It’s time for a level playing field when choosing Labour’s next leader

It’s time for a level playing field when choosing Labour’s next leader

Henry G Manson on what proposed changes could mean

Labour’s electoral college for determining its leader is currently divided and weighted into thirds. MPs & MEPs making up one third, party members another & affiliate members (members of trade unions and other socialist societies) the final third. What this means in practice is that the vote of an MP is worth considerably more than the individual vote of a party member and even more so an affiliate member.

In 2010 New Statesman calculated an MP’s vote was worth the votes of nearly 608 party members and 12,915 affiliated members during the last leadership election. Some of the media commentary has focused on the role of trade union members is clinching the leadership for Ed Miliband but have overlooked the dominant vote of MPs. A stadium full of ordinary trade union members and (less ordinary) Fabian members would have the equivalent say as one backbench Labour MP in choosing the next leader and deputy. This isn’t the ‘new politics’ people expect is it?

The events this week mean that affiliate members will almost certainly be required to opt-in to register support for the party first. The GMB estimate that only 10% will choose to do so. Unite are more optimistic at 30%. I believe the GMB are closer to the mark meaning 3 million union members affiliated to the party shrinks to 300,000. On a number of levels this will put affiliated members on a similar footing as party members. The impact of this in a leadership election is that the weight of their vote will increase from a 12,000th to a 1,200th of that of an MP. Will that be enough to entice them to opt in? Hardly!

    It’s surely a matter of time before the entire Labour leadership contest will be truly one member one vote with no distinction between MPs, party members and affiliate members.

If affiliate members are pooled with other party members, it will not mean a lurch to the left among the membership. Experience of Unison’s Labour Link structure, which is the closest to what is being proposed, suggests that these members will be politically to the right of the average non-affiliated union member. It would also prevent unions from guarding the gates to their affiliate members during leadership elections – that’s the real value of union endorsements under one member one vote and it’s pretty uninspiring bureucratic response. Those branded ‘Vote Ed Miliband’ envelopes the GMB used for their members would go. Turning opt-in affiliate members into party members would solve all that a stroke and all leadership candidates would have access to all those with a vote.

However removing the huge concentrated power of MPs in the leadership election contest could make a profound difference and be healthy for everyone. MPs would be free to nominate and endorse leadership candidates, but those respected most by the members would ultimately have the most influence with members. Aspiring leadership candidates would no longer have to nudge and wink at MPs about their prospect of jobs should they support them and win. One leadership candidate in 2010 offered so many jobs to MPs that he could have filled his Shadow Cabinet three times over.

A level playing field of votes would in time also shift the behaviour of those ambitious aspiring leaders of the future. They’d spend less time in the bars kissing the backsides of other MPs at Westminster and fewer handwritten notes saying ‘how much they enjoyed their intervention’ on some tiresome debate and more time spent engaging and listening with members and supporters around the country.

All would not be lost for Labour MPs wanting to be courted. MPs should still play a decisive role in nominating candidates to reach a reasonably high threshold to ensure all candidates received a decent level of support of their parliamentary candidates before facing the wider membership. There role would be proportionate.

If the Labour party is going to spend time making its structures meet the aspirations for the 21st century then it should do a thorough job. The way the party selects its leader and deputy has to be examined. It’s not the union members that have the power, but the MPs. The current set up seems old fashioned, out of date and unfair to the grassroots. It goes against the grain of what Ed Miliband is trying to achieve right now and wants to achieve in the future.

For punters on this website who have managed to stay with an article on internal Labour voting mechanics so far, thank you. The important thing for you to note is that all this could affect who becomes Labour’s next leader and throw the current odds in the air. Under a level playing field Westminster insiders would have less of an advantage over those who are better at engaging with members. That would be good news for backers of Andy Burnham, Stella Creasy or Lisa Nandy. Each of whom are available between 20/1 and 25/1. If you think this is the way Labour’s heading, then now would be a good time to back these 3.

Henry G Manson

Comments are closed.