Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 June 2007

At least it’s nearly over. Labour’s deputy leadership contest has been even more uneventful than I expected when I wrote about it last month. It hasn’t set off a serious debate about the future of British social democracy inside the Labour Party — let alone among the voters as a whole. In fact, it has barely engaged even my most political friends. I don’t remember a single discussion of it lasting more than two minutes that went beyond speculation about who will win.

Which of course is the only interesting thing about it, not least because it may well highlight the absurdities of the electoral college Labour uses for leadership and deputy leadership elections.

Labour headquarters and lazy political commentators always describe the party’s means of choosing its leaders as “one member, one vote”, but it’s a bit more complex than that. Every member does have a vote. But, because the electorate is divided into a three-section electoral college, each section with one-third of the total vote, some members have more than one vote because they belong to more than one section. And, more important, the weight of your vote depends on what sort of member you are.

In the first section are Labour MPs and MEPs; in the second individual Labour Party members; and in the third members of affiliated organisations (mainly trade unions). So, because there are 371 MPs and MEPs, 180,000 ordinary members and a little more than 3 million members of affiliated organisations, the vote of each MP and MEP is worth nearly the same as 485 ordinary members’ votes and more than 8,000 affiliated trade unionists’ votes. (These figures are based on the assumption that everyone entitled to vote does so, which of course isn’t so, but you get the picture.)

I’ll accept that this system, adopted in 1993, is less of a dog’s breakfast than the electoral college that preceded it, introduced in 1981. In that electoral college, the unions had 40 per cent of votes, MPs 30 per cent and constituency Labour parties 30 per cent — and neither the unions nor the CLPs were under any compulsion to ballot their members before casting block votes at Labour conference. At least the current electoral college involves the counting of individual votes rather than an aggregation of decisions taken by various committees behind closed doors.

The current system is a dog’s breakfast all the same, however. The only time it has been used before this deputy leadership election was in 1994, when Tony Blair swept to victory in the leadership election and John Prescott won the deputy leadership, with both securing more than 50 per cent of first-preference votes in each of the three sections of the college. But this sort of clear, unequivocal result is by no means guaranteed. The electoral college could also produce a winner who has — say — little support among MPs but strong support among individual members and trade unionists. And in a six-candidate contest the winner could be the fourth on first preferences who picks up a large proportion of second preferences. And so on.

I’m not saying that this weekend will see a messy result, just that it might. And if it does … look forward to 18 months of Labour doing what it used to do best: arguing about its leadership election procedures. I don’t really want to go there, but if pushed I’d back the leader being elected by MPs alone, with the deputy elected by ordinary members alone — and mandatory annual parliamentary selections. (Just kidding about the last one.)


OK, it’s last week’s news, but I’d like to add my tuppence-worth to the controversy over Tony Blair’s assault on the “feral beasts” of the media last week. Having been at the receiving end of the Blairite spin machine during the 1990s, I’m not inclined to sympathy with the man or his way of operating. It was cowardly of him to pick on the poor old Independent and the BBC as his only examples of how the media have dropped the habit of straight reporting: he should at least have fingered the Mail. And he should have made it clear that Rupert Murdoch’s policy of editorial support in return for relaxed media regulation (and no euro) is an outrageous affront to democracy.

But Blair has got a point. The arrogance, cynicism, pack mentality, superficiality, sensationalism and sheer ignorance of much British media coverage of politics are not new, but their ubiquity is. Twenty years ago you could avoid them by shunning the popular national press, local radio and William Rees-Mogg: if you stuck to the qualities, the weeklies, the BBC and ITN you could get your politics straight and in depth. No longer. There is plenty of good political journalism out there, but the smart-arsed, the asinine and the hysterical now crop up pretty much everywhere — and far too much goes unreported. As to why this is so — well, that’s another column.

Footnotes: Gordon Brown is brilliant on Newsnight here. And Hitchens, C does us all proud on Question Time here. Maybe there’s some hope after all.

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