The Labour leadership contest – One member, how many votes?

I’m not renowned for my mathematical ability, or rather I am but not in a good way – an admittedly alarming confession from a government Excise officer.  I get there eventually you understand, it’s just that you wouldn’t have employed me on any of the trajectory calculations for the Apollo-One mission.  Thankfully, the level of ability required to understand the voting entitlement adopted by Labour in order to appoint itself a new leader isn’t quite so complex; except, that is, for me.

There were 150,000 Labour party members during the May 2010 General Election.  Following the result, which led to the forming of the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition government, this number went up by an astonishing 32,000.

This of course means that there are presently 182,000 Labour party members (even I can get that sum right). And, as a loyal cheer-leader of the democratic process, my logic dictates that all you have to do now is ballot your membership, get someone other than me to tally up the votes for each candidate and then announce the result to an expectant party – yes?  Fat chance.

For one thing I discovered that of the 182,000 members, 269 are Labour MP’s or MEP’s (256 + 13) who command a third of the vote.  Or, to put it another way, a third of the overall vote is presently allocated to 0.14% of the Labour Party membership.   That’s not accurate in absolute terms, because each MP/MEP can vote at least twice.  This is because they are members both of the Parliamentary Labour Party, (or European Parliamentary Labour Party), and the main Labour party that I’m also a member of.

So they get 2 votes in the race for the leadership.  One of these is equal in all respects to my own vote while the other in all respects overwhelms my own; in much the same way that a falling oak tree would overwhelm me should I be standing beneath it upon impact.

Then there are the Labour Party members.  They are also allocated one third of the overall vote, even though they presently outnumber the MP’s by a whopping 677 to 1.

So, do you see where I’m coming from here?  My point is proven; my maths has let me down again because none of what I’ve typed logically adds up, does it?  How could such an outrageous discrepancy in relation to voting entitlement amongst 2 different groups within the same party be justifiable?

I wish I could say that this was the end of the matter.  I’d really like to sit down, put my feet up and reach for a glass of wine having satisfied myself with the entire process while managing to avoid falling pieces of woodland in the process.  Alas, no.

I also learn that trade unions and socialist societies affiliated to the Labour Party are themselves allocated a third of the overall vote.  To you and me that means 4.6 million votes.  Well, not quite.  A word of caution here; and that word is potentially. My limited research suggests that only those union members who pay a political levy to the Labour Party get to vote but I have no idea what percentage of that 4.6 million figure actually pay this.   And this is great news for me in one respect – it negates the necessity for me to attempt another calculation.

I discover that union and socialist society members pay a nominal fee to achieve affiliated status within the Labour Party and can vote on certain matters including who leads us.

I can just about handle this revelation but am required to take a sharp intake of breath while simultaneously leaning against the nearest oak tree for support.  After all, I’ve just learned that the Labour Party, that I’d understood to have a manageable membership of 182,000, has suddenly exploded into a colossal, unruly beast with a potential leadership electorate of some 4.8 million people.

I checked the TUC website to confirm the affiliated union membership numbers to be certain that I wasn’t imagining the figure.  I didn’t do similar, exploratory work on socialist societies except that I learned that the Fabians have the largest membership of these, approximately 7,000.

Suddenly, the penny dropped and I remembered what Diane Abbott had said but that I had not fully grasped at the time, “Labour is not just a party, it’s a Movement”.  We love you, Diane.

Whereas before I was looking at a ratio of 1 MP vote equating to 677 party member votes, It’s now potentially looking more like 1 MP vote equating to 23,791 of the combined Labour party member and affiliated member votes; with MP’s now representing 0.0042% of the overall leadership electorate.

Then I learn of an aspect to all of this that has me on the ropes.  If you are a full party member; a member of one of the affiliated unions; as well as a member of any number of the socialist societies affiliated to the party, you are entitled to cast a vote in the leadership contest for each membership that you hold simply by virtue of the fact. Are you taking this in there at the back?  You, yes – you!  Stay with me because we’re almost done.

Now, I can understand the logic behind having a third of the vote attributed to MP’s.  They have to work with the new leader in Parliament and if the Parliamentary Labour Party is going to be a confident, focused and motivated force that is driven by the need to defeat the coalition government and return to power, it makes sense to me that it must have trust in, and support for, the Labour leader.  One of the ways to ensure this is to provide our MPs with a significant voice to determine who that leader should be.

But it is in relation to a third of the vote being allocated to the unions and socialist societies, and specifically this ability to have multiple votes by being members of more than one of these, that I personally have great difficulty accepting.

The unions are an intrinsic part of the Labour party and its history; this is simply a matter of fact.  The Labour Party was borne out of the trade unions.  Many of their rank-and-file form the fundamental core of our grassroots support as well as membership, and historically this has always been the case. The unions also provide much needed funds for the labour party to fight elections with as well as provide ideas for the party to consider in relation to a whole host of issues from working hours and general working conditions to fair levels of pay and the rights of employees in the workplace.  Socialist societies bring much needed intellectual debate leading to possible policy adoption as well as a number of election candidates.

But I struggle to accept individuals having more than one vote in any election.  Instinctively this doesn’t feel right or democratic.  In my mind there can be only one vote per person and no more.  I’d keep the MP’s right to exercise a third of the overall vote for the reasons given above, but the remaining two-thirds I’d allocate entirely to Labour Party members.

If you’re in a union or socialist society join the Labour party as a full member and exercise your right to vote for the leader like the rest of us, instead of it being the wrong way round.  If the party has to feel your wrath in terms of financial support or in other ways as a consequence then so be it, do you support the Labour party and its values or do you not?

So, what have I missed here?  Explain to me where I’m going wrong.  I’m looking at a system for the first time and questioning the logic that created it as well as trying to determine whether the reasons that formed the logic remain valid or relevant today and whether there remains an argument for maintaining the present system. And I am of course open to persuasion, you may just add a seed of doubt in my mind or, to put it another way, from small acorns……


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