Labour’s Leadership Election: A Problem Foretold

As Labour’s controversial voter registration process closes and ballot papers for the leadership elections go out, it’s time to indulge in a spot of ‘we told you so’, says WILL BROWN.

Despite it being a giant stride in the right direction, major weaknesses have been exposed in Labour’s new electoral system, as reformed by former leader Ed Miliband. Sadly, these weaknesses were not hidden and have not come as a huge surprise. Indeed, the ILP pointed out the flaws in the system when it was announced.

Voting hands LP confThe ILP has been one of the longest standing supporters of the principle of one member one vote. Back in the 1980s the ILP stood out against the prevalent opinion on the left which regarded OMOV as a capitulation to the right wing of the party. This left included the ancestors of various groups which are now supporting Jeremy Corbyn, such as the Campaign Group of MPs.

That old left thought the idea of each individual having a vote was somehow contrary to a self-serving left-wing version of democracy whereby only the initiated and elevated party delegates, MPs and trade union executives had the right to vote on who should be party leader.

The ILP argued that one member one vote was an unchallengeable democratic principle and should be promoted.

However, it was obvious that such a system was open to abuse and undue influence, both from organised groups on the left and right of the party, and more broadly from a hostile media. So we argued that one member one vote should come with a proviso that voters should be required to show some kind of evidence of their commitment to the party – a minimum period of membership before gaining voting rights, for example, or attendance at party meetings.

Given recent attempts to check the veracity of new registered supporters (see below) the question of what evidence might be used remains a current one.

The ILP was unable to win the argument in the party then, although with the decline of trade union membership and the Campaign group, the idea of one member one vote did gradually gain traction.

First, under Kinnock’s leadership in 1988, OMOV was introduced for the constituency section of leadership elections. Then, under John Smith in 1993, it was extended to selection of parliamentary candidates. Finally, under Miliband, and following the lengthy Refounding Labour and Collins review processes, OMOV fully replaced the electoral college for leadership elections, vastly reducing the influence of MPs and trade unions.


However, there were complications. First, the unions have been given the task of converting their political levy-paying members into affiliated members of the party. This new category of member must make a positive choice to support the Labour Party but they pay a much lower fee than ordinary (full) party members.

Secondly, Miliband’s system gives registered party supporters a vote in leadership elections on a par with ordinary members. When this category of registered supporter was introduced as part of the 2011 Refounding Labour project, they were allowed to vote in leadership elections only if numbers exceeded 50,000, and their influence was capped at a low level within the existing electoral college system. The abolition of the electoral college in 2014 removed thst cap.

Before the current leadership election, relatively few registered supporters had signed up, making it a little-noticed aspect of party democracy. All that has changed.

In fact, at the time of Refounding Labour, various ideas were floated about creating a formal role for registered supporters, ranging from full primaries to a section of the electoral college, to more limited voting rights in various party elections.

The ILP welcomed the idea of registered supporters as a way of opening the party and reaching out to a wider constituency. However, we argued strongly against the idea of registered supporters having any voting rights in elections, whether at local or national level. Such a role, we claimed, was incompatible with enhancing the voice of party members, rather it would dilute it.

The move to full OMOV came about as part of the fall-out from the controversy over parliamentary selections in Falkirk in 2013. Miliband launched the Collins Review and, with the endorsement of the NEC and a special conference in March 2014, radically changed the system for leadership elections.

The reforms created a complex version of OMOV that allows equal votes to individuals whether they are full party members, affiliated members originating from trade unions, or registered supporters. In abolishing the electoral college and leaving no cap on the influence of registered supporters, Labour opened a Pandora’s box.

Again, the ILP pointed out the dangers of this system:

‘… full members may see their voice challenged, some think drowned out, by individuals who make a far more limited commitment to the party, financially or organisationally. To say that all will be treated fairly and equally …is disingenuous in a situation where members pay over 10 times the amount in membership fees than people joining via the two other categories. There is a danger too that political opponents could use the registered supporter section to influence party elections…’

As the numbers in both new categories have escalated, many joining in support of Corbyn’s campaign, there has been growing resentment among party members and gleeful scaremongering by the media. Labour has hurriedly scrambled to address the issue, instituting a system of checking new registered supporters and affiliated members to weed out those who have been recent opponents of Labour. These have included Green Party candidates, members of some left-wing parties and groups, as well as some Tories.

Such a system of checking can ever only be a stop-gap. It is very difficult, for instance, to distinguish between someone who is a committed supporter of a group opposed to Labour seeking to influence the election and someone who has been involved in other parties or groups but now wants to genuinely re-engage with the Labour Party. Doing so at speed (the gap between registrations closing and ballot papers going out is just two days), and with precious little reliable information, is even more difficult.

Ironically – it has hardly happened in the way envisaged – the upsurge in full membership, and the influx of affiliated members and registered supporters, has gone some way to realising Peter Hain’s hope at the time of Refounding Labour of creating ‘an entirely new party for an entirely new era’.

Whoever wins Labour’s leadership contest, the deficiencies of the current voting arrangements will need to be addressed and some serious attention paid to how you create an open and properly democratic party.



  1. Harry Barnes
    18 August 2015

    Ernie: Although none of the Labour leadership candidates enthuse me, their proposals and commitments can be found by following the links here:

  2. Ernie Jacques
    17 August 2015

    Blair, Brown, David Miliband and uncle Tom Cobley & all within the Labour establishment do like democracy (One Member, One Vote) with the proviso the members do as they’re told and vote for an approved (right) candidates. But woe betides any dissident / lefty who has the temerity to challenge prevailing conventions or break their self-serving (democratic) rules.

    The leadership election, assumed to be a shoo-in for the status-quo (Bugins-turn) brigade, has not gone to plan and has instead turned into a right-wing nightmare with some MPs calling for the election to be suspended and threatening political Armageddon. So instead of celebrating the influx of thousands of new members, it’s panic stations writ-large and a re-run of the name calling and negativity of the Scottish referendum campaign. And we all know how that ended for Labour, north of the border, don’t we Gordon?

    Because the troublesome plebs appear not to be on-message, the loveable Lord Mandelson is said to have attempted to torpedo the ballot by asking the three establishment candidates to stand down. But just like his famed trickle down economic theory, it didn’t work when Andy, Yvette and Liz refused to play ball.

    Whoever eventually wins the election would it be naive to expect that a whole raft of Labour notables will be for the high jump for breaking Labour Party rules which forbid nastiness and the disparaging of other contenders?
    Elections for Leader and Deputy Leader 2015
    3. No candidates or persons acting on behalf of a candidate will use their own material, access to publicity or any media outlets to disparage or brief against any other candidate.
    But perhaps not! To this old cynic, Labour Party democracy reminds me of a verse in the Lewis Carroll poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter”

    “The time has come,” the Walrus said,
    “To talk of many things:
    Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
    Of cabbages—and kings—
    And why the sea is boiling hot—
    And whether pigs have wings.”

  3. […] ILP is Independent Labour Publications. Will Brown discusses issues in the current Labour leadership contest at… […]

  4. Will
    13 August 2015

    In case you haven’t seen, the news from Labour regarding the close of registration figures is as follows:

    Full Labour members: 299,755
    Registered supporters: 121,295
    Affiliated members (TUs): 189,703
    Total electorate: 610,753

    That breaks down percentage-wise as:
    Full members: 49.1%
    Registered Supporters: 19.8%
    Affiliated members (TUs): 31.1%

    Depending of course on the verification process…


  5. Harry Barnes
    12 August 2015

    This was my own line against the rule changes affecting the Labour leadership and other contests –

    It provides links to two earlier items on the same subject. The problem now is that we can’t just ditch the adopted procedures because some people (who tended to support the changes at the time) don’t now like one of the possible outcomes. To stop the ballot papers being sent out on Friday, massively hard evidence would need to be provided of extensive abuse, which the Labour Party machine has been unable to handle. Although given how it made a mess of running the general election, that just might be the case! Except that people who can’t run things correctly normally can’t tell us what their defects are.

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