A Defence of Ed Miliband and the Labour Leadership Electoral System


Image © The CBI

Andrew Hyams

Since Ed Miliband became leader of the Labour party in September 2010 there have been murmurs about the nature of his election. Some commentators clearly need reminding that Ed’s win over his brother was fair and square. The real issue here, though, is about the actual system Labour uses to elect its leader, and I believe the current one is better than the often touted alternatives.

The fact that Ed only drew ahead of David Miliband in the fourth round of voting is misleading. If the election had been a straight fight between the two, assuming this did not change anybody’s vote, then Ed still would have won. Taking preferences into consideration under the Alternative Vote system enables the party to get the consensual candidate, and not a candidate in sway to a sizeable minority section of the party, as Ed has been construed to be.[1]

Indeed, Ed’s reliance on union votes has come repeatedly under fire. It is true that Ed only lead David in the ‘affiliates and socialist society’ section of the electoral college (which includes not just unions but organisations such as the Fabian Society and Scientists for Labour). Yet David’s lead in the other sections were small in comparison. Ed still needed significant backing in all sections to win.

Look at it this way. David only actually won the support of 18 more MPs and 10,822 more party members than Ed.  Whereas, Ed won the support of 39,139 more union and socialist society members than David. With a score of 147,220 votes and 175,591 respectively, Ed won the votes of significantly more individual people than David.[2]

Of course, affiliated union members’ votes should not be crudely equal to party members and MPs. And they are not. Not even close. There were 271 Labour MPs/MEPs[3] and approximately 177,000 Labour party members[4] at the time of the 2010 leadership election, whereas over 2.7 million ballot papers were distributed to affiliated organisations.[5]  Yet each of these sections received an equal weighting in the election – 33.3%. This ensures the votes of Labour MPs and members count for much, much more than that of a union member. Even with this weighting, Ed’s backing across all sections was large enough to give him an outright victory.

Whether or you consider Ed’s election as problematic or not rests ultimately on whether you think the unions should play a part in the leader’s election. But who are “the unions?” There is no union block vote – rather those 2.7million ballot papers were sent out to individual working people. These are exactly the kind of people the Labour party should be consulting. They have already paid a fee to an organisation affiliated to Labour and so do not need to pay further subscription to the party. Indeed, the fact that these working people are not necessarily Labour members highlights the fact that the union section of the electoral college keeps the party anchored to a wider spectrum of voters, not just Labour diehards.

It has been suggested that both “One Member One Vote” or a national primary like Francois Hollande’s would be preferable.[6] Yet, “OMOV” would presumably disenfranchise union members altogether, and so insulate the party from the wider electorate. And in making a MP’s vote equal to that of a party member, it could risk leaders with little parliamentary support. A national primary suffers from this problem too, although its opposite goal of widening participation is laudable. The current system resolves these issues. With its electoral college, it allows for the participation of those who are not full members but clearly aligned to its interests as the party of the working majority, while giving weight to the preferences of the PLP and members.

It is a shame that union member turnout in 2010 was low. In order to really consult a broader spectrum, it needs to be higher. I will admit that, although not strictly against the rules, it was bad form for some unions to send out promotional material for Ed along with ballot papers.[7] But people make up their own minds – eligible voters were inundated with campaign literature. The anomaly of multiple votes needs to be addressed; one individual should not receive a vote in each section for being an MP, a party member and a union member. Ed’s plan to allow for individually registered supporters[8] who are not party members is good, but he should not have shied away[9] from placing these people into the unions and socialist society sections.

With these caveats noted however, I am convinced that the Labour party’s leadership system is the right one.



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