Curbing the powers of the unions in the name of democracy, or just to look good?

Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership election with 54% of the vote. Even if one isn’t a fan of AV, and clearly most of the country isn’t, Ed still would’ve won the contest albeit with a less substantial share of the vote. In the eyes of those with the power to decide, Ed was the best man for the job.

Ed Miliband

Is Ed Miliband's relationship with trade unions as important as suggested?

For those of you who followed the leadership contest you’ll know I’ve bent the truth somewhat there.  Officially, Ed Miliband won with just 50.65% of the vote in the final ballot round, defeating his brother by just over 1%. The figure of 54% is the one you arrive at if you disregard the electoral college system the Labour party currently have which hands MPs, party members and affiliated trade unions a third of the vote each.

Those who claim Miliband won the election on the back of the union vote ignore the fact that in simple numerical terms the unions have a disproportionately low say in deciding the outcome. Around three million ballot papers went out to union members and other affiliated societies compared with around 170,000 for party members. What this means is that because both sections make up a third of the overall vote, in theory a party member’s vote is roughly 15 times more important than a union member’s vote. Find that difficult to comprehend? Then perhaps we should glaze over the fact that an MP’s vote is several thousand times more important than a union member’s vote.

The voting system at Labour party conference is less complicated, but still not particularly satisfactory.  Voting is split down the middle with 50% going to affiliated unions and societies and the other 50% comes from delegates from CLPs. Whilst the Refounding Labour consultation makes mention of overhauling both systems, it is voting at party conference that is under the spotlight right now, with the Labour leadership apparently keen to reduce the power of the union vote.

The focus on the unions isn’t surprising. When it comes to discussing internal party democracy within the Labour party it nearly always comes back to the influence of the unions. The right-wing press like it that way and as a result it appears that the Labour leadership like it that way because they realise if they can be seen to pick a fight with the unions and win, it will go done well with said press.

Radical overhaul of some of the internal structures and systems within the Labour party would be a step welcomed by most within the party but the proposed move to reduce the power of the union vote at conference from 50% down to 40% is hardly radical. When so many people voice their discontent that the union vote still constitutes a third of the vote in the leadership election, how is it possible that a reduction to 40% voting power at conference is going to be drastic enough to silence those voices.

There is no discernable logic to the numbers being thrown around either. Why should the union vote be reduced to 40%? Has there been a sudden drop in union membership that needs to be factored into the voting system? Of course not. The number has been plucked out arbitrarily and serves only to show that Miliband is prepared to take on the unions in a fight over their influence on party policy.

That the voting systems used both at conference and in electing the leadership have evolved to the point where different groups are accorded varying degrees of influence is unsurprising. Rather than seek to fundamentally reform systems, they have been tweaked steadily over time in order to quell dissatisfaction with the status quo. Rather than confronting the nature of the relationship between different groups within the Labour movement, these latest proposals seeks only to show that the leadership is prepared to take on the unions.

That fundamental change of the voting systems used by the Labour party is needed is recognised by most members, particularly when it comes to the leadership elections. The nature of the change needed is a debate worth having, with some arguing in favour of the complete removal of the electoral college, whilst others want to see a fourth section added to the college for voters from the general public. What isn’t needed is the sort of stop-gap changes being proposed right now, that are as much about political points scoring as they’re about improving democracy within the party.


Posted on August 9, 2011, in Comment, Labour Party, Party Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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