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What really matters about Labour Leadership elections?

Labour’s review of its structure is right to include the way it elects its leader but public attention has so far been drawn to the wrong things. That’s happened because Ed’s recent victory surprised many, not least his brother and his brother’s supporters, and some of Ed’s people see a need to spin away the role played in Ed’s victory by the two-thirds of the electorate who voted as union members, hence the suggestion that Labour ‘supporters’ be added in some way to the electorate. What’s really important is that, in future, Labour does have leadership elections, not coronations, when it needs to, and that the process ensures that future Labour Leaders do not lose touch with both the party and its supporters as happened in the New Labour years.

Ed Miliband has initiated the party structure review because he recognises that party members should have more say, that, as he said during the leadership election campaign:

We need a living breathing party of which people are proud to say they are members and proud to call their own”.

There are many ways in which in which leaders can and should involve, consult with and listen to members (as well as supporters and, for that matter, non-supporters). An essential ingredient of membership in a party that members are “proud to call their own” is that members are rewarded for their activity and commitment with the sense of ownership that comes from a higher level of involvement and influence than non-members. The idea that party supporters should be somehow included in the leadership election (originally proposed by David Lammy) should therefore be rejected for the same reason as primaries at a local level – non-membership should not be rewarded at the expense of members: instead, supporters should be encouraged to join with lower membership fees and the opportunity to participate in a leadership election as they were in 2010.

As it happens, there is little support for the involvement of “supporters” in the party, as shown in the recent Labour List poll which revealed 24% support for all three options which provided it. There is even less enthusiasm for it in the trade unions, and consequently little prospect of it being passed at Labour’s conference. There is even less prospect of party conference (where half the votes lie with the trade unions) agreeing any OMOV process which would exclude trade unionists from future leadership elections even if it is supported by 56% of Labour List readers. What exactly is the attract of significantly reducing participation in the election?

We could, of course, move to an OMOV system which includes affiliated as well as individual members. That would maintain trade unionist involvement with an equal weighting (rather than half the weighting as in the recent electoral college) and avoid what Sunder Katwala calls a “legitimacy question” (the possibility that different candidates would win different sections of an electoral college) because Ed would simply have won by a much larger margin. We’d settle for that but is it really sensible to exclude MPs? Unlike MEPs whose current involvement is difficult to justify, MPs have to live with the consequences of the party’s choice of Leader on a daily basis. They see his or her strengths and weaknesses more than anyone. There is something to gain from the chain of accountability between them. The case for sticking with the electoral college is therefore very strong.

What does need serious attention is the nomination process. The “election” of Gordon Brown turned into a coronation not because he wanted it that way, and certainly not because that’s what MPs wanted, but because the process made it happen. The threshold limited participation, prevented a contest. The stacking up of nominations in just one-third of the electoral college gave the false impression of unanimity.

There is an argument, where there is a vacancy, for a nomination threshold to keep the number of candidates manageable — could we have sat, awake, through leadership debates had we had 10 candidates? There is no such argument if the consequence is a coronation. Therefore, if we do have a threshold, it should be suspended in the event that it would prevent a contest. And if there is a threshold, it should be well below 12½% — probably 5% — and it should encompass the whole college not just MPs.

When there is no vacancy, Sunder Katwala is right to say of challenges that “the realpolitik is that the rulebook does not determine outcomes:” a consensus amongst the (Shadow) Cabinet could force a contest. What is surely more important is the fact that the rulebook as it was (mis)interpreted under New Labour failed to provide for anything short of a challenge. An annual nominations process could provide an indication of support capable of influencing the Leader’s performance without a bloody threat of challenge every few months by another set of disgruntled former ministers.

And if there is a challenge – should the resulting contest be limited only to those candidates with nominations from at least 20% of the PLP. If there is a contest, would it not be preferable for that contest to have a proper selection of candidates? Sunder is right to argue there is “a balance between avoiding the instability of enabling challenges which have little support, and making change too difficult even if there is broad support.” When Labour is in Government, under party rules, an election would only happen “if requested by a majority of party conference on a card vote”. Perhaps that should happen if there is a challenge in opposition too.

Ed Miliband may very well decide he doesn’t particularly want to discuss the rules that affect challenges to sitting leaders. That would be a mistake. The repeated Blairite challenges to Gordon Brown did make matters even worse for Labour and the time to change the rules is now, when a challenge isn’t about to happen.

One Comment

  1. John says:

    That freak’s credentials are that he was browns adviser and is directly responsible for the mess we are in. Either stop being corrupt globalists and get us out of the EU or make a deal with the Libs and be the next unelected gov

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