Political Commentary: Labour's leadership contest is not quite the ticket

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THE RESPONSE to Mrs Margaret Beckett's announcement that she is to throw open the deputy leadership reminds me of something Talleyrand, the French Foreign Minister in those days, said at the Congress of Vienna. Someone from another national delegation suddenly died. 'I wonder,' Talleyrand mused, 'what he can have meant by that?'

Likewise with Mrs Beckett. What's she up to, what's she after, what's her game, eh? One explanation is that she wishes to behave decently - to give the party the chance to begin anew, make a fresh start, turn over a new leaf, that sort of thing. If it wants a dream ticket of Mr Tony Blair and Mr John Prescott, or whoever it may be, that is what it shall have.

I here suggest we get rid of that silly phrase 'dream ticket'. It was imported from the United States. There, as applied to the presidential and vice-presidential candidates considered as a combination, it made a certain sense. The one would appeal to voters in the north, the other to those in the south; the one to whites, the other to blacks; and so forth. But in United Kingdom elections such a calculation is meaningless.

With the greatest respect to Mr Roy Hattersley (who is now, I am told, earning pounds 100,000 a year from the Daily Mail, and good luck to him), no one was going to vote Labour in 1987 or 1992 because he was deputy leader. Hardly anyone outside Westminster knew what he was in any case. It is, and always has been, a party rather than a national position, though it is wrong to assert, as some have, that it has been held by insignificant politicians. Herbert Morrison, Jim Griffiths, Aneurin Bevan, George Brown, Roy Jenkins, Michael Foot (the sole deputy apart from C R Attlee to become leader) and Denis Healey were all considerable figures.

In the past I have not always been kind to Mrs Beckett. She seemed to me to be one of those Labour politicians - for she was by no means alone - who made the Vicar of Bray look a model of consistent principle. But since Mr John Smith's death she has not spoken a word out of place or put a foot wrong. People have noticed this. Mr Ken Livingstone has noticed it. He wants her to return to her old allegiance (for she used to repose somewhere to the left of Mr Tony Benn). He would like her, rather than Mr Prescott or Mr Robin Cook, to bear the standard of socialism.

Mrs Beckett is much too sensible for her head to be turned by this kind of estimate. But it is made by others besides Mr Livingstone. She wants the chance to contest the leadership if matters look promising enough on 10 June, when nominations open. To do this she must resign the deputy leadership, though she can contest both posts, as Mr Hattersley did in 1983 and Mr Bryan Gould in 1992.

There is nothing wrong with this. It is exactly as it should be, though she takes the risk of ending up in neither position. What follows is a criticism of the National Executive Committee rather than of Mrs Beckett.

I discussed last week the Executive's unlawful decision to substitute the alternative vote for the exhaustive ballot. In the new rules they call it, perfectly allowably, 'preference voting on a single ballot paper'. The BBC and most of the broadsheets continue to refer to the 'single transferable vote'. Ah, well. As Lady Bracknell says, ignorance is a delicate plant. Single transferable, alternative or preferential vote - whatever we choose to call it - the Executive have breached the party's rules and lay themselves open to an action for an injunction.

They could have averted this danger by calling a special conference at which not only would the new leader be ceremoniously proclaimed but the new procedure whereby he or she had been elected would be retrospectively validated. The prospect of such a validation would stay the hand of the High Court in the period between now and then. But the Executive have not chosen to propose this course. Instead there is to be a ballot merely, whose result will be announced at a 'special meeting' of representatives from each section of the electoral college on 21 July.

Apart from the validation argument which I raise above, there is no requirement to have a special conference when the party is filling a vacancy. This is what it is doing after the death of Mr Smith. The old rules - I call them the old rules, though they were agreed as recently as October 1993 - lay down that a vacancy can be filled by ballot either at the annual conference or at some other time to be decided by the Executive. This applies to both the leadership and the deputy leadership. However, a challenge for either post can be mounted only at the annual conference.

This is not the only difference between a ballot following a vacancy and one following a challenge. To contest a vacancy, 12.5 per cent or 34 members of the parliamentary party must nominate. To mount a challenge, however, the figure rises to 20 per cent or 54. The respective requirements, laid down in the 1993 rules, apply equally to ballots for leader and deputy leader.

Today Mrs Beckett is not being challenged by anybody. As I understand her position, she announced last Wednesday that, while remaining deputy leader until the ballot, she intended to resign so that her post might be contested. The precise moment of her departure might be a matter for learned argument. But there seems no reasonable doubt that Mrs Beckett is resigning - in other words, creating a vacancy. Indeed, if she were not so doing, the ballot could not be held separately from the annual conference.

In these circumstances, the old rules clearly specify that the number of nominations shall be the same as for the leadership: 12.5 per cent or 34. But the collection of prize boobies that go under the name of the National Executive Committee have now laid - or tried to lay - down that the proportion shall be 20 per cent or 54.

For the more serious illegality - the substitution of the alternative vote for the exhaustive ballot - there were plausible arguments of convenience, to do with the expense of the operation and the length of time it would take. For the illegality to which I draw attention this week there are no arguments whatever. Its only consequence is to make it more difficult for anyone to compete against Mrs Beckett for the post which she has relinquished voluntarily, so creating a vacancy.

It is ofen said of persons thought to be notably incompetent that they could not run a whelk stall. It has always seemed to me that organising such an enterprise would present difficulties, involving as it would a perishable stock, supplies dependent on marine conditions, unstable demand. I can do a few things in addition to writing a political column. But I should certainly never attempt to run a whelk stall. Nor would I expect the Executive, individually or collectively, to be much good at it either. Their level of incompetence is quite different. I would not trust them to order a hot cooked supper for four from a Chinese takeaway.