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On electing and removing leaders in the Labour Party

Labour DemocracyImmediately after the defeat at the General election in 2015, Ed Milliband resigned. What if he had decided to stay on? We do not know.What we do know is what happened in Scotland. Jim Murphy was elected Leader in October 2014.

Following his defeat and Labour’s rout in Scotland, Murphy said he would remain Leader of Scottish Labour. First to call for Murphy to resign from being leader was unseated MP, Ian Davidson, who said, “Morally, as the man who has led us to the biggest ever disaster that Labour has suffered in Scotland, he can’t continue.” Then Pat Rafferty of Unite called for Murphy’s resignation, followed by Kevin Lindsay of ASLEF. Then Neil Findlay MSP resigned from Murphy’s shadow cabinet, citing the election results, followed by  MSP Alex Rowley.

The decision of whether he should continue was made by the Scottish Labour Party Executive. Jim Murphy narrowly survived a vote of no confidence by 17 votes to 14. Three of the 17 votes in support of Murphy included that of Murphy himself, that of Ian Murray MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and Labour’s only MP in Scotland, and that of a Labour Peer. Murphy then announced on 16 May 2015 that he intended to step down as Leader of the Scottish Labour Party in June.

In 2010 Gordon Brown did not resign until he had failed to negotiate a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats. Gordon Brown announced on 10 May 2010 that he would stand down as Labour Leader 4 days after the election defeat that left a hung parliament. Am I the only one who thinks a new acting leader would have had a greater chance of successfully negotiating a Labour led coalition? Gordon Brown could have gone to the National Executive and he would almost certainly have been successful in continuing as Leader.

I believe that there is a moral obligation on anyone who leads a party to electoral defeat to resign immediately. If you have been rejected by the electorate then I believe you have lost the authority to lead the party. At a more local level, the vast majority of the Labour Group in Swansea wanted to remove the Leader of the Labour Group who was also Council leader. To remove the Labour group leader, they needed to get a written request for a leadership election signed by two third of the group. This was a lengthy process. Whilst the removal of a Leader is not and should not be something undertaken lightly, making it incredibly difficult also does not help.

The mechanism of electing the leader of the Labour party at Westminster, Scotland and, I believe, Wales by one member one vote is highly democratic. The party members choose the leader of their party, as almost 60% of those that voted, voted to elect Jeremy Corbyn.

Two things I learnt from this election. Firstly, allowing MPs to be the gatekeepers of who gets onto the ballot paper came very close to keeping Jeremy off the ballot paper. Someone who was overwhelmingly elected by the members nearly did not make the ballot paper. Why cannot members either self nominate or have a proposer and seconder? Whilst, with the first system, all MPs could stand and under the second system in excess of 50, what it would do is widen the debate and allow everyone a chance. My expectation is that under that system a few more – perhaps up to six – would have stood. Surely democracy means you should have the maximum possible choice?

Secondly, members are enthused by the chance to hear a debate inside the party.  When I spoke in favour of Jeremy at the Swansea meeting I was amazed, as I know others were, at the number attending and the enthusiasm generated. By the time Cardiff was reached, the number in attendance was huge. A bus full came up from Swansea and there were people from all over south Wales present. Party membership in Swansea East is at its highest during the 40 years I have been involved. There are far more members that in the run up to the 1997 general election.

I want to now turn to internal party democracy and discuss West Glamorgan County Council, Swansea Council and the National Assembly Wales. Two bodies I have been previously been elected to and one I am currently a member of. In the days of West Glamorgan County Council and the early days of Swansea Council, our decisions were taken collectively by the Labour Group. Whilst the Leader and committee chairs would have agreed the report with senior officers and would report to the Labour group, the final decision was the Labour group as a whole. They could and sometimes did reject or amend the recommendation. Also, members collectively made recommendations at sub committee that were then recommended either to full Council or to a committee of all Councillors. When the cabinet system was introduced, decisions became delegated to Cabinet members and then on in many cases to Council officers.

Turning to the Assembly: this works on the system of a Leader directly elected by the wider party membership but with the Assembly members acting as the gatekeeper on who can stand. At the last election, won by Carwyn Jones, a Labour group of 26 members and a candidate needed to be nominated by six members meaning that the maximum number of candidates was four, three actually stood.Do we need Assembly members to act as gatekeeper? Why cannot a system that provides greater choice be brought in?Whilst we may not have a leadership election for sometime, a system is needed to be in place that makes it easier to get on the ballot paper in Wales, as much as it is needed at Westminster.The First Minister has immense power, brought about by being the Leader of the ruling group and directly elected by the membership.The Leader has absolute control. They choose the Cabinet. They can appoint to the cabinet who they want. They can remove any cabinet member at any time via a reshuffle.

As you will have seen, there are other posts that are in the gift of the First Minister such as chair of the European monitoring committee. How did I find out that Jenny Rathbone had been removed? David Deans, the Western Mail journalist, told me. Whilst I am pleased Mick Antoniw has been appointed to the post, how did I find out about the appointment? No, it was not the Western Mail…it was the BBC. I still have not been told about either event officially. There is no reason for the First Minister to tell me. He is not accountable to me as a member of the Labour Group. He is not accountable to the Labour group collectively or individually. His only accountability is to the Welsh Executive.We need to achieve two things: firstly, to make it easier for candidates to get on the ballot paper. Secondly to have greater accountability. This is a debate we need now when there is no leadership election imminent, rather than wait until we have a vacancy.

Mike Hedges is the member of the Welsh Assembly for Swansea East. This is the text of Mike’s contribution to a roundtable discussion at the Welsh Labour Grassroots AGM in Cardiff on 17 October 2015. This previously appeared on the website of Welsh Labour Grassroots


  1. there are major issues to be discussed about the role of the leader. However resigning straight away has been disasterous for labour’s understanding of its last two defeats which it still does not understand. Neither Brown nor Miliband asked the NEC for advise, it was cut out of the process entirely.

    But on the wider point, the Tories who are normally the ones to hatchet leaders allowed Michael Howard to stay till conference. The result was they discussed their defeat in 2005 and began the process of renewal. Labour lets the leader go and the debate on why it lost has vanished.

    Learning from Michael Howard may be painful, but the right way to do it is indeed – discuss the defeat, then elect the leader

    trevor fisher.

    1. Rod says:

      ” the debate on why it lost has vanished.”

      Only because, as with Murphy’s demise in Scotland, the party machine didn’t want to hear the truth.

      The Blairites prefer their comfort zone to any rigourous analysis.

      Things won’t change until the LP enacts democratic reforms with appropriate fora where such things can be debated.

  2. Bill says:

    I don’t know about Wales but I think that the Leader of the Party should not immediately resign but that there should be an orderly hand over to the new leader. The PLP should not decide who should be on the ballot paper leader.

    Nomination should be either:

    A sufficient amount of members.

    A sufficient amount of constituency parties.

  3. Bazza says:

    Think there needs to be a root and branch reform in the Labour Party in all areas to give power back to members. There are still too many great men and women (top downers) at all levels of the party.
    Need to reform Confrence, Regional Assembliies, Councils and remnants of New Labour Practice.
    I along with others was invited to attend a regional consultation meeting at £25! I don’t think anyone attended so they opened it up on-line.
    Labour has now elected a human being as leader but there is much to do to clear up the New Labour mess and elite practices!

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      Same here we’ve just been cordially invited to listen to Debbie Abrahams and James McMahon, carrying on with themselves, about that the things they’d like us to believe they’ve done for Oldham (and James McMahon’s comments about our unemployed and the disabled were especially offensive, but so particularly for a man who nonetheless claims to be some sort of socialist,) at £10, (that without the cost of drinks,) a throw, meanwhile I’m 59, with a disabled wife, am living in Social housing, have been unemployed for an extended period and frankly if I had £10 pound spare listening those 2 clown are absolutely the last thing that I’d be inclined to squander it on.

      1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

        The sad thing is that, prior to them trying to sting me for the cash, I was on the verge of volunteering to go out leafleting for them.

        This seems to be basically the same mind set that’s afflicted the charities, this issue has become revenue generation and nothing else hence Labors increasing distance from it’s natural and traditional consistencies, such as the old living on the state pension, the disabled and the low paid and the unemployed, all the vulnerable groups to whom they seem to have nothing at all to say other than exactly the same reactionary same crap that the Tories are spouting.

  4. Bazza says:

    I was feeling a bit down today.
    From a white working class background and as a democratic socialist I had endured years of poverty before Higher Education saved me.
    So I have been there, and you never forget.
    And your heart breaks when you hear about what the poor are having to endure via deliberate policy by the Grotesque Conservatives.
    And you almost feel guilty for doing ok.
    But at least I support and fight for others and this is what Labour needs to do; to build a coalition of the oppressed and those who are on their side (who also think of others).
    I happened to go to a meeting today with progressives from universities and workers and some asylum agency service users plus some students on the Tory changes planned for asylum seekers.
    Cuts in the meagre amount of benefit they receive, draconian changes via a repellent new immigration bill, and apart from emergency care there will be the privatisation of hospital care for asylum seekers – they are to be made to pay for practically every hospital service.
    But the meeting was inspiring as we all agreed we needed to organise and for example there was one food project with surplus food and refugees (and others) who needed food so we needed to link them up!
    But we need to support both established citizens who are being oppressed and the newcomers.
    And perhaps there was another chink of hope as there has been, it could be argued, a brief outbreak of humanity in Europe and good will and as one speaker said, “people do want to be kind’ and infact one asylum supporting voluntary group said last year they had 15 volunteers and this year so far they have had 183!
    But another chink of hope is that Labour has now elected a human being as Leader.
    I wondered if we should be calling for an immediate amnesty for all those applying for asylum in the UK at a stroke (they do it in the USA for many more millions at a time) and grant them all refugee status.
    The system is a mess and deliberately complex to put people off applying for things (like for older people).
    But we need to help all the poor and to try to unite them (including trade unionising migrant workers) plus those who care.
    And we are up against a Vile Tory Government who facilitate the theft of the surplus labour (with their like minded morons around the World) from the working billions.
    If you are white and black and poor, a migrant or both you can comfort yourself realising the World is run by Legal Thieves.
    Read Paulo Freire, Paul Frolich’s biography of Rosa Luxemburg, and listen to the music of John Lennon.
    Let’s empower ourselves as democratic socialists – yours in solidarity!

  5. Will says:

    Why is there a “moral obligation on any one who leads a party to defeat to resign immediatly”
    There are many possible reason for lack of success at elections, some may have nothing to do with the leader. Many great leaders have lost elections and come back to lead governments whose achievements we value today. Think Gladstone, Disraeli, Lloyd George and more recently Wilson.
    For purely tactical reasons Brown should have stayed on, at least untill conference. The Tory’s used this lucena to propergate all the myths about Labour overspending, ” sorry there’s no money left” ” didn’t fix the roof while the sun shone” and so on to divert attention from the banking crises.
    Arguably this won them the election.

  6. David Pavett says:

    A timely article. This issue needs to be raised throughout the Party to send motions to the NEC. The election if Corbyn demonstrated beyond question that the PLP must not have the right to act as a filter for who the members are allowed to vote for. This has to change.

    I agree with Trevor that orderly transition is better and that it should be done under the auspicies of the NEC.

  7. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    The whole issue if, “democratic socialism,” or simply of democracy is critical not just to labour but government at every level becomes ever more remote, insulated and divorced from the electorate.

    The, “me and my mates,” culture is exemplified and prevalent at every political level and for some of us the election of JC was brief and unconvincing departure from that entrenched habit.

    While everyone has been looking at top, the body of the labour party remains as unresponsive and insular as ever.

    In my own constituency under Jim McMahon’s Co-operative borough scam, (basically just Cameron’s, “Big Society,” but given a cheap coat of unpleasing turquoise paint,) and under McMahon’s leadership our councilor’s, (all 60 of the now generally useless buggers,) have effectively been stripped of all their powers, initiative and authority and are no longer even allowed to vote on financial matters until after they have completed a tedious and doubtless expense accreditation program, (undoubtedly being run at a profit by someone’s, “mates,”) which is preposterous, meanwhile his, (the council’s,) partner of Choice First choice Homes Housing Association are laying off maintenance staff, (just before Christmas,) and other people at the same time that chief executive has just awarded herself a whopping 12.5% pay rise and are also keen to remove both the said local councilors and the elected tenants representatives from the board, on the pretext that this will facilitate effective management in a changing commercial environment, which most people regard as complete and utter nonsense.

    Democratic socialists these people are not and I for one won’t be voting for any of them.

  8. will is right. It was Brown’s disasterous decision to throw his rattle out of the pram and the 4 month electon that followed that allowed austerity to become established. It will take years to recover if we ever do.

    A real leader stays on and recovers. Gladstone is the prime example. Even in 1874 when he de facto resigned there was no successor and he came back, winning in 1880. Churchill lost in 1945 and 1950 and then won in 1951 laying the basis for 13 years of tory rule.

    In the current era, that Howard did NOT resign after loosing in 2005 laid the basis for all that then followed. The Tories worked out why they lost and what they had to do to win.

    Labour? not a clue about the last 10 years.

    trevor fisher.

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