With a leadership election looming the question all Labour Party members and members of affiliated trade unions are asking is: who am I going to vote for? I suggested in a recent blog post, without feeling the need to develop the argument, that the only suitable candidate for the hard left to endorse is John McDonnell (unless Michael Meacher or another suitable MP should announce an interest in doing so).

Such a position seems to have attracted opposition from some other hard left bloggers (link, link). Andy Newman claims in a particularly pessimistic blog post that support for John “is a potentially dangerous distraction” and that such a contest will damage the standing of the left.

The distraction argument, implying a “vote John, get Dave” scenario, seems rather disingenuous. The leadership election takes place on an Alternative Vote basis, and it’s fairly safe to assume no McDonnell supporters will be putting David Miliband down as second preference. Neither is there any good reason to assume that a leadership campaign from John will in any ways compromise the anti-Blairite mainstream candidates – if done well it could even serve to amplify the distrust of Dave by the voters.

Of course John McDonnell will not be the next Leader of the Opposition, neither, given his political track record, is he ever likely to become Leader. Andy Newman is right about one thing and that is that McDonnell has failed to build up a serious mass movement around the left of the Labour party and remains fairly isolated on the backbenches. (Although given the eagerness with which the Compassites seem prepared to sell out to Blairites and Whigs it’s perfectly understandable that he wouldn’t be prepared to put tactical necessity ahead of principles).

But the past is the past and there is still much to be gained from a leadership campaign – a platform to put across the socialist alternative. Such campaigns afford us the opportunity to test the mood within the Party and to build up the activist networks necessary for future organisation.

The day I join the Labour Party a leadership contest is announced but I won’t be able to vote in it due to the six month rule. There are any number of likely candidates this time around: both David and Ed Miliband, Alan Johnson, Ed Balls and Jon Cruddas are all likely candidates, more wildcard candidates include Harriet Harman and even the Dark Lord himself.

For the Left, however, John McDonnell is our man. Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group and the Labour Representation Committee, he’s the unofficial leader of Bennite and Marxist-leaning tendencies of the Labour Party. In 2007 he failed to get enough dominations from MPs to trigger a Leadership Contest against Gordon Brown, so what are his prospects this time?

The number of Labour MPs in the House has been greatly reduced, bringing the number of nominations needed down from 45 to only 33. It has been suggested that the socialist MPs did seem to fair somewhat better than the Labour average, so this should be promising. Of the 29 MPs who nominated McDonnell for the Leadership in 2007, all but 16 have resigned or lost their seats. Three new MPs endorsed by the LRC were successfully elected, giving him a likely total of 19. This still leaves him 14 short, and in a contest which is likely to see candidacies from left-leaning mainstream candidates (Cruddas, Balls) his potential pool of nominees is likely to be squeezed.

Last time around John managed to win significant support within the TUC, a major asset considering the electoral college set up gives one third of the vote to affiliated trade unions. Will he be able to do the same with so many other candidates?

With any luck those new MPs from Unite will turn out to be as left-wing as the Daily Mail wanted people to believe. I guess we’re about to find out just what kind of stuff our new Labour MPs are made of.