The problem with Miliband's reforms

Allowing "registered supporters" to vote in leadership elections creates a disincentive to membershi

Details of Ed Miliband's plan to reform Labour's voting system are beginning to emerge. As expected, non-party members, or "registered supporters", will be given a say in future leadership elections. Their votes will be cast within the affiliated organisations section, diluting the influence of the trade unions. In a long overdue reform, Miliband will also ban multiple voting, meaning that those who are members of several unions and affiliated socialist societies (an eclectic bunch that includes the Fabian Society, the Jewish Labour movement, the Christian Socialist Movement, Scientists for Labour and the Labour Animal Welfare Society; you can see a full list here) will no longer enjoy as many as 33 votes.

But, disappointingly, he will stop short of introducing a full one member, one vote system [OMOV]. As I've explained before, the fact that each part of the Labour selectorate (party members, MPs and MEPs, and affiliated organisations) enjoys a third of the vote, means that the vote of one MP is worth proportionally more than those of hundreds of regular party members and thousands of affiliated members (of whom there are an estimated 3.5 million). For instance, the vote of one MP is worth the votes of nearly 608 party members and 12,915 affiliated members, while the vote of one party member is worth the votes of 21 affiliated members. Labour is still the only one of the three main parties not to use a OMOV system for the election of its leader.

As for the introduction of "registered supporters", the reform creates at least as many problems as it solves. 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. One thinks of the supporters of the ill-fated "Conservatives for Balls" movement, for instance. Unsurprisingly, existing members are opposed to the reform. 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 at odds with his party.

The proposals will be discussed at an NEC meeting, before going through party conference next week.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.