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.

Australian Labor leadership election

The ballot papers that rank-and-file members of the Australian Labor Party will receive this week are for the most important vote they will ever have as a member. For the first time, rank-and-file members will vote for the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party leader.

For a party that was often a pioneer amongst social democratic and labour parties, it seems odd that Australian Labor was the last major centre-left party in an English-speaking Westminster democracy to embrace the direct election of the leader.

A lot of that is due to the experience of the Australian Democrats, a socially liberal third party. The Democrats were a successful minor party for three decades, holding the balance of power in the Australian Senate and having representation in state parliaments. The party imploded after the membership of the party elected a federal leader that were not supported by the caucus room. The party now has no parliamentary representation and has been overtaken by the Greens. The Democrats have been cited by many opponents of the direct election of leader.

 

Why was it adopted?

The sudden implementation of direct election was intended to be a circuit-breaker, to show that Kevin Rudd was cleaning up and reforming the Labor Party. The idea of the direct election of leader, however, did not come from nowhere. There had been conferences debates about direct elections for the previous two years. Support for the direct election of leader had come from both the Left faction and pro-reform elements of the Right faction.

Much of the pro-reform push comes from New South Wales where both the Left and much of the Right understand Labor needs to change to survive. The “revolving door”, where New South Wales Labor went through three state Premiers in a four year term before its worst result in a century,has shaped this debate, as has the instability associated with the Rudd-Gillard contests.

Interestingly, the 50/50 model that was adopted by federal Labor was rarely discussed in any of these debates. One Member One Vote or a three section Electoral College were more commonly suggested. Former Treasurer Chris Bowen has been the main (if not only) public advocate this model and undoubtedly it was adopted because he was a close confidant of Kevin Rudd.

Prior to the current leadership election, the last time Labor directly elected its leader was in the late 1920s and 1930s in New South Wales. In 1927, under Premier Jack Lang, NSW Labor voted to give members the power to elect the leader at conferences. This existed until 1939 Unity Conference that re-united the NSW Labor Party which had split into two separate labour parties.

 

The 50/50 model

The direct election model is a two section Electoral College, with half of the vote allocated to federal Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (FPLP) and half to rank-and-file members of the Labor Party. MPs had a week to nominate for the leadership and will only vote in the MPs Electoral College.

All rank-and-file members who were a financial member on Election Day (September 7) will all get a vote. The rank-and-file eligibility to vote was changed by the National Executive. It was previously the same eligibility as voting for the ALP National President.

The next most senior Labor MP in the House of Representatives will be acting leader until the contest is over. The Deputy Leader and Senate leadership will still be elected by the Caucus.

The ballot will be conducted by postal ballot and on October 13, the new federal Labor leader will be announced. A copy of the rules are available here.

 

The fight over direct election

When direct election was announced, there was contention over whether direct election was allowed.In the current ALP National Rules,Clause 4 of Part C – National Principles of Organisation states:

In all parliaments, the parliamentary leadership, the Ministry and Shadow Ministry shall be elected by the Parliamentary Labor Party.

These rules have been previously circumvented by changing the rules of the FPLP. For example, Kevin Rudd changed the FPLP rules to allow him to choose the Ministry instead of Caucus. It is essentially a fudge of the rules that will hold so long as 50% + 1 of the Caucus does not want to change it.

It is likely that the national rules will be amended at the next National Conference to enshrine the direct election of leader in the national rules and remove the reliance on Caucus rules. There may, however, be a push to change the model used to elect the leader.

Since the announcement of the 50/50 model, there has been a push by some right-wing unions, led by Tony Sheldon, the National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union (who is also the Labor National Senior-Vice President) to amend it to a three section Electoral College based on the British Labour model with votes equally divided. It’s worth noting that the Tasmanian Labor Party amended its rules in 2012 to allow the direct election of the leader based on the British Labour model, pending amendment of the national rules.

It is unclear how successful this push to change 50/50 will be and it may depend on who becomes the new Labor leader. It is more likely to change if Shorten becomes leader given his links with right-wing unions.

 

The leadership contest

Who will win?

In the battle between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese, the margin of victory in the rank-and-file section will determine who wins. Based on public declarations, MPs appear to be voting along factional lines, something that has not occurred since 1991.

Bill Shorten has openly said that a majority of Caucus will support him for leader and it is said that he has the backing of the Right faction which is 54% of Caucus. He also has declared support from at least two MPs from a rival sub-faction within the Left: Warren Snowdon and Laurie Ferguson.

Anthony Albanese’s vote is from the Left faction, however, it has been suggested that parts of the Queensland Right may vote for him. Former Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan posted what he thinks should be considered when voting for the leader which people have interpreted as an endorsement of Albanese and former MP Arch Bevis (a member of the Labor Right) launched Albanese’s campaign in Brisbane.

If Albanese is to win, it is likely he will need over 60% of the rank-and-file vote.The signs so far are positive. Reports from Albanese campaign volunteers are that the vast majority of rank-and-file members contacted are saying they are either supporting Albanese or undecided. This has even included a number of former right-wing MPs.

 

How the campaigns are being run

While there have been some sly digs by the candidates at one another, the campaign has been mostly quite civil. It is worth noting that the campaigns being run are quite differently and have demonstrated the different styles of each candidates.

Albanese has focused on acting as if he is the Opposition Leader, attacking the Coalition and has held larger events that have been open to the media. He spoken about being an infrastructure Prime Minister, emphasised his ability to unite different people and that “what you see, is what you get”.

Bill Shorten has been doing smaller member events and has attempted to sketch out what his vision would be as Prime Minister. He has repeatedly stated that the Labor Party needs to be brave, be the party for the powerless and must be relevant to the future of all Australians. Some issues he has focusing on include science, domestic violence and immigration.

 

Party reform

There has been some criticism by those outside of the party about the lack of clear difference between the candidates on policy. It is difficult for the candidates to lay out a policy platform given that policy is set by the Caucus and party rather than by the leader.

There is, however, a big difference on party reform. Responding to a survey by the group Local Labor, Shorten and Albanese have outlined their positions on party reform. Albanese committed to implementing all the recommendations of the 2010 ALP National Review while Shorten has not committed to any measures that would change the balance of power in the party. Given that the Victorian Right have been less gung-ho for party reform, a Shorten-led Labor Party is unlikely to enact the sweeping party reform that is necessary to modernise and democratise the party.

Regardless of the result, the election has been a good thing for the Australian Labor Party. Instead of the despair associated with an election loss, many members feel energised and many supporters have or are considering joining the Labor Party for the first time. For the first time in a long time, there is a sense of a real contest and that the result will not be known until the announcement on October 13. The only thing that we can be sure of is that the genie of direct election has been let out of the bottle and there’s no turning back.

 

Cross-posted from The Progress Report

Who is backing whom for Labor leader?

Labor’s new system of electing its Federal Parliamentary Leader means the margin of victory within the Federal Labor Caucus will matter. While the Right faction (54% of the FPLP) has nominally backed Bill Shorten, it is possible that it could be overridden if an overwhleming majority of the rank-and-file supports Anthony Albanese.

I’ve decided to keep a running tally of who MPs and Senators have declared they are supporting or who they are reported to back which is below. If I have missed anyone, please let me know.

 

Shorten camp

Bill Shorten

Tim Watts

Richard Marles

David Feeney

Mark Dreyfus

Laurie Ferguson

Shayne Neuman

Matt Thistlethwaite

Bernie Ripoli

Ed Husic

Jim Chalmers

Sam Dastyari

Warren Snowdon

Helen Polley

Glenn Sterle

Anthony Byrne

Don Farrell

Chris Hayes

Kate Ellis

Michelle Rowland

Maria Vamvakinou

Wayne Swan

Julie Owens

Lisa Chesters

Brendan O’Connor

Kate Lundy

 

Albanese camp

Anthony Albanese

Alannah MacTiernan

Graham Perrett

Doug Cameron

Penny Wong

Tanya Plibersek

Stephen Jones

Jenny Macklin

Pat Conroy

Jill Hall

Sharon Claydon

Mark Butler

Julie Collins

Carol Brown

Lisa Singh

Anne Urquhart

Lin Thorp

Louise Pratt

Justine Elliot

Kevin Rudd

 

Declined to declare

Gary Gray

Chris Bowen

Catherine King

Joel Fitzgibbon

Clare O’Neil

 

UPDATE: Bill Shorten claims a majority of the caucus has signed his nomination form for the leadership.

UPDATE #2: Andrew Crook reports that Bill Shorten has support from 49 out of 86 MPs and lists who is backing whom. Anthony Albanese will need to win 58% of members.

UPDATE #3: The Australian reports that Shorten is likely to have received support from at least 50 MPs

Why a Labor leadership election is necessary

Tomorrow we will (hopefully) get confirmation that the Australian Labor Party will be holding its first direct election of its Federal Parliamentary Leader. Bill Shorten has already declared his intentions and Anthony Albanese is expected to join him. It will be a day for all rank-and-file members to celebrate because it will be the beginning of democratisation of the Labor Party.

Why it is necessary

There are three main reasons why a direct election contest for the party leadership is necessary: neutralising the leadership issue, rebuilding the base and challenging the public perception that Labor does not stand for anything.

Neutralising the leadership issue

While some have tried to derail the process, Labor needs to have a direct election for pragmatic reasons. After the farcical merry-go-round of Rudd-Gillard-Rudd, it needs to show it has learnt its lesson and is changing. An open, transparent contest for the leadership of the Labor Party is what is needed, not some stitch-up behind the scenes. The leader must not only have broad support but the public needs to have confidence that they cannot be dispatched at a whim. An uncontested ballot where Bill Shorten emerges as leader would also only reinforce existing perceptions about Labor and internal machinations.

Rebuilding the base

In Opposition, Labor will need to rebuild and energise its membership base. It is a pressing concern because Labor will have limited resources. Unions will come under attack from the Coalition’s Royal Commission and Labor is likely to lose the South Australian and Tasmanian elections next year. Victoria is a toss-up, leaving the ACT, one small jurisdiction with a Labor-Green Government.

The sandbagging of Western Sydney shows that the greatest asset Labor has are its members. Labor will need more and more active members if it believes direct voter contact is how it will win campaigns into the future. The contest will give members a sense of ownership and confidence that party democratisation is being taken seriously. It will hopefully encourage more people to join the party, become active and volunteer on campaigns.

Inability to stand for anything

Labor needs to challenge the perception that it does not stand for anything. Part of the problem with the last Government its a failure to be clearly communication to the public what Labor stood for. A recent Essential Poll found that only 38% thought Labor was clear about what it stood for. Labor needs this contest to reaffirm its values and emphasis what it stands for. John McTernan is spot on when he says:

The worst thing possible now would be a coronation. Australia needs to understand the values of Labor’s next leader. What drives them? What will they do? Will they understand voters’ concerns? Unity must be earned not imposed, otherwise it is the unity of the graveyard. So, a proper 15 round heavyweight bout is what Labor needs – with manifestos, headland speeches, town-hall meetings, street-corner meetings and debates. Let all the possible leaders lug it out. Labor is blessed with a number of potential contenders – show them off.

Rebuilding public confidence in what Labor stands for will only be the first step. Any talk will need to be linked to actions to challenge the perception that Labor will do anything for a vote and will break its promises in power if Labor is to win back Government.

The process

I have previously written about the 50/50 election model and some of the flaws in it. While not my preferred model, it is far better than the current system.

Nominations for the position of leader will be open for seven days from the caucus meeting tomorrow, followed by fourteen days for rank-and-file members to vote if there is more than one nomination. Of Labor Party members, 31,000 out of 44,000 members would be eligible based on membership of two years

With a predicted 54 seats in the House of Representatives and 31 Senators, each parliamentarians’ vote would be worth approximately 365 members votes. Given that the Right caucus has endorsed Shorten, most of their votes are likely to fall his way. It is unclear if he will get a majority or if he does, whether it will be enough to overcome the rank-and-file vote.

In other contests, an acting leader has been appointed for the duration of the contest. British Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman had that role for four months during the British Labour contest. One would assume Senate leader Penny Wong would become acting leader.

Whatever the outcome is, the democratisation of leadership selection is something that members of all political parties should welcome. Once it is embedded in the Labor Party, it is likely to spread and lead to democratisation of other leadership selections. Tomorrow will be just the beginning of party modernisation across the country.

UPDATE: According to Phillip Hudson, the acting leader will be Chris Bowen as the leader must be in the House of Representatives.

Lessons from New Zealand Labour

Earlier today, the leader of the New Zealand Labour Party, David Shearer, announced his resignation as party leader. Shearer’s resignation paves the way for NZ Labour’s first direct election of its parliamentary leader.

Last year, New Zealand Labour Congress embraced the direct election of the parliamentary party leader, adopting a three section electoral college (40/40/20) with 40% allocated to rank-and-file members and the Parliamentary Party and 20% allocated to members of affiliated unions. It is similar to the model that the British Labour Party uses (33/33/33) and that some within the Australian Labor Party are advocating.

Australian progressives should pay attention to the upcoming NZ Labour leadership contest as it will provide lessons in how to run (and how not to run) a direct election contest. It will be interesting to see how involving affiliated union members will work in practice, what the turnout will be and what the eligibility will be to participate in the ballot.

The leadership election is also likely to shape Labor’s post-election debate about whether there should be a 50/50 model or if affiliated unions should be involved and may be cited as an example by advocates of a three section electoral college.

Whatever ends up happening, it will be worth keeping a close eye on what unfolds across the Tasman.

UPDATE: Over at KiwiBlog, there is an explanation of how the union section will work. It seems that other than one union, all the others are using Conference delegates instead of One Member One Vote.

Labor embraces the direct election of leader

Kevin Rudd appears to be on a party reform kick. Last week, he announced an intervention into the NSW branch and today he announced the direct election of party leader.

I’m actually surprised that it happened this quickly. I did not expect it until after the Federal Election and thought it would be protracted change happening state by state. Rudd has taken advantage of the situation to force it through, like many other reforms that are likely to be announced over the coming month.

I have previously written about the clause in the National Constitution that only allows the caucus the power to elect of the leader and the Ministry. It appears that Rudd will attempt to change the Parliamentary Labor Party rules to allow the direct election of leader.

A two section election college where 50% of the vote would be from the Parliamentary Labor Party and 50% from rank-and-file members was announced. This model was previously proposed by Chris Bowen.

The election of parliamentary party leader could be called after the resignation of the leader, at the request of the leader, or if 75% of caucus members signed a petition calling for an election ”on the grounds that the current leader has brought the party into disrepute”.

A better model

I do not deny that the 50/50 model is an improvement on the current process, however, it is not the model that I personally support. The 50/50 model is in contrast to the three section electoral college in operation in New Zealand and the United Kingdom (and adopted in Tasmania).

A three section model is better because it acknowledges that the party is a partnership between rank-and-file members and affiliated unions. Leaders must have the support from the different wings of the party. It also makes a leadership contest less inward looking and more representative as candidates need to appeal to members of the wider community who are outside the party but share our values. The exclusion of affiliated unions raises broader questions about their role within the party.

I also disagree with the eligibility to vote being the same eligibility to vote for the ALP National President which is over two years of membership. Members should be given a vote as soon as they join. Ideally, after an election loss where leaders tend to resign, a contest should be announced and those who join before a cut off date should get the right to vote in the leadership election. 45,000 joined the Canadian NDP and 32,000 joined British Labour because they could join and vote after an election was announced. Imagine how many may join here.

What else will Rudd be announcing?

I would not be surprised if a broader set of reforms will be announced over the coming week. My guess is that some recommendations from the National Review will be adopted, an attempt will be made to reduce the influence of affiliated unions and that primaries will be adopted.

I am also guessing that Treasurer Chris Bowen will play a significant role in shaping many of these changes, particularly given his 50/50 model was adopted by Rudd. His new book Heart and Minds does not come out until next week but would be worth reading to get a sense of what else might be pushed.

Regardless of the election result, one thing can be guaranteed, the Australian Labor Party will not be the same party that it was three years ago.

How many ways can you elect a party leader?

Just over a week ago, the Victorian ALP became the latest state branch to pass a motion endorsing the direct election of the party leader. The motion directed the Administrative Committee to draft options for direct election of the state parliamentary party leader.

Nationally, momentum is building behind the push for direct election of the Labor Party leader. NSW has agreed to review how the party leader is elected, a motion in support of direct election only narrowly failed in Queensland last year and the Tasmania has already amended its rules to allow direct election once the National Principles of Organisation are changed.

Most proponents of direct election have suggested adopting a British Labour-style electoral college. While I am supportive of an electoral college, it far from the only option as to how to elect a party leader.

Based on an examination of different models used by a range of parties, there are six basic models for the election of a party leader. The six models are:

  • Election by MPs
  • Weighted electorate vote
  • One member one vote
  • Open primary
  • Hybrid model or electoral college
  • Election by conference delegates

There are other possibilities but they are variations on these six basic models. For example, an electoral college can comprise elements of the other models (one member one vote and MP sections) or weighted electorate vote can be combined with an open primary as the Canadian Liberal Party recently did.

While the likely consensus will be an electoral college, it is worth knowing about other models. Models of direct election do not remain unchanged and it is unlikely that the model chosen will permanently stay the same for the ALP. The changes to the British Labour electoral college since its adoption in the 1980s are a case in point.

As tweaking and changes are likely to happen, it far better for everyone to start to get their heads around the benefits and flaws of each model now rather than later.

Would ALP members be able to directly elect the leader?

According to today’s Sydney Morning Herald, a number of branch secretaries, presidents and councillors including Darcy Byrne (who ran the Left’s Labor Renewal campaign) are pushing for the direct selection of the NSW Labor Parliamentary Party leader. They have signed a statement calling on NSW Conference to investigate the benefits of rank-and-file participation in leadership selection.

I’ve yet to see a copy of the statement so will refrain from commenting on the exact proposal but I suspect the inspiration was reading about the 45,000 members who joined the New Democratic Party to vote in their leadership election around the time of the federal leadership spill. It makes the 8,000 new members target adopted at ALP National Conference last year seem measly.

In the long-term, a component of rank-and-file participation in leadership selection is likely. The capping of donations and expenditures will play a large role in promoting change. There are even those on the Labor Right who are inclined to support it, primarily for electoral reasons to eliminate any sense amongst NSW voters that there may be a “revolving door”.

The problem is that NSW Labor cannot implement this without national change. For there to be the direct election of leader at a state or territory level, the ALP Constitution would need to be changed.

Clause 4 of Part C – National Principles of Organisation states:

In all parliaments, the parliamentary leadership, the Ministry and Shadow Ministry shall be elected by the Parliamentary Labor Party.

Once this is amended or removed, NSW Labor would then be able to adopt a direct election model.

While it would be welcome change, the likelihood of any reform to leadership selection is years away. ALP National Conference is triennial and I doubt there is any appetite for a Special Rules Conference any time soon. It is also unlikely that NSW Centre Unity would agree to these changes until after an election loss in 2015.

Still, it is good to see that the idea of direct selection of party leader is being taken seriously and that people are campaigning for it.

UPDATE 8/7/13: Kevin Rudd has announced a 50/50 model for the direct election of leader. My guess is he plans to change the Parliamentary Labor Party rules to accept direct election of leader to avoid the need to change the National Constitution. This was done to allow the leader to appoint the Ministry instead of caucus.

How do Australians want political party leaders elected?

Last week I explored how Labor should elect its parliamentary leader and suggested that a push an expanded selectorate may occur in the future. One thing that was unclear was how much public support there would be for reforming the leadership selection process.

The Essential Report, released today, addresses this by providing some indication of public support. It asked voters for their preferred system to elect the national leaders of political parties, providing three options:

  • The current method of the leader being chosen by the parliamentary party;
  • The US system where registered voters in primaries elect the leader; or
  • The British system where MPs and members get a vote.

Without delving into how accurate the description of each option is and its practical implication, the results are pretty interesting.

From the results, it is clear that the current method of selecting a party leader does not have overwhelming support (36% of all respondents). However, its support is still greater than the other options available with 31% supporting primaries and 11% supporting a mixed model. Furthermore, nearly a quarter (23%) of voters are not sure what model they would prefer.

Surprisingly, Coalition voters were most supportive of a primary model at 36% compared to 31% for Labor and less than a quarter of Greens (23%). Greens and Labor voters were most supportive of the current system with 45% each. Green voters were also most likely to support a British style mixed-model (15%) compared to Labor (10%) and Coalition (8%) of voters.

The lower support for the third option may be caused by far less awareness about how parties elect their parliamentary leader in the United Kingdom. I also suspect references to members of affiliated unions having a say in the British Labour Party playing a part. This, however, is difficult to ascertain without further questioning.

I am surprised a One Member One Vote election by party members was not an option, especially given Bruce Hawker talked up the New Democratic Party during the leadership spill. It would have been interesting to see those results and how much it affected support for other models.

The conclusion that can be drawn from these results is that there is space to begin a push for reforming how parties elects its parliament leader. While there is no consensus, support can be garnered. The likely preferred mixed model may not get as much traction as its advocates would hope for though.

The full results from the Essential Report on “Which of the following do you think would be the best way to elect national party leaders?” is available here.

How should Labor elect its leader?

With a ballot for the leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (FPLP) happening tomorrow morning, it’s timely to examine how its leader is currently elected and whether change is desirable.

How is the leader currently chosen?

The power to choose the leader is held by the parliamentary party. A leadership ballot can be called by the parliamentary leader or a third of Caucus members signing a petition. Other than a brief period under Jack Lang, when the power to determine the NSW parliamentary leader was given to Conferencei, the parliamentary wing has always held the power to choose the leader at state and federal levels.

Historically, the largest faction (usually the Right) has held the leadership of the party with the smaller faction receiving the deputy leadership (usually the Left). However, in recent years this has changed as shown by MPs from the Left faction holding the state party leadership in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria where they do not constitute a majority.

Caucus selection is not actually the norm in Westminster systems

While Australia has a parliamentary system, all parties have run increasingly presidential-style campaigns. The parliamentary leader is usually at the centre of the election campaign and often personifies the party to the public. A party’s electoral success or failure is often linked to the success of its leader.

Yet despite the parliamentary leader being increasingly central to a party’s electoral fortunes and direction, rank-and-file members have no say at all in who that person is. What is rarely discussed is that this is an anomaly across English speaking countries with a Westminster system. All parties in Canada and the United Kingdom, and most in Ireland, allow rank-and-file members to have input into the leader election process. A recent paper by William Cross and Andre Blais highlighted that only major parties in New Zealand and all parties in Australia are hold outs on direct participation.

A mood for change?

One of the few positives about the current soap opera in the Federal Labor Caucus is that it may encourage greater discussion and debate over the direct election of party leader to avoid a repeat of the current situation. The fact that NSW ALP General Secretary (and NSW Right faction convenor) Sam Dastyari has made recent comments about a ‘revolving door’ and indicated lukewarm support for the idea of rank-and-file participation in leadership selections says a lot.

While the Australian Democrats are invoked as a reason not to go down the path of direct elections, the success of direct elections in Canada, the United Kingdom and France and growing concern about declining membership mean that a move towards some form of direct election is possible as Labor seeks to address shrinking membership base and rebuild from Opposition in a number of states.

Cross and Blais identified that where major parties have moved to a degree of direct election, it tends to be after a poor electoral result. Authority shifts away from the parliamentary party and the pent up demand for change that is contained while in Government is released. The importance and urgency of rebuilding after a loss means that parties want to seem more responsive to their rank-and-file who will be needed and want to show the broader electorate that they are changing.

The catalyst for change in Labor will be electoral self-interest, firstly to show stability in the party leadership to regain public confidence and secondly, to grow party membership. The adoption is likely to start at a state level where a heavy defeat has occurred and there is a strong push to reform to re-engage members and supporters such as in New South Wales.

Stable leadership

Undoubtedly there is an increasing need to have more stable tenure for leaders and to show that the leadership is not a revolving door, particularly in New South Wales. Since 2001, there have been five leaders of the FPLP and since 2008, there have been four leaders of the NSW PLP. A direct election would strengthen the mandate for the leader and give confidence to the electorate that a party leader will not be suddenly replaced.

Leadership changes would be minimised unless absolutely necessary. Creating momentum through underhanded tactics to replace the party leader would be far harder with an expanded pool of electors. The cost and time to conduct a leadership election would also be a deterrent to happening regularly and immediately.

The campaigning abilities of potential leaders could also be tested before they are elected. Public reaction to potential leaders over a period of time could be gauged before they are elected leader. This would address one of the key reasons why leaders are replaced under the current system.

Building an army of campaigners

The successful sandbagging of Maroubra, Marrickville and the close contest in Balmain at the 2011 NSW election shows that election campaigns can be won by on-the-ground campaigning. The future will be a greater reliance on members and supporters for campaigning and resources as a result of the moves towards capping expenditures and donations. Members will only join if you can give them a good reason to and stay and participate if they have a sense of ownership. A say in the leadership for every member will do this.

There will be resistance to implement the structural change necessary to give members a say, however, the banning of trade union affiliation fees (which has happened in NSW and is likely to occur elsewhere) is likely to be the factor that forces this to occur.

How would direct elections operate?

It is unclear what model of direct election would operate in practice and would be up for considerable debate. Amongst potential models, immigration Minister Chris Bowen has flagged a half Caucus/half rank-and-file. while Alex White has previously outlined a potential model based on the British Labour Party. Sam Dastyari is also on the record as a fan of the Conservative Party model where the parliamentary party shortlists two candidates.

The experience of the Australian Democrats is likely to rule out a pure One Member One Vote system and maintain some level of parliamentary party input in any immediate change, however this would still be an improvement on the current system.

While the logistics and cost of a direct election may be raised, the conduct of the National President and the NSW Labor Policy Forum ballots are two examples that show direct elections can work in the Labor Party. Potentially the cost of holding the election could be recovered if individuals were given the immediate right to vote when they join during the leadership election period similar to the small fee paid to participate in the Socialist Party presidential primary.

The future

The only positive that may come from this Rudd/Gillard power struggle is an impetus for rank-and-file participation in leader selection to strengthen their mandate and curb the ability of members in the Caucus to destabilise.

However, this is unlikely to occur until a loss of Government occurs and after Coalition Governments ban affiliation fees. Even then, it is likely to be adopted state-by-state first and only after a protracted push and realisation that it is necessary to rebuild party membership.

Even so, the coming debate about directly electing the party leader under the umbrella of Labor Party reform would be an important step for democratising all political parties in Australia.

UPDATE 27/02/12: A good summary of the procedures of this morning’s Caucus meeting.

UPDATE 21/03/13: At their Congress last year, New Zealand Labour adopted a 40/40/20 electoral college model for electing their party leader.