159 votes (3rd place) to 188 (14th) shows how much the size of the field of candidates matters. With Labour looking for more stability on the brink of power, there were only 26 candidates rather than 49. So the number of votes to top the poll increased from 181 to 251 votes, while the threshold to be elected for what was, in 1995 and 1996, the crucial final 19th place had risen from 107 to 149 votes. There had been 18 elected places from 1992-94.
1992: candidates: 53; top: 165; 18th: 104
1993: candidates: 44; top: 177; 18th: 107
1994: candidates: 52; top: 187; 18th: 97
1995: candidates: 42; top: 187; 19th: 107
1996: candidates: 26; top: 251; 19th: 149
So how many votes might it take to get on in 2010?
Labour now (with 258 MPs) has 95% of the number of seats that it won in the 1992 General election (271). The party gained three seats from the October 1994 defection of Alan Howarth and by-elections in Dudley West, December 1994, and SE Staffs in April 1996. (There was one later by-election gain in the 1992 Parliament in February 1997, but this was after the final shadow cabinet election).
This suggests a likely threshold perhaps somewhere between 92 votes (95% of 97 votes, with 52 candidates in 1994) 99 votes (95% of 104 votes, with 53 candidates in 1992). For votes to be valid, MPs had to vote for 3 women in 1992 and for 4 women for the rest of the Parliament. This time they must vote for 6 women. I don't have any clear sense of how this will affect the overall threshold.
But the dynamics of the 2010 election may be somewhat different because the new rules make it very unlikely that all current men standing can make the cut. My hunch is that this could somewhat increase the concentration of votes towards the top end of the candidates' list. (The campaigns will quietly appealing for votes to prevent the humiliation of being voted off: somebody who used to run such campaigns for a lesser-known Shadow Cabinet member in opposition told me they were happy to explicitly ask MPs for their "18th vote" on that basis).
It would be good to hear from candidates, MPs staff or other interested inside observers with any other theories about the shape of the race. Unless and until we hear from those who know better, Next Left's best rule of thumb guesstimate at this stage is that it may yet take 100 votes (two out of five Parliamentary colleagues) to be confident of getting on, though two candidates may well make it just short of a century.
A voting guide for the selfish candidate
The PLP vote for Shadow Cabinet is also an unusual election because almost one-fifth of the electorate are also candidates. Clearly, Next Left expects everybody to vote honestly in the interests of the party, and the most effective opposition possible. That is in the enlightened self-interest of every shadow candidate (and MP). And we are rather suspicious that any candidate relying on nefarious tactics can make more than a marginal difference.
But, were candidates who hope they might have a chance to sneak in to the Shadow Cabinet between 16th and 18th place to decide to vote entirely self-interestedly to further that ambition, what would they do? Beyond pacts and slates, they would probably follow some of the following tactics...
* Vote early to vote for themselves, naturally;
* but don't vote often: candidates might cast as few votes as is allowed under the rules, so as to not needlessly inflate the vote of potential rivals;
- Since MPs must vote for 12 candidates, and can vote for up to 19, there could be anything between 3096 and 4902 votes cast by PLP members. If a large number of the 50 candidates themselves choose to cast 12 votes rather than 19, that in itself would mean up to 350 less votes in the pot than if were all to mark 19 preferences. This could reduce the threshold. (But presumably these tactical considerations were already the case in 1992-96, unless the rules on valid voting were significantly different). If everybody cast every vote, the (mean) average vote across all 49 candidates would be 100 votes, and it would take more than that to get on. If everybody voted, but cast the minimum 12 preferences, the mean would fall to 63.
* Vote pointless vote for candidates who they were certain would be elected anyway without their help (ie those they expected to top the poll);
* Don't vote where it might matter: avoid at all costs voting for any other candidates likely to finish between 15th and 20th, where their vote might make the difference between victory and defeat.
* Vote stupid: vote for candidates they were certain could not be elected, and who they expect to finish ahead of.
(Here it becomes easy to identify a rather irksome and difficult collective action problem here for the party as a whole, were a large number of the 50 candidates decide to plump for the same no-hoper candidates. We would all be reliant on the good sense and collective wisdom of non-candidate backbenchers without a vested interest to avoid accidentally electing the candidates widely agreed to be the most hopeless. The real danger comes if non-candidates also start pledging to vote stupidly too in the hope of helping to get their mates and allies on. (The other more personal problem for the mediocre candidate is that they may now finish lower down the list than the candidate they are trying to throw their vote away on).
The tricky black ops thing would be to work out how to appeal to your genuine allies to vote to get you on, and to have your enemies in the party believe you were struggling badly and might be a decent option for a "dustbin vote".
Fortunately,, though some will no doubt try mild versions of such strategems - mainly by casting relatively few votes, and voting both honestly and strategically for the obvious top ten strongest candidates (where selfish concerns and those of the party happily coincide), it probably isn't going to make all that much difference in the end.
So let's hope the PLP can not mess things up too badly. So that, however we get there, we'll have an effective and talented opposition frontbench ready to take the fight to the government.