Two Bristol academics claimed yesterday that last year’s Labour leadership election was not a “free and fair democratic” contest. Their report, Reinventing the block vote? Trade unions and the 2010 Labour party leadership election, by Richard Jobson and Mark Wickham-Jones, was published in the academic journal British Politics.
The conclusion is based on the key claims the candidates did not secure equal access to the electorate in their campaigning, and the union contribution to certain campaigns meant an unequal distribution of resources between those standing. Although there are several arguments against their claims, the irony is that in most internal party elections and selections, there certainly is not “equal access to the electorate,” but that has, for many years, worked decisively against the left.
The report claims, based on extensive interviews and party documents, that they established conclusively that:
- Nominations for the leadership were coordinated and streamlined by the trade unions in order to maximise support for Ed Miliband’s candidacy. A senior party official commented: ‘They clearly have a major say, the union leadership, over who they nominate.’ Our response: what’s wrong with unions working collectively to support a candidate their leaders (who know the candidates) believe will support union objectives, just as they work collectively to support other causes?
- Trade union nominations had a powerful impact on the distribution of votes. 49 per cent of voters followed their union’s recommendation. Our response: 51% didn’t (and more when Blair was elected), and different unions nominated different candidates anyway.
- Unions shaped campaigning by restricting the availability of their membership lists to their nominee. One campaign team member said it was like ‘running a national election campaign with someone deciding who to give the electoral register to … you can’t [campaign], you have no list, you can’t tell, you have no access.’ Our response: trade unions are organised in workplaces and that’s where campaigning takes place – in internal union elections too. No candidates had home contact details.
- Considerable union resources – not factored into the spending limits for the contest – were mobilised behind Ed Miliband. One campaigner argued: ‘It does make a mockery of expense limits…union spending is not monitored or detailed.’ Our response: David Miliband spent £250,000 more than his brother. Many MPs’ staff worked for him too. Their costs are not regulated.
- Some union ballots were distributed in partisan fashion, A senior figure within the party added: ‘The unions only behave that way because the Labour party allows them to…. I would not have let them do that….well, I would have ruled their vote out.’ Our response: Unions are collective organisations and do recommend to their members how to vote. Just like Company boards do to their shareholders!
Union leaders gathering at Congress yesterday rejected the criticisms.
GMB general secretary Paul Kenny told the Morning Star:
Nominations by unions were made for a number of the candidates. No candidate had membership lists as this would have been a breach of the data act. All candidates’ details were included in postal ballot packs. As for unions recommending a candidate to their members it seems it’s OK for the media to recommend who people should vote for but not for trade unions.”
A Unite spokesman added:
This report reads like sour grapes, not an academic study. The same system delivered a big vote for Tony Blair against the recommendation of union executive committees.”
It is ironic that protests are being made about bias in access to membership lists are concerned. The left has long complained that, in parliamentary selections, access to membership lists and contact details is used to provide advantage to candidates favoured by the leadership. This involves numerous party officials as well as MPs and MEPs and their staff (who have access to membership details for their constituencies). Although membership lists are now provided to candidates after shortlisting, for a fee, “favoured” candidates are routinely provided with them much earlier.