Starmer’s return to an electoral college voting system won’t solve Labour’s fundamental problem

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Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn - BEN STANSALL /AFP
Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn - BEN STANSALL /AFP

Given that the electoral college was, from its inception, a PR disaster for the Labour Party, it’s difficult to understand why Keir Starmer reportedly wants its resurrection as a way of electing future leaders.

Difficult, but not impossible.

First, a little Labour history. Technically, the Parliamentary Labour Party – that is, its MPs and peers – was a member of a separate, almost entirely autonomous party from that of which local volunteers were members. Which is why for many years the leader (or, more accurately, chairman) of the PLP was elected by, and solely accountable to, MPs.

The hard Left of the party, led by Tony Benn and enabled by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (one of those outfits whose true intentions could only be understood by reversing the meaning of its chosen title) decided that in order to achieve true socialism in the party and in the country, the Labour leader (and, they hoped, prime minister) must be accountable to the whole party – members and trade unions – and not just the elite in Parliament.

The first iteration of the electoral college was a disaster. At a time when the party had already forfeited much of the public’s trust because of militant trade unionism during Labour’s last few months in power, a series of missteps by the movement’s leadership resulted in a 40-30-30 split, with 40 per cent of the votes in any future leadership election being wielded by the unions and 30 per cent each for ordinary members and the embattled MPs.

What made this untidy compromise even less attractive was that individual members of trade unions and the party weren’t enfranchised: the barons could cast their millions of votes for one candidate or another without reference to their own members, while the constituency Labour Party section was decided by mostly unrepresentative general committees.

All of this was revised in due course so that by the time Ed Miliband was craving his “Clause IV moment”, with a determination to scrap the college and replace it with one member, one vote (OMOV), individual members as well as trade unionists had a vote in their own right in leadership elections. Also, the sections had been equalised so that each carried precisely a third of the vote.

So much for history.

The reason Starmer wants to return to the electoral college is self-evident. The existing system introduced by Ed Miliband is blamed for ushering in the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who would have stood no chance under the previous system where MPs had a crucial deciding vote.

But this argument misses a key fact. OMOV would have presented no problem if two blatant unforced errors had been avoided. For reasons best known to himself, Miliband’s rules allowed for “registered” supporters to sign up in the first weeks of a leadership contest. Once Corbyn found his way onto the ballot, this meant every unwashed Trot, Marxist and eco-nut in the land could sign up for a few quid and get the same say in the contest as any MP.

But the second unforced error was that committed by Labour MPs themselves. In 2010, when Diane Abbott was helped onto the ballot paper by David Miliband in a baffling act of condescension/generosity, she posed no threat, thanks to her parliamentary colleagues (those who knew her best) having an effective veto.

In 2015, no such veto or corrective ballast existed because the electoral college had been dispatched. And still MPs chose to “broaden the debate” by “lending” their crucial nominations to Corbyn. In other words, these tribunes of the people, who hoped one day to be trusted with the levers of office, thought that advertising their left wing cred to their own members was more important than preventing the most ill-qualified candidate for office in the party’s history from getting on to the ballot paper.

OMOV should have been an obvious and successful development for Labour, just as it has been for the other main parties. Unfortunately, Labour, it turns out, is unique in the political firmament as the only party that cannot be trusted with it. If the ludicrous “registered members” arrangement had been rejected by the party, and if MPs had taken their job as gatekeepers seriously, Corbyn would not have got a sniff of the leadership and no one would now be arguing for a change in the system.

Naturally the party’s Left suspects (rightly) that Starmer’s plans to revert to the electoral college is aimed at preventing another Corbyn in future. That is an honourable and sensible ambition. But in fact a lack of trust in ordinary members’ judgment is only part of the reason for this proposal.

The return of the electoral college would relieve MPs of the onerous task of using their political judgment to decide which candidate would not be a complete disaster for the party. It is thanks to their inability to make that judgment that Starmer is contemplating a reform that will prove the most divisive of his leadership so far.

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