We should change the way we elect the Labour Leader

It’s time, I think, for some reflections on Labour Party Conference other than talking about my fringe meeting Blogging for Labour. As I’m now back in Brussels wrestling with the harrowing and appalling subject of child pornography on the internet as well and judging a European journalism prize, now seemed as good as any to put my thoughts on paper.

First and foremost, we must unite behind Ed Miliband.  I say this as a committed David supporter, and I would not be telling the whole truth if I said I wasn’t upset that David didn’t make it.  David is, in my opinion, one of the most able, most intellectually capable and most sincere of our MPs.  He was one of the best Foreign Secretaries this country has ever had with a deep understanding of foreign affairs and the international stage. (Since I am posting this blog before David has made a statement on his future, I won’t say any more at present).

Yet, we all have to move on.  The overriding task now is to fight the coalition and win the general election.  It’s not a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition, it’s a Tory Government. This should be our message.  Those who voted Clegg got Cameron while those who voted Cameron got exactly what it said on the tin.

Having attended almost every Labour Party Conference since 1978, I am far from being one of the new generation. However, I completely agree with Ed that Labour must now look forward. There’s nothing to be gained in harking back to the past, and I for one now hope that all references to the Iraq war are well and truly laid to rest.  Yes, I opposed the war publicly as an MEP. But now, I truly believe it is not only unhelpful but utterly damaging to rake this one over any more.  Both Labour and Great Britain have to move on.

The Conference was more than aware of the awesome nature of the events as they unfolded.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it, a subdued and expectant atmosphere amid the thronging delegates and myriad exhibition stands.

In my conference lifetime, I have been a Party member under seven leaders, including Miliband E – James Callaghan, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Of these, Callaghan and Foot were chosen before the electoral college was introduced and were elected only by MPs.  Kinnock, Smith and Blair faced little serious opposition and Brown was crowned without a contest.  Step up Ed Miliband who won by just over one percent.

It’s been a long 30 years and much has changed.

From the election of the left wing Michael Foot as Labour Leader in 1980 there was a battle royal between the Left, represented initially by Foot but later metamorphosing into the Militant Tendency and other Trotskyite factions (the Hard Left), and the Labour Party’s right wing, ironically during this period led by a number of influential trade unions. The exception among the trade unions was the then largest, the Transport and General Workers’ Union, who held a more left wing position.

Neil Kinnock, himself from the left stable, to his credit moved decisively away from the Foot legacy  as did John Smith his short period as Leader of the Opposition.

Crucially, however, it was not until Tony Blair and New Labour arrived, subsequently winning the 1997 general election, that the Hard Left was seen off as a force to be reckoned with. Although no longer influential, the Left as such never went away.  Moreover, there remained a significant number of Labour Party members who felt New Labour had sold out.

Yet this was nothing compared to the trade unions, who are by and large now to the left of the Party.  The affiliated trade unions, now mainly representing public sector workers, were never really on side with New Labour, and their evolution from right to left is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the 2010 Leadership contest.

So where does this leave us?  I have to say, I have difficulty with a system whereby victory can be gained without either a majority of MEPs and MPs or of local Party members.  The electoral college was, ironically, set up in the 1980s to give the right wing unions power on the basis their vote would marginalise the Hard Left. Since we no longer have a Hard Left, merely a Left, the time has, I believe, come to reform the way the ballot is held.  One member one vote would obviously be more democratic.  Even the Tory Party has OMOV for the two candidates selected by the 1922 Committee.

The new generation have to prove themselves.  What better way than reforming the way our Leader is elected to bring our outdated system into line with today’s Labour Party? To take this bold step would be to send a strong signal that things really had changed and that Labour is continuing its modernising agenda.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “We should change the way we elect the Labour Leader

  1. “First and foremost, we must unite behind Ed Miliband. … Yet…”

    I would take a different tack: it is a condition of party membership that you belong to a trade union. However there are groups of people who are not eligible for TU membership.

    There should be organisations to cover these people, , who should thus have a vote in the TU ‘riding’.

    There is atradition both on left and right of urging a change in rules after an electoral disappointment. I am sorry that Mary is following this tradition, rather than uniting behind Ed in a more constructive manner.

  2. One such organisation might be for Roma and travellers. We may not in this country be so blatant as sarkozy, but we’re bad enough.
    :(

  3. Jonathan

    I can’t tell you how disappointed I am that you write so negatively about the historic and current ‘left’ within our Party.

    David M. could never have said the things that Ed said and to move on from the past. David is so connected with Blair, with Iraq and the failed New Labour agenda, that the Party would have been in a time warp.

    Lets not forget, that those so called ‘union votes’ come from everyday members of the public – our electoral base, not some union baron!

    As an MEP you should know more than most, that to hold onto your seat (and take more) in 2014, all Labour have to do is get out its core vote. If I were an MEP, I would be looking to stregthen our connection with working people, not trying to cut it.

  4. “The affiliated trade unions, now mainly representing public sector workers, were never really on side with New Labour … ”

    praising with faint damnation?

  5. I’m a big fan of proper, open contests before a nomination and I don’t see why there can’t be primaries in public, or at least a series of staggered caucuses, with a conference vote as the final say. MPs and MEPs could effect this by agreeing to give their vote to whoever won a local vote in their party, and local parties could band together into groups to announce their choices by region at different times. I don’t think that there is a cause for making MPs and MEPs publicly declare off their own bat since they’re mostly craven jobseekers.

    Primaries would test candidates and lead to more interesting races. I do think Unions should make their own arrangements, since they provide the money, but do so openly. Oddly enough, banning non-Labour supporters from a vote in the union side (I’m aware that wasn’t completely controlled by Labour) excluded the one ‘test group’ of non-affiliated or swing members of the general public.

  6. Of course, if you had primaries for MP, teachers, lawyers, doctors and people with proper jobs and not those who had been hanging around parties for years could possibly win. Which of course many who’ve been sitting in cold meeting rooms and spending weekends and evenings canvassing would object to, but which would undermine the political-media class that has such a clammy grip on everything.

  7. Mike Homfray

    I think it would be a mistake to remove union voices, simply because union members are certainly no less representative than party members – its a minority sport being part of a political party. Labour and the unions are linked and if union members who pay the political levy have no ability to have their say I don;t think that would be beneficial.

    On Martin’s second point, this is far more to do with the selection procedure and what you need to be selected. Having a normal job makes it very difficult, as does not being based in London unless its your ‘home seat’. It does seem that the army of researchers has a head-start and I don’t necessarily see that as beneficial. Sure, some of them are an asset – and I did vote for Ed and am very pleased that David wasn’t elected as I think that would have been a step backwards. But when they seem to make up the majority of new MP’s that’s another matter

  8. My God, I agree with Mike Homfray about something, and, having just found out that Mary is a History graduate, I feel a little better disposed.

    What is happening? Nurse, nurse…..

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