Guest post: How the UK Labour Party select their leader

Guest post: With Tuesday’s leadership vote and the NZLP’s upcoming organisational review, I thought it would be an interesting idea to look at how our sister parties do things. Dorothy Macedo kindly offered to share her view on how the UK Labour Party select their leader.

The UK Labour Party leadership process reflects the balance of forces in the party. The unions bankroll the party to a great extent, much more so than in New Zealand, so they (along with affiliated socialist societies, eg Fabians) get a third of the electoral college, with a third for the membership and the final third for the Parliamentary Labour Party (MPs, MEPs, Peers). have a rather good run down of the process.

It is a delicate balance; the MPs obviously want someone they have confidence in as a parliamentary performer while the grassroots want someone who best reflects their values. The antipathy of much of the PLP to Ed Miliband is less a reflection on his abilities than the hangover from the Blair era when you were more likely to be selected as a Labour candidate if you were a TV personality or a dinner party guest of the Blairs and their pals than if you had the support of the local party. In some cases, parties were suspended if they looked likely to select the “wrong” candidate.

The unions have been remarkably restrained in their demands – since the vast majority of Blair’s tame millionaires ran a mile, the unions could dictate terms but they choose not to. Most British union leaders are much more interested in preserving their own power base than in Labour Party policy unless it directly affects them. Traditionally the job of liaising with the Labour Party is often given to someone who might otherwise be a nuisance (eg challenge the general secretary) or who is simply not up to any important role inside the union. The big unions expect to have at least one person on the Labour Party NEC and to have the ear of the relevant (shadow) minister when they have concerns to raise. They prefer closed door negotiations to open confrontation. It is a common complaint of union activists that the unions do not use their muscle to pressure the Labour Party into supporting the unions’ democratically agreed policies. When I was on the Unison delegation a few years ago, I asked why we were not supporting an anti-war motion at conference as the union had a clear policy of opposition to the war in Iraq; I was told the motion (being a lengthy composite of motions from several bodies) contained specific references that were not covered by our policy! The truth was that Blair had charmed/leant on the union leadership and as the war did not directly affect their work, they preferred to stay in his good books.

Interestingly enough, at the 2010 leadership contest, the General Secretary used constitutionally provided “emergency powers” to alter the rules so that people who had been a member less than a year were able to vote in this. It was not seen as a controversial move, and over 32,000 people joined the party during the contest.

Anyway I would welcome an opening up of the leadership election as part of a reform of the NZLP’s democratic structures. The exact format would be a matter for discussion, but we always found that giving people a say in these important decisions greatly increased members’ participation. Conversely in the Blair era when all decision-making was centralised, membership and participation levels fell sharply.

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