Labour leadership contest: nine steps that led to farce

01 September 2015 -


As managing processes go, it’s hard to think of anything more shambolic than the Labour leadership contest, says guest blogger Jon Bennett

Jon Bennett

In the heady days of New Labour, Alastair Campbell would fume against the media’s obsession with process over Labour’s programme for the country and the real issues of the day. And just weeks before the votes are counted in its 2015 leadership contest, a process story has again eclipsed the battle for Labour’s hearts and minds.

The biggest public clash of ideology in the party since the 1980s is a sideshow to the wrangling over the electoral rules left in place on Ed Miliband’s watch.  And since the system that elected him is still cursed by supporters of his brother, it doesn’t look like the controversy over his legacy system will die down anytime soon.

The ABC tendency in the party – Anyone But Corbyn – see the process as flawed because of its likely result and the electoral wilderness to follow. But the problem is far bigger than that. Whoever wins the leadership, Jeremy Corbyn included, will face a mammoth task to unite a warring party and be credible as leader. The government is rubbing its hands with glee.   

So how did it come to this? Here are the nine steps Labour took that have seen the election of the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition descend into farce. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

1.     A new system to elect the Labour leader was cobbled together in haste in reaction to union chicanery in the Falkirk selection process. Instead of taking the time to put together a watertight solution, Ed Miliband sought to distance himself from the unions for reasons of General Election positioning, which could ironically lead to extreme union elements getting exactly the leader they want.

2.     The leadership contest happened too soon after May’s election defeat. An interim leader for a year or two, when all the opposition can do is oppose the government of the day, would have given time for a sensible debate. A new leader could take up the reins when a programme for the next five years is required. That leader would be able to fight the next election rather than the last. Will “austerity” really be the cultural reference point in 2020 or will the debate be on different ground?

3.     A system was chosen that underestimates the importance of MPs in providing support to a party leader. Jeremy Corbyn squeezed into the ballot at the last minute on a sympathy vote. How can a leader with 15% of his Parliamentary party behind him hope to survive?

4.     Selection rules were set that are wide open to abuse. Anyone with £3 to spare can sign up, which is an open invitation to supporters of other parties to try and wreck the process.

5.     Rather than accept the flaws in the system and try to win within them, the candidates and the party drew them into question. That automatically undermines the integrity of the result, whoever wins.

6.     Rules were changed without a clear and defensible reason being provided. The exclusion of “people who don’t share the aims and values of the Labour Party” doesn’t wash when the contest itself is about setting some of those values.

7.     Exclusions have been virtually impossible to apply consistently. Disaffected members who have railed against Labour in the past may now have come back to the fold. Past members of other parties may have had a genuine change of heart. Such things happen after unexpected election results. How can these cases be distinguished from those out to game the system?

8.     Having changed the rules, the party didn’t stick to those either. At first, Labour’s canvassing data couldn’t be used to check out voters. Now it can.

9.     Last but by no means least, Labour will report the result in a way that will undermine the victor. A breakdown of votes by members, affiliated members and registered supporters will set out clearly where a candidate’s support is, and where it isn’t. One member one vote was supposed to legitimise the outcome, but once again results will be reported with some votes being more equal than others.

It’s not overly dramatic to see this as a precursor to a possible break-up of the Labour party. If Corbyn wins, might some in the party see something like the SDP of the 1980s as their lifeboat? And if he doesn’t, will a purge of the left lead to a new block in Parliament or guerrilla warfare from the enemy within?

Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications.

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