There’s been a remarkable amount of speculation this week about Ed Miliband’s party reform plans. Little of it seems informed by anything more than leaks, spin and partial briefings. But then again, what else does anyone have to go on, when the discussions about the party’s future are taking place in a behind closed doors vacuum, with little interaction with the members who will have to live with whatever is agreed in the coming days.
If the aim is to open up the Labour Party, then the process through which that’s to be achieved seems deeply unsatisfactory.
That said, from the meaty details that can be picked out of the stew of partial briefings, one thing is clear – the only way is OMOV.
One Member One Vote (OMOV) has been a thread running through Labour Party reform for decades. It has been used to advance the cause of simple and understandable democracy in the party in all manner of areas, and now it appears to be coming to the leadership contest.
So what will the OMOV proposals look like?
The most credible information we have is that the electorate for future Labour leadership contests will be made up of both “full” Labour Party members (the current party membership) and “associate” members. These associate members will pay far less to the party each year, but will have fewer rights than “full” party members. At first these associate members are likely to be predominantly party affiliates (trade unionists) who have taken the pro-active decision to affiliate to the party, but they could be joined by those who are keen to support Labour and identify more closely with the party, without taking the leap into the world of full-on party membership. That can only help grow the party, at a time when political parties feel closed, narrow and with a kind of engagement and demands on time that are often unsuited to 21st century life. As Oscar Wilde once said, “The trouble with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings”. Having a form of membership that allows people to support the party without the demands of full membership could be a way to solve that.
And who could complain about a process that grows our party membership overnight? The Labour Party regularly flagellates itself for our lack of not only working class MPs, but working class members too. At a time when politics increasingly seems an aloof and elitist pursuit, who could find fault with hundreds of thousands of teaching assistants, nurses, shop assistants and care workers making the pro-active decision to become associate members of the Labour Party. And a five year process for switching to an “opt-in” method of party membership for Trade Union associate members seems only sensible. Trying to make such a change as a big bang switch over a short period of time risks being a bureaucratic and distracting nightmare for both party and unions alike, especially – needless to say – with a general election only 15 months away.
And what of the MPs? Well they’ll lose their outsized vote in the leadership contest (which rendered the votes of many party members who backed Balls, Burnham or Abbott effectively null and void last time around), but they will gain a greater say over which candidates make it through the final OMOV vote of party members. Credible reports suggest that in future a leadership candidate will need to secure the support of 25% of MPs to get onto the ballot paper rather than the previous figure of 12.5%. Many members won’t like that and will feel that their choice of candidate is being restricted, but that neglects the duality of the role of Labour leader – not just the leader of the party, but the leader of the PLP too. A leadership candidate who cannot secure the backing of 25% of MPs isn’t a credible candidate for Prime Minister and would struggle horrendously with managing the parliamentary party. It’s therefore no great shame to have such candidates out of the race before members vote, giving them a real choice, rather than a chimera.
Of course, the lack of detail about the proposals – because they aren’t finished yet, and neither Ed Miliband, Ray Collins or anyone else really knows what will be presented to the NEC yet – leave important questions unanswered. What if there is a leadership election within the five year transition period? It would be patently absurd to have an OMOV vote with all affiliated trade unionists being given an equal vote with party members whether they have opted-in or not. In the event of an early leadership election, the current leadership election rules (the tripartite electoral college) should still be used. Ray Collins should make that clear in his report to avoid the kind of scaremongering “90% of votes for trade unionists” pieces that we’ve seen in some of the papers. The role of associate members in selections also needs greater clarity. Someone paying a small amount to have the right to vote in our leadership contest is one thing. Someone paying a small amount and having the right to vote in selections too is an entirely different matter.
Regardless, in the coming days, Lord Collins and Ed Miliband have a big task in front of them. Not to win over the NEC or the Trade Unions – that’s a big task, but not the largest they face. The real difficulty is likely to be explaining to a Labour membership who have been kept in the dark about party reform why any of this matters, why this will help repair and rebuild the party, and why their delegates should vote for it on March 1st.
If Ed Miliband takes any of that for granted, he might find he’s still on a sticky wicket at the special conference after all.