25 April 2007

The Labour Party Leader

One of the key campaigns of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in the 1970s was for the constituent units of the Labour Party (constituencies, trades unions and MPs) rather than the Parliamentary Party to elect the leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party. In the thirteen years from 1981 to 1994, the electoral college was used five times: 1981 Healey (as deputy leader against Benn), 1983 Kinnock, 1987 Kinnock, 1992 Smith and 1994 Blair. In the thirteen years since 1994 there have been no elections. In 2007, if Brown gets his way, he will be crowned without opposition from either a Blair acolyte or the hapless John McDonnell from the left.

Of course every institution of the Labour Party (Conference, NEC) has been de-democratised marginalised or both, so an election per se would assume significance, which is precisely why Brown is out to scupper it.

Vladimir Derer and his colleagues from the CLPD intended the electoral college as a means of empowering the rank and file, but instead the new system has had two negative effects. First, following the 1987 Benn/Heffer challenge to Kinnock, the rules were tightened to require 12,5% of Labour MPs to nominate a candidate rather than the previous five percent; thus without a large-scale coordinated rebellion among Labour MPs an election is impossible. Secondly, the non-regular use of the electoral college means that a leadership election would hit the Labour Party like an earthquake, destabilising Labour whether in opposition or in government. Thus, in practice, the effect of the electoral college system has been the opposite of what was intended; it has led to the strengthening of the leader. It was easier for the Tories to remove Thatcher than for Labour MPs to kick out Blair.

I would suggest three reforms, which would be required by law. First, the positions of leader of Party, leader of the Parliamentary Party and the post of Prime Minister (or prime minister designate) should be separated. Second there should be regular mandated elections for all three positions. Third, there should be time limitations on holding these offices. We don’t want a cult of personality of Blair, Brown, Cameron or anybody else.


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