The myth of the trade union "block vote"

The block vote was abolished for Labour leadership elections 20 years ago. So why do David Cameron and the conservative press claim it still exists?

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In their attempt to frame Ed Miliband as a leader in hock to the "union barons" (who, unlike real barons, have actually been elected), the Conservatives and the right-wing press consistently refer to him as owing his position to the "union block vote". 

At a recent PMQs, David Cameron declared: "They own you lock, stock and block vote." The Conservative press office claimed yesterday that Len McCluskey "has a block-vote on policies, candidates, and picking the leader". The Daily Mail's Andrew Pierce wrote on Friday that Miliband "owes his unexpected election as leader to the union block vote". A Telegraph editorial states today that he "owes his position to the union block vote". 

What all either don't know or won't say is that the union block vote was abolished 20 years ago by John Smith. The then Labour leader replaced a system under which general secretaries wielded millions of votes on their members' behalf with one in which individual trade unionists made their own choice (one-member-one-vote or OMOV). Miliband was not elected by a handful of union heads but by thousands of ordinary affiliate members, including 47,439 from Unite, 18,128 from the GMB and 9,652 from Unison. While David Miliband won the MPs' and party members' sections, Ed's lead in the third part of the electoral college means that, under a pure OMOV system (with MPs' weighted equally), he would have won by far more (the final result would have been 54.4% to 45.6%, rather than 50.65% to 49.35%). 

It's true that Miliband was endorsed by the heads of the three largest unions (Unite, the GMB and Unison) but this hardly obliged their members to vote for him. Indeed, 21,778 Unite members, 9,746 from the GMB and 6,665 from Unison supported David. Are we really to regard the others as sheep?

It's also true that the union block vote lives on at the party conference (where the vote is split 50:50 between union delegates and CLPs), at the National Policy Forum and in elections for party treasurer (as John Prescott learned to his cost). But this isn't what Cameron and others have in mind when they assail the system that gave Miliband victory. 

Miliband is rightly addressing the undemocratic anachronism of the opt-out system and replacing it with one under which union members are required to explicitly choose whether they affiliate themselves to the party. But while doing so, he and others shouldn't hesitate to remind Westminster and Fleet Street that it was those same members who elected him - and that is a source of strength. 

Ed Miliband addresses TUC members at the end of a march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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