Should the public have a vote in Labour leadership elections?

Allowing “registered supporters” to vote would create a disincentive to membership.

It might seem an odd time for Ed Miliband to reform the Labour leadership voting system. After all, if things go to plan, the party won't need to hold another election for many years. But the case for reform is undeniable.

Labour is now the only one of the three main parties that does not use a one-member-one-vote system (Omov) to elect its leader. As a result, some people's votes are worth significantly more than others. Under the electoral college system, the vote of one MP is worth the votes of about 608 party members and 12,195 affiliated members.

Miliband hasn't embraced Omov, but his proposed reforms are, if anything, more radical. A new party document, Refounding Labour: a Party for a New Generation, written by Peter Hain, revives the idea of "registered supporters" – non-party members who would be given a vote at conference and in leadership elections.

The implications are significant. Were "registered supporters" inserted directly into the electoral college, the MPs, affiliated trade unions and party members, who each enjoy one-third of the vote, would be left with a quarter each. The logic is clear: in a less tribal age, Labour needs to find new ways to reach out.

But the reform raises at least as many questions as answers. For a start, it creates a disincentive to party membership. One of the few reasons people still join political parties is to have some say (however small) over the leadership. Indeed, more than 30,000 people joined Labour during last summer's contest. Why should non-levy-paying supporters enjoy the same rights as those who pay £41 a year?

Such a system would also be open to manipulation by political opponents. The supporters of the ill-fated "Conservatives for Balls" movement, for instance, would have leapt at the chance to vote.

It would not be surprising if existing members were opposed to the change. A LabourList survey published in February found that just 4.5 per cent of readers wanted this reform, with 55.8 per cent in favour of Omov. One suspects that unless the reforms are coupled with new rights for members, Miliband might find himself on the wrong side on the debate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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