Wednesday, 25 April 2018

More of the same

Under the curious hotchpotch which passes for a constitution in the UK, we do not elect the leader of the executive branch of government; we only elect members of the legislative branch, despite the increasingly presidential nature of the election campaigns themselves.  But at least when it comes to an election, we all know who the leaders of the parties are, and we all know that the leader of whichever party can put together a majority of seats in the legislature will become head of the executive branch.  From that perspective, it really is entirely a matter for the individual parties to decide who to elect as their leader and how to run that election, because the electorate decide on the basis of knowing the consequences of their votes.
There is a problem, though, when that leader falls by the wayside, for whatever reason, during the term of office of the legislature.  At that point, the leader being elected by the members of a party also becomes the leader of the executive, and who and how that leader is selected becomes a proper matter for debate by the wider electorate, especially given the constitutional fact that there is no requirement for the newly-appointed leader to face a general election.  In that context, the Labour Party’s electoral college system for selecting its leader in Wales is an entirely legitimate subject for debate.
The Western Mail reported on Saturday that “…critics of a change within Welsh Labour fear that moving to one member, one vote could increase the likelihood of a more radical, left-wing candidate winning the leadership”.  Stop and think about that for just a moment: the argument here is that the party needs a complex three part electoral college in order to place a deliberate constraint on who can be elected.  And underpinning that is an assumption that the trade unions and affiliated bodies and the party’s elected MPs, AMs, and MEPs will always and necessarily be more ‘conservative’ in outlook than the ordinary members.
It’s hard to know whether or not that’s true of trade union members, given that their leaders often support nominations on behalf of the members without consulting them, and then give them a very strong steer on who they should support.  What we do know is that many of those who are members of trade unions and/or affiliated bodies effectively get to vote more than once in a leadership election, since if they are also individual members of the party, they also vote in the membership section of the college.  Giving multiple votes in the same election to selected electors is a strange definition of democracy.
What we also know is that the assessment of elected members (i.e. that they are more ‘conservative’ than the rank and file membership) is broadly correct.  There is an argument that allowing the election of a leader who does not enjoy the full confidence of his or her fellow elected members can create problems, and that is a reason for giving those elected members more influence in the process.  That is part of the problem being faced by Corbyn – and I know that he isn’t the first or only party leader to find the wider membership more supportive than the parliamentary group.  The question that the Labour Party should be asking, though, is not ‘how do we ensure that the membership can’t elect a leader who does not enjoy the confidence of the group?’, but ‘why is there such a disconnect between the views of the elected members and those of the wider party membership?’
And actually, that isn’t only a question for Labour.  When I look at other parties I see a similar trend; those party members elected to legislatures, at Welsh and UK level, often seem to be more ‘establishment’ and ‘centrist’ than the wider membership.  Whether it’s the result of being elected and getting sucked into the system, or whether it tells us something about the selection processes being used is an unanswered question.  In a large enough elected body, such as the UK House of Commons, there are some who somehow get through both of those processes whilst retaining a bit more of an edge to their politics; people like Corbyn.  In a small legislature such as the National Assembly, however, the scope for that is more limited, and we see fewer ‘wild cards’.
The result, to answer those anonymous Labour critics referred to by the Western Mail, is that the Labour Party has generally managed to weed out the “more radical, left-wing” candidates before they even get to the Assembly.  It doesn’t matter which method they use to elect their new leader; the future looks like more of the same in any event.

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