British Labour to select future leaders by primary

Over the weekend, details of proposed British Labour Party reforms were revealed. These proposals, to be debated at a Special Conference on 1 March, follow an interim report in September 2013 by Labour Party General Secretary Ray Collins.

The two biggest changes proposed are a move towards opt-in affiliation and the abolition of the Electoral College. A recommendation to hold a primary for the London Mayoral candidate is also proposed.

One Supporter One Vote (OSOV)

The most radical proposal is to institute what is essentially a primary or a One Supporter One Vote system to elect the parliamentary leader. It appears to be a variant of the Presidential primary model used by Parti Socialiste with those who are not a full-member paying a small fee. Interestingly Sunder Katwala, then General Secretary of the Fabian Society, predicted in 2011 that OSOV would be the most plausible alternative to the Electoral College.

While some members may be disappointed about opening up leadership elections to registered supporters, each member’s vote will be worth far more. In the 2010 British Labour leadership election, the vote of a MP was worth 608 times more than the vote of a rank-and-flie member. The influence of MPs is now restricted to nominations (albeit with an increased threshold) and the perennial issue of voters having multiple votes is gone.

If the abolition of the Electoral College goes ahead, Australia and New Zealand Labour become the only two parties that use this model. Ironically both parties have adopted this model citing the example of the British Labour and it will be interesting to see if this shifts the debate away from 50/50 versus 33/33/33 towards either model versus OSOV.

While I have been sceptical of community primaries, I am more amenable to the proposal for a primary for a party leadership contest. Under the proposal, a primary would only occur for the leader while the preselection of local candidates will be the prerogative of local members, making a distinction between a supporter and a member.

There are a number of reasons why I do not think a party-run primary for local candidates would be successful. The fact is most of the population cannot name their local MP and in the vast majority of cases, having a vote for their local MP is not what would convince someone to join or be involved with a political party. Unless a considerable sum of money and resources are spent (e.g. a mail out to every enrolled voter), turnout will be low and there is nothing that has demonstrated an improved primary vote or more members or volunteers. The potential dividend from a community preselection for your local MP is not great.

A primary for the leader of a major party on the other hand has the potential to bring in a new members and supporters, voter ID information as well as improve a party’s electoral performances. People support and join parties because of their leader. The leader symbolises the party, they shape the direction of a party and the party’s electoral support is often tied to that of the leader. Having registered supporters pay small fee also ensures that it is not a massive financial burden to hold a primary. The likely turnout of a primary for a major party leader also should address any concerns about stacking.

There are still a number of issues like how successful will Labour be in transforming registered supporters into party activists and members and whether increasing the threshold will make it more difficult for candidates who have popular support but not an existing base amongst MPs. Still, it will be interesting to see how it works in practice.

Opt-in affiliation

The proposals around opt-in affiliation have been floating around since the interim Collins Report in September with mixed responses from some union leaders. Opt-in affiliation models are not unheard of with the Canadian New Democratic Party and Irish Labour Party using an opt-in affiliation model for their parties.

Under opt-in affiliation, the 50% proportion of Conference floor for unions will be maintained, however, the proportion of Conference delegates that individual unions have will depend on how many members opt-in. It addresses criticism that during party leadership elections the unions run their own ballots, the party does not have access to lists of union members and concerns about privacy as the party will have the list of affiliated members.

Combined with OSOV, I imagine the proposal would get the support of affiliated unions based on recent statements by Unite the Union. While the appearance is the dilution of union power, whether their influence grows or declines will actually depend on whether they can organise individual members. If it was to be adopted in Australia, large, affiliated unions that still operate under a servicing model such as the SDA would be big losers, while those who adopt an organising model would be the big winners. The big losers are not unions but MPs whose role has been reduced to gatekeepers.

An opt-in model does have its advocates in Australia. Labor MP Stephen Jones MP wrote a piece for the Southern Highlands Branch newsletter advocating it and suggestied it is inevitable. It is also worth noting that the Community and Public Sector Union (which Stephen was National Secretary of) does allow an opt-out, something that not many other unions do.

It is worth mentioning that a legacy of Thatcher’s anti-union laws is that opt-in political funds already exist for unions. Unions must maintain separate political funds that pay for activities for the “furtherance of political objectives” such as affiliating to the Labour Party. These political funds must be voted on by union members every ten years. Some unions like Unison already have a separate opt-in fund for Labour Party affiliation. This is primarily due to Unison being an amalgamation of unions, some of whom were not affiliated to the Labour Party. For British unions, the change to an opt-in system would not be as radical as it would be in Australia.

People may not realise it now but the impact of British Labour’s Special Conference and Ed Miliband’s reform proposals will be felt here and is likely to influence the Australian Labor Party reform debate over the coming year.



  1. Hey Os, I’m interested to know your thoughts on whether you think having a membership class for members of affiliated unions to join the ALP would make it harder for Liberal governments to try legislation similar to what was attempted in NSW?


    1. My understanding (based on conversations with others that have a legal background) is that a ban on third party could be deemed acceptable by the High Court if a requirement of consent was legislated i.e. unions can make donations if a member agrees ala opt-in. It just cannot target unions specifically and must apply across the board.


  2. It’s a fascinating proposal. There have been many people quietly arguing for opt-in for many years, and they’ll come likely come out from under their cover if this gets up.


    1. I would imagine so.

      I find it odd that people (both here and overseas) are claiming it dilutes union power. If unions organise it has the potential enhance their influence but they need to get members on side. It rewards organising and punishes transactional politics.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s