So, the Labour Party lost an election a few months ago. The rhetoric and framing of this defeat are breathlessly disasterous, such as “an awful result“, “catastrophic“, and a “calamity“, among others. Yet, Labour increased votes (740,787) and share (Labour gained 1.5%) of the national electorate from the 2010 election (while the Conservatives likewise added votes and share, their gain was only 0.8%). This meant that Labour, as is their wont, must dive into a summer’s worth of soul searching and incrimination dressed up as a leadership election.
While Ed Miliband was selected leader in 2010 based on an electoral college system, where MPs, unions, and the membership writ large each had an equal say, the party has switched to a (more or less) one-member-one-vote system, in part to attenuate the power of unions over the selection process. As the link points out, this is ironic, considering it was the union component of the electoral college in 2010 that put Ed Miliband over the top at the expense of his brother.
Of course, it’s not quite this simple. All full party members get a vote, as do members of affiliated unions (who have to register with the party) and anybody who wants to pay £3 to become a “Labour supporter”. To this day, I’m not entirely clear on the purpose of the latter (a revenue stream, or a means to generate data) but it was a half baked scheme not only open to abuse at the margins, but worse, open to the perception of mass abuse.
Enter Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy. The serial back bencher, representing the left wing of the party, received the necessary 35 MP nominations to stand for the leadership literally in the final hour, with many MPs stating that they would not support him, but wanted him on the list to provide for a healthy debate. Given the perception of Corbyn as an unreconstructed, Michael Foot-esque socialist, many on the right believe it’s in their interests to plonk down the three quid and cast a spoiler vote under the banner of “Tories for Corbyn“, thus ensuring the destruction of the Labour Party as a viable electoral alternative, tantamount to submitting a “resignation letter to the British people” (that quote is from Liz Kendall, best described as the Blairite candidate for leader). Stories abound of Conservatives “caught” registering as a supporters, as well as Greens or those on the hard left. The Labour Party is trying mightily to “weed out” the infiltrators, including some high profile cases (such as the comedian Mark Steel, whom the Labour Party decreed as not “supporting their values” even though the party didn’t prevent him from campaigning for Labour in the 2015 election), to several backbench Labour MPs calling for the leadership election to be suspended.
Why? Because Jeremy Corbyn might actually win this thing. Many of the MPs who nominated him only to broaden the debate are now regretting it, as recent polling suggests that he’ll win the leadership on the first ballot.
This post isn’t about the merits of any of the four leadership contenders; I’m writing that one over the weekend and will post it on Monday. As a full party member, I get a vote, and I know how I’m going to rank all four candidates. Rather, this is about the wisdom of the system. Should Corbyn win, it’s on the back of legitimate members, not a handful of Tories (or Marxists) infiltrating the party as three-quid supporters in order to gleefully cast a vote. The numbers support this assertion; the electorate at the close of registration on Wednesday is 610,753: 299,755 full members, 189,703 affiliated members (via affiliated unions) and 121,295 registered supporters. It’s mathematically possible that the 121K registered supporters, if voting as a bloc, can swing it to Corbyn, but data from the YouGov poll suggest that £3 supporters back Corbyn only marginally more than full members. However, the perception will always be there that the win was illegitimate. Labour have enough trouble as it is framing the debate; this will only serve to compound the problem.
Is it electoral fraud to give Labour three quid to vote for Corbyn? Not at all. Hell, the only Republican I ever voted for was in the 1996 primary in the Washington State gubernatorial election. Polls had Gary Locke well ahead in the Democratic primary, so a bunch of us crossed over to the Republican primary to help nominate state senator Ellen Craswell, a prototypical batshit crazy representative of the religious right, who successfully went on to get crushed in the general election (yet somehow still managed 42% of the vote). Labour have invited such shenanigans, and have only themselves to blame for creating electoral rules that cast a modicum of doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome.