Should Labour return to using the three-part electoral college system in its leadership elections?
Labour has always been a broad coalition of different groups from across politics and society. A partnership of: trade unions and socialist organisations speaking for their working-class membership; elected representatives speaking for millions of ordinary voters; and the members who join with a desire to build a better world and without whom the party would cease to function. The establishment of the electoral college system in 1981 ensured all three groups had a stake in the party, and that any leader must gain support and confidence from across this coalition. It was a delicate, finely balanced process which ensured a steady and respectful relationship within the ecosystem of our party.
One Member One Vote and the creation of registered supporter status has shattered this balance, leading to a situation with a leader elected by the membership who does not have the confidence of the parliamentary Labour party. As such our movement is divided and our country does not have the strong opposition it needs.
Some argue this is simply the fault of an errant PLP who must fall in line with the wishes of the membership. But the current denigration of members of parliament by those who want Labour to become a social movement, not a party in a parliamentary democracy, is wrong. MPs should have a major role in choosing their leader – the ‘first among equals’ – as the position has traditionally been. MPs come from varied backgrounds and experiences, battle-hardened from elections, and from the constant reality check of knocking on doors and defending the party to an often sceptical public. Between us we represent nine million people. It is our job to know exactly what the public think.
Moreover, in parliament, we see who batters the Tories and who gets battered by them. We see who shows leadership, and who commands respect. We see who is fleet of foot at the dispatch box, who makes select committee witnesses squirm, and who is the best communicator. MPs can see beneath the spin of a leadership contest and the hysteria of a rally because we see the individuals day in, day out, warts and all.
The role of affiliates carrying the voice of their working-class membership is also vital. From the people who work in our public services, to those who build our homes (and our submarines), and keep our country safe. They should all have their say on who we present as our prime minister-in-waiting. The challenge for the unions is ensuring they truly represent all their members, not just those at the top professing to be the keepers of the ultra‑left conscience.
The 2014 reforms were designed to build a ‘genuinely mass membership party reaching out to all parts of the nation’. If we are to return to government we do need to become more rooted in the communities we seek to represent. The danger is that rallies, meetings and social media bubbles of like-minded people can take members away from the realities of a sceptical, unbelieving public.
In practice, the new system has weakened Labour’s broad coalition, created internal animosity and resentment, and threatens to break it apart all together. It is time to rebuild the bridges between the three vital elements of our party’s ecosystem by restoring the electoral colleges and looking outwards again to the public.
Anna Turley is member of parliament for Redcar
I do not know how many votes I cast when I voted for David Miliband to be leader of the Labour party. I think it was seven. I certainly voted as a member of parliament, a party member, a member of Unite, Usdaw and Christians on the Left, and then as a member of several other affiliates. I do not suppose it mattered – my MP’s vote would have outweighed all of the rest by some considerable margin anyway.
The electoral college was ridiculous. We will never know how many, or few, real people actually voted in the contests that we used it for because of the nature of these multiple votes. We do know how we got to it – the result of a whole series of conference and special conference resolutions in the 1980s, when the Labour party was last going through a concerted attempt to kill itself. If anyone is looking back to that time with nostalgia it is a symptom of just how bad our current predicament has become.
The electoral college also became more flawed over time. When it was first introduced, the affiliates section was a diverse group of distinct, smaller unions. In the subsequent decades, for understandable reasons, that landscape became much smaller as unions underwent a series of mergers. By 2010 this had produced an unhealthy situation whereby a relatively small number of general secretaries controlled a whole section of the votes, and candidates not nominated by a union had no access to the electorate in that entire section of the college whatsoever. That cannot be right.
Furthermore, I see no justification for MPs having a third of the votes to themselves. MPs have considerable power under the new system, because we control the shortlist of candidates that everyone else gets to vote on. That during the last contest some of my colleagues did not understand the fundamental shift that had occurred, from the electoral college to the new primary system, was a monumental folly. But they have only themselves to blame.
Fundamentally, the electoral college belongs to an era of machine politics which is no longer with us. Our leadership elections are no longer about ‘debates’ within the existing membership but about challenges as to who can reach out to the widest possible audience. The brutal reality is that the left of the party has so far done that much more successfully than anyone else, despite the fact they were largely opposed to the change when modernisers welcomed it.
The way to change this is not to make the electorate smaller, but to make it larger. It is true that the new system has suffered from entryism from far-left groups, Greens and a few wrecking Tories. So our aim should be to make the electorate so large that these people are insignificant. If we matched the recruitment of our sister parties in Italy or France, we would have 1-2 million people voting in our leadership contests. The combined membership of every hard-left fringe group in the country would barely scratch 0.005 per cent of that.
The new leadership system was one of the most far-reaching pieces of modernisation in the party’s history, and rightly lauded as such at the time. Proposing that we change it because it has not gone our way in recent contests is short-sighted, inconsistent, and leaves us open to ridicule.
Jonathan Reynolds is member of parliament for Stalybridge and Hyde and a former vice-chair of Progress