Choosing the new Leader of a major political party, and therefore a potential Prime Minister, is at the heart of democracy. But in the case of Ed Miliband’s recent elevation, it so nearly didn’t turn out like that, and it’s worth reflecting on the hidden factors which can so easily distort the democratic process.
The original proposal from the party’s officialdom, led by Ray Collins the General Secretary, was for a very short contest once Gordon Brown had resigned. This was thrown out by the PLP, and a 4-month run-in was set in place instead up to 25 September. This was clearly the right decision, but a very brief hustings would very likely have produced a different result.
Money is another very real issue. As is well known, one of the candidates, David Miliband, received funding some ten times greater than the others, backed not only by the Blair political machine but also by the Blair millions. This cannot be justified. Just as there are expenditure limits in a general election, so there should be in a party election too – and a fairly low limit, say £30,000, so as not to disadvantage unduly candidates with less financial pull. We should seek an early party rule change to this effect.
The YouGov poll reported in the Sunday Times 2 weeks before voting concluded may well have helped swing the result. By predicting on the basis of an analysis of second preference votes that Ed Miliband would win by 51-49%, it probably persuaded a dozen or more MPs to back Ed because they wanted to be seen to be on the winning side. That is not an argument for seeking to ban the publication of polls while voting is taking place (which in any case would hardly be possible), and it does go some way to counter another of the unseen but highly influential factors in such elections – name recognition.
Related to this is the canard whipped up by the Tory press that the unions sought to influence their members to vote for Ed. As though the Tory press wouldn’t go to any lengths themselves to influence the voters through their own pages! But the real point is that a large majority of trade union levy-payers probably have little or no knowledge of most of the contestants – again because the media have repeatedly highlighted their own preferred candidates – and actively want advice from people they can really trust, who are their own union leaders.
One last point is the question of whether MPs should enjoy a hugely weighted vote as against the other members of the electoral college. There are 258 Labour MPs, 650 constituency parties with an average of 250 members each, and over 100,000 union levy-payers. Each group is accorded one-third of the total vote, so MPs count massively more than the other groups. Is this fair and right, or should the election be on a level-playing-field one-peron-one-vote basis? It can be argued that MPs are the ones who know the candidates best and are going to have to work most closely with the new leader. On the other hand a 60-1 preferential voting seems out of all proportion. What do you think?