Johnson fires another warning shot at Miliband

Shadow chancellor calls for major reform of the Labour leadership voting system.

Having elected Ed Miliband as leader less than two months ago, now may seem an odd time for Labour to re-open the debate over its arcane voting system. But that's what the increasingly outspoken Alan Johnson has done. He tells the Times (£): "I would like to see a full one-member one-vote system for leadership contests. At the moment it can be one-member four votes and that's wrong."

Had Johnson's man won (he was a key supporter of David Miliband), one suspects that he may not be so preoccupied with the rule book. But, regardless of his political motives, he makes a convincing argument. As I've pointed out before, the party's tripartite electoral college (divided between MPs/MEPs, party members, and affiliated trade unions and socialist societies) means that some votes are worth significantly more than others. The vote of one MP is worth the votes of 608 party members and 12,915 affiliated members. The vote of one party member is worth the votes of 21 affiliated members. The electoral college system puts Labour out of step with the Tories and the Lib Dems, both of whom elect leaders using a one-member-one-vote system. It would be a mistake for Labour to adopt this system in its purest form; it is both just and necessary for affiliated trade unions, as the founders of the party, to have a say over the leadership. But the extraordinary power held by the PLP can no longer be justified.

There's also no reason to think that Miliband wouldn't be sympathetic to reform. Liam Byrne, who is overseeing Labour's policy review, says that he now expects the party's leadership rules to be "on the table" in discussions. But what's troubling for Labour's leader is that some of those calling for the system to be reformed are, in effect, declaring his election illegitimate. Simmering resentment at the fact that Miliband wasn't the choice of party members and MPs has burst into the open. Alan Milburn and Margaret Hodge both call for the party to deprieve the unions of a say in the leadership election, without whom, of course, Miliband would not have won. Meanwhile, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke issue some of the strongest criticisms we've heard of the Labour leader.

"The problem for Ed is that he got dipped in the Gordon paint pot," says Blunkett. Clarke comments: "Ed Miliband is back to the comfort zone. I don't think he's 'Red Ed' particularly but he hasn't so far shown that he's into challenge." Of the above, Clarke and Milburn are, of course, no longer MPs. But the fear for Team Miliband is that they speak for a significant Blairite constituency in the party. As Dan Hodges reports in this week's magazine (out today), sections of the party remain in a state of unease and unrest following Miliband's repudiation of New Labour.

One shouldn't exaggerate the dissent we're beginning to hear. After all, by historical standards, the Labour Party remains remarkably united. But it looks like Miliband will have some firefighting to do when he returns to Westminster.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.