Should Labour choose its leader the US way?

Should Labour choose its leader the US way?


    Michael Meacher blasts the Stephen Byers plan

A revolutionary new plan to change the way in which the Labour leader is elected is being proposed by the former minister, Stephen Byers.

According to the veteran MP, Michael Meacher in the Guardian this morning Labour’s NEC will discuss a document this month called the Party Renewal Project which, along with other proposals, sets out a revolutionary way of choosing the leader.

Instead of the current complex arrangement involving the trade unions, the parliamentary party and the membership Byers is suggesting that the election should be restricted to so-called party supporters “who would not have to pay any membership subscription and would enlist without any obligation whatsoever.”

Meacher goes on “..This is clearly intended to pave the way for American-style primaries. The implications are enormous. The party as a political education forum and a political pressure organisation would wither away. “Supporters” would be at the receiving end of email messages from the centre, but there would be no formal structure for joint discussion and decision-making. The primaries would be determined not by ideology and debate, but largely by name and face recognition, as in the US. Candidates would succeed not by representing broad strands of party opinion, but by press coverage and self-promotion through a well-oiled financial machine. The Murdoch press would be the winners, party members the losers. The cancer of the power of money in American politics would begin to appear in Britain too. There are other serious implications. There is no objection to Labour having registered supporters. The issue is about whether they should vote in a leadership election – they need not have any connection with the Labour party at all, either as members or voters or even genuine supporters. They could secretly be Tories, Liberal Democrats, communists, Greens, or whatever.

The idea, it seems, would be that ordinary voters would register in some was as party supporters and this would make them part of the Labour electorate. As a way of building up lists of supporters and creating an ongoing communication channel with them the Byers plan looks very interesting. But, as Meacher lucidly argues, there could be dangers and the winner could be the one with the greatest name recognition.

    We saw during the recent Tory and Lib Dem leadership contests how those describing themselves as “party supporters” can often have a very different view of the contenders than the party membership.

At one stage last November a Populus poll had David Davis beating David Cameron by 50-37% while surveys during the Lib Dem contest pointed to much greater support for Simon Hughes amongst supporters than what he achieved in last week’s ballot.

It is not clear whether, even if the plan was accepted, a new system could be in place to choose Tony Blair’s successor. But a Miliband-Brown contest along these lines would be fascinating and certainly make the leadership betting interesting.

Mike Smithson

Comments are closed.