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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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000) and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.