John Smith: NEC to set timetable for electing leader

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The Independent Online
LABOUR'S National Executive Committee will meet on 25 May to consider the timetable for electing a party leader. The contest will be conducted according to new rules agreed at last year's party conference.

The NEC must decide whether to hold an immediate ballot, or hold one later in the summer so that the result could be declared at the annual conference in the autumn.

But David Blunkett, the party chairman, yesterday made clear his preference for a process which would be completed by July. In the interim, Margaret Beckett, the deputy party leader, takes over as leader.

Whichever route is chosen, voting will take place consecutively in the three sections of the party's electoral college. The sections comprise MPs and Euro MPs, party members, and members of trade unions and other affiliated organisations.

Voting in each section would be on the basis of 'one member, one vote'. Nominations for the leadership must have the support of at least 12.5 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party - that is, at least 33 MPs.

The biggest change is for trade unions. Using their own procedures, each union must ballot all its members who have indicated their support for Labour through payment of the political levy. Votes will be aggregated for a national total. The unions have also seen their share of the total voting power come down from 40 per cent to one-third. Candidates' votes will be calculated as a percentage of the total votes cast in each section and then apportioned as thirds of a grand total.

One important point is that the rules also insist that a candidate 'receiving more than half the votes' is duly elected. But if no candidate gets more than half the votes there shall then be further ballots on an 'elimination basis'.

This was almost certainly an error in the drafting of the rules. Such a system was fine when the electoral college simply voted at the party conference. But now that each component is required to hold individual ballots on a one-member one-vote basis, it would mean that further eliminating ballots would have to be held until a winning candidate is found. This would mean, as the rules stand, that if there were several candidates the contest could take a year or more - and at a huge cost, both politicially and financially.

The most likely course, therefore, is for the NEC to decide that the 1994 contest will have to be held on a preferential - probably single transferable vote - basis. That means that a voter can list more than one choice. It also means that two candidates from a single faction of the party can in theory both stand without necessarily splitting the vote to the advantage of their opponents.