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29 March 2011

Should the public have a vote in Labour leadership elections?

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

By George Eaton

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.

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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.