Whoever wins, this has to be the last time Labour uses the disastrous Leadership election system brought in through the Collins Review in 2014.
The review was Ed Miliband’s reaction to allegations of membership irregularities in the parliamentary selection for Falkirk. Rather than sticking to tackling the issue at hand, which in any case could have been dealt with through existing processes for staff oversight of contentious selections, it looked wider at Ed’s discomfort about the way the electoral college system had delivered his victory over his brother in 2010.
It did this by abolishing the electoral college (a system where each of the three main stakeholders in the Labour Party, members, MPs and unions and other affiliates had a 1/3 share in electing the leader) and bringing in a one person one vote system. I say, “one person one vote” rather than “one member one vote” (OMOV) because as well as party members the franchise was given to affiliated supporters (members of affiliates who opt in to register to vote) and registered supporters (other members of the public who pay a fee, £3 in 2015, £25 this year) to vote.
These changes had a negative impact in three ways:
- MPs lost their effective veto over the leader, partly through their own error – which I foolishly supported – in allowing Corbyn on the ballot to broaden the debate – but this would have been recoverable if they still had 1/3 of the vote. We now have the absurd and politically unsustainable situation of a leader who not only hasn’t got the confidence of over 80 per cent of his MPs, but they are so disillusioned with him they won’t even serve under him so he can’t constitute a functioning frontbench. The tension between the PLP and the leader which is wrecking Labour’s ability to be an effective opposition couldn’t have happened if MPs had a major share in picking the Leader.
- The unions, which founded Labour and are its primary funders and organic link to our working class base, had their vote share in 2015 reduced from 33 per cent to 17 per cent. It may be even lower this year.
- The registered supporter scheme degenerated into what Australian Labor would call “stacking” – a process where you win a selection by recruiting armchair clicktivists more effectively than your opponents rather than winning the argument among the committed members who actually participate in and campaign for the party. Last year only one side realised they could do this, this year it is just a mad scramble for who can recruit fastest in the 48 hour window.
The changes made by the NEC last week have removed some of the worst excesses from 2015 – a £25 registered supporter fee should deter those wreckers only paying £3 to mess Labour up, or with no real commitment to the party, and the six month freeze date means that membership and Affiliated Supporter voting rights accrue to people who joined for the long-term benefit of the party not just to influence the leadership poll. But they have caused legitimate anger among people with good intentions on either side of the leadership debate who joined in good faith in recent weeks assuming the rules would be the same as last year.
But it remains the case that MPs and the unions will have too little say in picking the new leader and the concept of “members” choosing the leader is meaningless when members can each be outvoted by a mass-recruited £25 Registered Supporter with no obligations to or record in the party.
There is a very simple solution to this which is to go back to a form of the electoral college.
Variations on the electoral college gave us Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair and Ed Miliband as leader (Gordon Brown didn’t face a contest). Each of them was an immeasurably better leader for Labour on any objective measure than Jeremy Corbyn, the product to date of the current system.
The registered supporter scheme should be abolished completely after this election. If you want to vote for Labour’s leader the least that should be expected is that you join the party as a member and do so at least six months before the election so there is no question that you joined just to back a particular candidate and you show you care about Labour whoever is leader.
The unions and other affiliates should be restored to 1/3 of the vote so that their more working class and northern members balance out the middle class and London and southern dominated individual party members.
The members’ section should be capped at 1/3 so that the incentive to stack and distort the composition of the membership by mass recruitment just to win leadership ballots is reduced.
MPs should have their 1/3 share restored so that any future leader will need to have obtained substantial parliamentary support and we can’t have the ridiculous scenario of a leader who hasn’t got the confidence of their PLP colleagues.
These changes can be made at this year’s annual conference.
It just requires the unions to have the will to restore the balanced constitutional compromise that worked for 30 years.
The unions have 13 seats on the NEC. They can use this power to table an NEC rule change restoring the one third MPs, one third affiliates, one third MPs electoral college but keeping the consensus items from Collins of the opt-in system for affiliated supporters and the abolition of multiple votes in different Electoral College sections.
The unions have 50 per cent of the vote on conference floor. They can use this power to vote this rule change through.
The unions saved Labour in the 1930s and 1980s by acting as watchdogs over the party’s stability through their veto over the rulebook and constitution. They need to do the same again.