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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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.