Friday 4 February 2011

Five ways to elect a Labour leader

The Guardian's report today focuses on the prospects of Labour's review of party organisation changing the rules for leadership elections.

Peter Hain, who is chair of the National Policy Forum and leading the party reform review, will begin a formal consultation next month. Hain told me recently that he is keen to hear from members ahead of that over the key themes and issues which the review should explore. He is currently attending regional conferences and a range of other party meetings to help inform that.

The review naturally will be much broader than the leadership system. Many other issues - how the party makes policy in a way which gives members a stronger voice; how the party engages at local level; and whether and how to reach out and connect with people outside the party while strengthening the role of current members and activists - strike me as more important. The Fabian Society pamphlet 'Facing Out' (now available to read online) offers a good introduction to the party reform debate, especially on how the party would need to change its culture and organisation if it wanted to focus on locating itself in part of a broader movement for progressive political change.

But perhaps it is also worth looking at the outset at the range of all possible reforms to how Labour might elect future leaders. Please let me know what changes you think might be worth making - and especially if I've left your favoured system out.

Current electoral college

The case for
* A system which involve MPs, party members and trade unions, and so has provided a compromise which has been used for 30 years, and which was made considerably more legitimate post-1994 with the abolition of union block votes.
* In theory, enables up to 4 million people to participate (rather than a party membership of 200,000), while retaining strong weight for the views of the Parliamentary Party (who used to elect the leader exclusively up to 1980).


* Can lead to a range of legitimacy questions if different candidates win different sections, as set out in my Left Foot Forward post before the 2010 result, and much more widely discussed afterward when Ed Miliband had the support of most individuals who took part overall, as well as winning the college itself because of his support in the affiliated section, while David Miliband won two or the three sections, including full party members and MPs.

* Some think the power given to MPs is too excessive - with less than 300 people having the same weight as the entire party membership - while other people think this is legitimate, because the ability to lead the Parliamentary party is important. (This is a major barrier to an insurgent candidate who lacks Parliamentary support).

* Many people (all MPs and MEPs; party members who are trade unionists) have two, three or more votes. That the votes have very different weight can be seen as in itself a problem, or it can be seen as making the multiple vote issue pretty trivial, since the affiliate votes have in practice about a quarter of the value of a member vote.

* Could potentially create perverse incentives to discourage turnout, for example to benefit a candidate (The affiliate section has the same overall value - whether 1000, 250,000, 750,000 or 1.5 million take part in it).

* Viewed as byzantine and difficult to understand, especially by journalists who get to cover the subject once or twice a decade.

What are the possible options for reform?

There seem to me to be at least five further ways in which the Labour Party could in theory decide to elect its leader.

1. Return leadership elections to MPs only

This was the pre-1979 system. It is the private preference of a minority of MPs, but has little broader support in the party.

This would not be seen as democratically legitimate, and would be the route to minimise participation and turnout.

But the history matters, because the question of the importance or legitimacy of a special role for MPs does remain perhaps the central issue in reform of the leadership election. Perhaps the most important source of resistance to ditching an electoral college model is not (as is usually said to be the case) the role of the unions, but that almost any conceivable alternative to an electoral college would reduce the power of MPs, compared to the current system.

2. One member, one vote

Alan Johnson proposed this (several years ago) and returned to the issue after the 2010 vote. This is how the LibDems elect their leader. The Conservatives now have an OMOV vote - but only once MPs have selected the two candidates who members can choose between. But there are several barriers to Labour adopting a similar system.

- MPs may be most unhappy. They would go from having similar power to the entire membership, to having the same voting rights as any other member. (However, if they were still to control the nominations process, it could be argued that they retain very considerable power in that respect).

- The trade union link, which was part of the formation of the party, no longer has any part in leadership elections. There will be some for whom this would be a benefit of such a reform, but others would see this as a break with the party's history and ability to mobilise more people.

- Overall, participation in the leadership election would fall. The system does not help the party to reach out, except by trying to convert current affiliates and supporters to full members. (The evidence is that this would not be taken up by the majority). So this option is unlikely to win support in the Labour party. The politics don't work - because of combined Parliamentary and affiliate objections. The fall in participation - compared to both the current system and other alternatives - make it difficult to see great gains in moving to this system.

3. An expanded electoral college, with a new section for the general public, or party supporters within it

David Lammy proposed this in Fabian Review last summer: "We need to renew our trust in democracy itself. In the leadership election we should introduce a fourth electoral college: the public. One fourth of the votes, alongside members, MPs and Unions, should go to the people who will elect the next government of this country. We should not fear enfranchising them".

Though the idea of opening participation is attractive, I don't think this would work in practice as a model for doing this.

- This could surely exacerbate rather than resolves potential legitimacy questions, now raising the possibility of a leader who was not "the choice of the public" (or rather of the small proportion of people who took part), by now having four rather than three sections, increasing the chances of a 'split decision' between different sections.

- This doesn't deal with turnout issues. If 25% of the vote (similar to the party membership) were going to Labour supporting members of the public, this would surely require considerably larger numbers of people to participate in that section. (If, say, only 75,000 non-members took part it would be perverse to count their views as having similar weight to 175,000 full members). If only 10% of levy payers are taking part at present,

4. Current electoral college - but open affiliate voting to all party supporters and/or general public

There could be a general supporters register, and a period at the start of any contest, where any UK voter could take part on the basis of a statement saying that they support the party's aims. (Party members and MPs would be ineligible). Their votes would be counted within the current 'affiliated' section.

- This retains the role of both MPs and unions, while extending participation to anybody who wants to be involved.

- This creates an incentive to extend participation in the party, in that candidates or campaigns that can reach out to new people will increase support. An interesting feature is that it also challenges and incentivises current affiliates (unions and socialist societies) to maximise their own participation and engagement, if they want their voice to count. If lots of new supporters were to vote, then current affiliates might fear their voice being diluted. But it would not be dliuted if they were to mobilise the majority of their own members, who don't currently participate.

This system maximises participation, while retaining an incentive to party supporters to trade up to full membership. The argument that this dilutes the voice of affiliates seems to me weak, since it does so significantly only if they can not mobilise people to take part. This "everybody's invited" message could be seen as helping to address challenges to the legitimacy of the current structure - and the participation of tens of thousands of individual union members within it.

This seems to me a positive reform: If there was no consensus on a completely different system, I think this would be an improvement on the status quo.

It is often argued that opening up participation will discourage membership, though I have more often seen this argued from intuition rather than with much supporting evidence which might substantiate it. On the other side of the argument, there is some good evidence - including the polling of party members and supporters in the Fabian Facing Out pamphlet that hundreds of thousands of Labour identifiers and supporters who remain unlikely to become full party members would be keen to engage with the party through other routes.

5. One supporter, one vote - effectively a "primary model".

This would be a system which allowed all current levy-payers to vote (alongside party members), and invited all other voters (presumably who state they are party supporters) to similarly register to participate.

- Union members can continue to participate, and so can all other Labour supporters among the electorate. This system would have the potential to maximise participation and turnout on a "one supporter, one vote" model.

- MPs may be unhappy (they have less power than in the current system). They could continue to hold the nomination gateway, so the issue here is whether that gives the Parliamentary Party sufficient weight, or whether they would insist on maintaining an electoral college.

- The main legitimacy issue is whether any any levy payer and/or party supporter should have similar rights to a full party member: this is the central question about any "primary" model, at any level from candidate selection to the leadership.

Some form of "leadership primary model" strikes me as probably the most plausible alternative to an electoral college, and the form which any "one member, one vote" advocacy might naturally take.

So, are those the main options for leadership elections, or are there other models which should be on the table too?


There are a range of other other issues involved in the leadership election process.

Should the nomination threshold, where candidates require nominations from one-fifth of MPs to stand as either leader or deputy, be lowered - perhaps to 10% - when the leadership is vacant. Some might argue for variable thresholds depending on whether the party is in power or opposition. A candidate who can not get 20% of MP nominations would not be likely to win - or to be an effective leader. However, this writes off the democratic value of different views being aired in a contest, even if they are unlikely to prevail, and makes a 2007-style 'coronation' more likely.

A useful small reform would be to cap the number of permitted Parliamentary nominations at the level required to qualify for the ballot. This would (mildly) encourage a broader field of candidates, though MPs would still be able to publicly declare their support for a candidate they were not formally nominating. Some argue that there should be non-Parliamentary routes to getting onto the ballot, such as setting a threshold for nomination by members.

The current system has a strong "frontrunner bias" - because of the dual role of MPs in both nominations and the college itself, and because of the form of the nomination process.

If there is an obvious frontrunner, then MPs have career reasons to support the likely winner early. So Gordon Brown got 313 nominations in 2007, turning the leadership contest into a Coronation, and there was pressure on every MP to nominate the new leader. Even if a rival candidate had just made the threshold for nomination, those MP votes would have, in any event, more or less decided the result. unless the underdog could win 40-50% leads in both the members and affiliate sections. So the MPs are especially important because they count twice - once as the gateway for the election, and then as a very significant bloc within it unless they are fairly equally divided. For example, the US Democrats give a role to "superdelegates" (including office-holders) at the party convention, but only as a tie-breaker if no candidate has clearly won the primary process. The power of elected Democrats before this is limited to persuasion - through endorsing candidates, mobilising supporters, etc. This is still an influential role, but it depends on voice (their ability to persuade other Democrats through their profile) rather than power in the electoral system itself.

Multiple votes

If an electoral college is maintained, the question of whether multiple votes should be allowed would remain. An MP who is a trade unionist, party member and Fabian gets four votes of very different weights, reflecting the party's affiliated structure.

Since affiliate votes are worth around a quarter of a members' vote, this makes relatively little difference to outcomes. It is difficult to see that the legitimacy issues created by this are enormously important.

One option would be to allow participants only their most valuable vote (so MPs would not get to vote as party members or affiliates; party members would not get affiliate votes). However, this could be said to undermine the college principle: MPs vote because they are MPs, etc. In practice, this would remove most non-union affiliate participation (since the majority of socialist society members are party members while most trade unionists are not), so it would increase the relative weight of the unions in an electoral college while reducing the role of bodies like the Fabian Society, the Christian Socialist Movement, Labour Students. It might be that the Movement for Change - intending to be the newest Labour affiliate - may focus on recruiting outside the party.

Leadership challenges

The current system makes a successful leadership challenge all but impossible, through the rulebook anyway. 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. The review may choose not to address this issue.

In practice, the realpolitik is that the rulebook does not determine outcomes. The reason Gordon Brown survived in 2009 and 2010 was not about the formal processes but because there was ultimately no consensus on the backbenches or in Cabinet. If a majority of MPs wanted to ditch a leader they could do so. A refusal to serve by several leading Cabinet colleagues would, in that scenario, be fatal.


Carl Gardner said...

Thanks for this excellent analysis of options.

I can't understand how any Labour member can support the current electoral college. I've never liked the way it seems to categorise people into types - members of a group rather than individuals - and to make the party seem like a "machine". But what's most repellent about it is that some voters are more equal than others, not just because some have more than one vote, but because some people's votes are worth more than others'. That seems to me obviously contrary to the principles of an egalitarian movement. So when we junk the electoral college it'll be good riddance in my view.

Your option 5, a one-person-one-vote "primary model" seems to me obviously the way ahead, precisely because it would treat each voter as an individual and treat each of them equally.

I don't have a strong preference about who the electorate should consist of: that seems to me very much a second-order issue compared to the equality principle. As you say, the voters could be simply Labour members, it could be levy-paying union members and members of Labour-supporting societies like the Fabians, or it could be open to people who want to offer a minimum £10 donation or so in return for a vote. I suppose the last would give us the problem of how to exclude members of other parties (if we're sure we want to) but while that's an understandable worry, I doubt we need really fear Conservatives organising nationally to donate to Labour and elect Diane Abbott.

Finally, I've no idea how much if at all the result was influenced by way the GMB for instance sent out ballot papers in "vote Ed" envelopes. But that made the process look so obviously unfair that it must never be allowed to happen again. It reflected very badly on Labour, Ed, the GMB and unions as a whole. The vote should be conducted through one single entirely electronic channel, in the interests of fairness, simplicity and avoiding waste and expense.

bernard-black said...

Similarly to they guy above, i don't like the college system. it makes too many divisions based on spurious 'identity' issues, and it obviously gives no equality of vote. Personally i would prefer something similar to option 5, but without the supporter votes. I say this as a longtime supporter(with reservations), but a recent member. i just don't think there is an adequate way to ensure only genuine supporters would be involved. I'd like to see all members, affiliates, and levy-payers have an equal vote. I also think Labour needs to stop being so afraid of its members; the MPs are arguably more distanced from the electorate than members are, both in terms of their pay, and their attitudes. MPs should maintain the gateway vote on who goes forward, but there should be a lower threshold (10% seems fair), and in the final ballot an MP's vote should be equal to any member/affiliate/levy payer. Whilst the myth may be "union power" swaying leadership elections, the truth is that MPs exert too much power over the process (why should they be more important than councillors etc). This system would weaken their influence in the final decision, and destroy the "union power" image too. it would also sit nicely between OMOV and OSOV.