The proposed reforms announced by Ed Miliband to the structure of the Labour party go much further than most commentators had anticipated. Launching the process last summer, the Labour leader outlined an ambitious agenda but many observers expected some sort of compromise agreement to be hammered out between the party and its affiliated trade unions.
This has not happened. Indeed, in committing Labour to the abolition of the electoral college by which the party’s leader is elected, these proposals have taken many by surprise. Back in June 2013, Ed Miliband offered only the briefest of asides about leadership elections.
Made up of three equally weighted sections, one for Labour Members of Parliament, one for individual party members, and one for members of trade unions and other affiliated societies, the electoral college has long been criticised. The vastly different size of the electorate in each section has meant that votes within it have not been of equal value. In 2010, one MP’s vote was worth that of 479 members or 929 trade unionists. Individuals were able to stack up multiple votes across the three different sections of the college through their memberships of trade unions and other affiliated organisations. During the 2010 leadership election, attention focused on specific issues concerning the conduct of the contest. Allowing only their favoured nominee access, some unions effectively excluded other candidates from campaigning amongst their members. The unions distributed the ballots to their members. Some took the opportunity to include endorsements for their nominee in the same packaging as the ballot, albeit in separate envelopes, thus staying within the rules of the contest.
In abolishing the electoral college, Miliband’s proposals resolve these issues. In future, Labour leaders will be elected on the basis of one person, one vote in an electorate made up of individual party members combined with affiliated supporters (trade unionists who have contracted in and explicitly indicated that they wish to participate). Members will not be allowed to sign up as an affiliated supporter for an extra ballot: it really will be one member, one vote. In a significant departure from the 2010 contest, Labour will hold the personal details of the electorate – thus ensuring each candidate has equal access to all voters. Ballot papers will not be distributed by the trade unions but issued centrally by the party. These arrangements will mean that the electorate is likely to be fully informed about individual candidates, that ballots can be sent out in a neutral manner, and that those responsible for the election’s conduct (party officials) will not have a stake in its outcome. Trade union leaderships will, no doubt, declare support for candidates. Such affirmations are unlikely, however, to play the kind of role that they have done in the past given that each levy payer has knowingly opted into a system mediated centrally by the party.
It would be wrong, however, to characterise these proposals as breaking the party’s established link with its affiliated unions. There remain numerous arenas for trade union participation in Labour politics – most obviously through an involvement in discussions over policy formation. In stubbornly defending existing arrangements, senior union figures appear to be curiously unimaginative in developing new strategies of engagement. The electoral college was an extraordinarily inefficient device by which trade unions could shape Labour politics. It gave them the periodic opportunity to influence the election of a leader. But once elected, there was no mechanism by which the successful candidate could be held to account. Arguably, the more support trade unions gave to a Labour leader, the more such individuals would need to distance themselves, once elected, from these affiliates.
A few commentators have suggested that, far from marking a break with organised labour, a future leadership contest might be dominated by individual levy paying trade unionists. The notion is utterly fanciful and without any grounding in reality. Certainly, in 2010 there were 2.7 million levy payers to whom ballots were circulated, alongside around 180,000 party members. However, how many of the 2.7 million will ‘opt in’ to the new arrangements? It remains to be seen. Privately senior trade unionists estimate that it will be under 10 per cent. Trade union attempts to recruit members into Labour, in order to influence parliamentary selections, have been a dismal failure. In 2011, Unite, the largest trade union in the United Kingdom, set itself a target of bringing 5,000 members into the party within a year (it has over one million members affiliated to Labour): twelve months later just 546 had joined.
How many of the new opting-in affiliates will vote in a future leadership election? Turnout is unlikely to be higher amongst supporters than individual party members. In 2010 less than 10 per cent of affiliates voted in contrast to 70 per cent of the membership. Some will already be party members (and only have one vote). The threat in the reform is not that Labour becomes dominated by levy paying affiliates. Rather, the risk is that the party hierarchy is embarrassed when the arrangement fails to generate sufficient enthusiasm and participation rates continue to stagnate.
Nevertheless, by abolishing the electoral college and introducing contracting in, Labour has tackled some of the difficulties that compromised its capacity to present itself as democratic. Ed Miliband has gone well beyond the flawed introduction of one member, one vote by John Smith in 1993 and the largely symbolic abolition of Clause IV by Tony Blair in 1995. Over twenty years after OMOV was first discussed, Labour is finally moving towards a modern and democratic structure.
Richard Jobson is a Teaching Fellow in Contemporary Political History and Mark Wickham-Jones is a Professor of Political Science, both at University of Bristol