Political Commentary: Labour's ballot plan looks suspiciously like a fix

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NEVER neglect procedure. Lady Thatcher was brought down by it - by the want of a fatal four votes - rather than by Mr Michael Heseltine, Lord Howe or even Mr Tristan Garel-Jones. The Conservatives have been entangled in it only since 1964. Even today they do not take easily to rules, which are not, somehow, of the party's culture. The salesmen, representatives and consultants who constitute the bulk of Tory MPs, and who (one might have thought) would be familiar with pocket calculators, experience difficulties trying to perform the multiplication and division necessary for electing a leader.

The Labour Party, by contrast, is built around procedure. It lives by its rules. Its members take - or used to take - them in with their two-times-table. When an elderly trade unionist appears on television to say 'In regards to that matter, I must consult my executive', he may arouse mirth around stripped-pine dinner tables. But he is trying to behave properly, to do the right thing. Such people are becoming rarer. Even so, a young person ambitious of advancement in the People's Party would still be better advised to give his days and nights to Citrine's ABC of Chairmanship rather than to, say, Crosland's Future of Socialism.

The silver thread running through the party's fabric is the exhaustive ballot. If there is one post to be filled, and more than two candidates to fill it, this method has always been considered the most democratic. If a candidate obtains more than half the votes on the first ballot, he is elected. If no candidate achieves this, the one at the bottom of the poll drops out. If the combined votes of the two or more candidates at the bottom are fewer than those of the candidate immediately above them, they drop out likewise. Candidates may drop out voluntarily. So the process goes on, with new ballots being held, until one of them obtains an absolute majority.

In 1976, when a successor to Harold Wilson had to be chosen, Michael Foot led James Callaghan in the first ballot. The other candidates were, in order of votes, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Denis Healey and Anthony Crosland. Healey stayed in the contest but Jenkins and Benn dropped out of their own accord. In the second ballot, Callaghan narrowly led Foot, with Healey polling enough votes to deprive Jim of an absolute majority. The election had to go to a third ballot before he conclusively defeated Foot.

Four years later, after Callaghan had resigned, Healey was in front of Foot on the first ballot. The two bottom candidates, John Silkin and Peter Shore, withdrew. Between them they had received fewer votes than Foot who, in the second ballot, defeated Healey.

These elections were held under the old system. The electorate was the parliamentary party. Some people curiously believe that Mr Foot was the first leader to be elected by the new electoral college. Not so. The first leader to be chosen in this way was Mr Neil Kinnock in 1983. There were nevertheless four candidates. The exhaustive ballot was still in place. But it was not necessary to use it. For in the first ballot Mr Kinnock obtained 71 per cent of the somewhat abstract electorate.

Today the electorate is less wraithlike. It consists - or is meant to consist - of real people casting real votes. But they are still evaluated as proportions. The exhaustive ballot is specifically maintained in the new rules: 'The votes proportioned shall be totalled, and the candidate receiving more than half of the votes so apportioned shall be declared elected. If no candidate reaches this total on the first ballot, further ballots shall be held on an elimination basis.' What could be clearer than that?

On Wednesday, however, the National Executive Committee is reportedly to decree that the election for leader shall be held, not under the exhaustive ballot, but under what the Executive's spokesman on these matters, Mr John Evans, together with my colleagues on other papers (who should know better), call the single transferable vote. What they are talking about is not STV but the alternative vote. STV is used in multi-member constituencies and depends on the calculation of what is known as the electoral quota. There are some people who believe in it passionately. But then, there are people who believe with scarcely less passion in transubstantiation, Manchester United or Elizabeth David. People will believe in all kinds of things. No matter. STV is not what the Executive has in mind.

Under AV, several candidates are numbered 1, 2, 3 and so on to fill one vacancy. The second (and, if necessary, further) preferences of the bottom candidates are redistributed until one obtains an absolute majority. The Executive claims that this method is necessary because, under the new system - with trade unionists, party members and MPs all being polled separately - additional ballots would exhaust the workers' pennies. More than this: owing to the possible length of the procedure, the party would look foolish.

There are several counter-

arguments to these. Mrs Margaret Beckett remains leader until a successor to John Smith is chosen. He was not expected to die when he did: nevertheless the rules clearly contemplate a vacancy. They leave it to the Executive to decide when the ballot is to be held, whether at the conference or at some other time.

Indeed, the Executive is also reported to be thinking of not holding a special conference at all, again on grounds of expense. There is nothing legally objectionable in that, for the rules specify a ballot merely. But they also clearly lay down the means whereby that ballot is to be conducted.

What the Executive now proposes is not only unlawful. It also looks as if it is intended to deprive the party of a choice from Mr Tony Blair, Mr Gordon Brown and Mr Robin Cook and to force one of these alone to fight Mr John Prescott. Ideally, indeed - for elections are expensive, troublesome and divisive - the parliamentary party (the sole nominating body) would produce only one candidate. What is proposed looks suspiciously like a fix designed to favour Mr Blair.

For myself, I would always give a wide berth to that gothic madhouse in the Strand which goes by the name of the Royal Courts of Justice. However, any member of the party (which thank the Lord I'm not, Sir) could go to the High Court to seek an injunction restraining the Executive from proceeding with an election under the alternative vote. Lord Denning said in a 1978 case that the 'High Command is the NEC - subject of course to the party conference'. Mr Justice Megarry said in a 1970 case that 'the constitution of the Labour Party confers upon the NEC power to enforce the constitution, standing orders and rules of the party, and to take any action it deems necessary for that purpose'. Just so. It is, in the hallowed phrase, the custodian of conference decisions. In default of a special conference, it should not be permitted to change rules which have been approved by a previous conference. It is not and cannot be allowed to be an absolute power.