Monday, 17 November 2014

College craziness

THE ballot process begins today to select a new leader of the Scottish Labour party.

Although the party’s “electoral college” is being replaced for UK contests, the old 1980s system remains in Scotland.

As one Labour contact put it to me recently: “If Martians were to land in Glasgow tomorrow, you’d be hard pressed explaining the logic of this system to them”.

There are three parts of the college, all given equal weight: one third of the votes goes to affiliated trade unions and socialist societies; one third to parliamentarians; and the final chunk to ordinary party members.

Much of the scrutiny is concentrated on the affiliate section.

All individuals who pay a union’s political levy – Unison has a slightly different system – will be issued with a leadership ballot paper.

The problem is that not everyone who pays into a union political fund will be a Labour supporter, far less a member.

In an attempt to close this loophole, all levy payers get a form with their ballot paper which they must sign for their vote to count.

It reads: “I support the principles and values of the Labour Party, am not a supporter of any organisation opposed to it and pay a political subscription that issued this ballot paper.”

However, given that it is a secret ballot, it is impossible to enforce this ‘honesty box’ system. Anyone who receives a ballot could sign the eligibility form and vote in the contest. This section could accurately be described as no-member-one-vote.

Trade union participation in previous elections is also far from a great advert for democracy.

In UK Labour’s 2010 leadership contest, 2.7m ballots were sent to members of affiliated unions.

Of these, 234,000 were returned –  a miserable 8.7% turnout.

Another 15% of the 234,000 ballots were deemed to be spoilt, meaning the turnout in terms of valid votes cast was closer to 7%.

Perhaps a bigger injustice is the weight of vote given to Scottish Labour’s MSPs, MPs and MEPs (councillors are excluded). 

The votes of these 80 or so parliamentarians are of equal value to the near 13,500 party members who pay subs.

Put another way, the vote of an MP is the equivalent of the votes of 168 members.

In the 2011 Scottish Labour leadership contest, Ken Macintosh MSP won around 53% of votes cast by party members.

The eventual winner, Johann Lamont, won fewer than 40% of party members, but still won the contest after the first round of voting.

According to a well-placed party source, such a system raises the obvious question: “Why should anyone join the Scottish Labour party?”

If you do sign up, your vote in leadership contests is deemed 168 times less worthy than a ballot cast by a parliamentarian. 

And folk who are not even party members can easily participate in the same contest.

As the SNP outstrips Scottish Labour in membership by six-to-one, addressing this anomaly may be a top-order issue for any new leader.