Let the members elect the leader


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With growing calls for the direct election of the Labor leader by a ballot of rank-and-file members, what lessons can be learnt from labour parties elsewhere?

THE NSW LABOR PARTY is expected to debate a proposal for the direct election of the Labor leader by a ballot of rank-and-file members, after the Left faction resolved to push for the reform at the upcoming State Conference.

Sam Dastyari, the NSW General Secretary and Right faction convenor, has also endorsed the proposal – not only for NSW but also Federally – saying, “The revolving door of leaders needs to come to an end.” Assuming his support is genuine, and that he brings the Right faction with him, a direct election model could be a fait accompli.

But what does this mean for Labor? And is it a model we should be looking to endorse nationwide?

For reference we should turn to our sister parties in the United Kingdom and Canada.

In 2010 the UK Labour Party held an election for the new parliamentary leader after the party’s defeat in the General Election and the resignation of Gordon Brown. The party rules set out a clear procedure for the election:

  • The ballot would be conducted using instant runoff preferential voting.
  • Each candidate needed to have the support of 12.5 per cent of parliamentary Labour Party members to nominate.
  • There would be three voting electorates, each controlling a third of the total vote: Labour Party members of Parliament, individual grassroots members, and individual members of affiliated organisations such as trade unions.

In the end, over 120,000 individual party members and just under 200,000 members of affiliated trade unions and societies voted in ballot, which elected Ed Miliband as the new leader of the Labor Party.

The more important consideration from the ALP’s perspective is not the result of the election, but rather the way it engaged the membership.

Between the General Election in May 2010 and the leadership ballot in September, over 32,000 people joined the UK Labour Party. While we can’t determine how much of this was because of the leadership election – Harriet Harman, the acting Labour leader, claimed that at least 10,000 were former Liberal Democrats defecting after the party supported the Tories – it’s impossible to imagine this kind of post-election bounce for the Labor Party in Australia.

The New Democratic Party in Canada has had a similar experience.

After the death of NDP leader Jack Layton in August 2011 the party ran an internal election to pick the next parliamentary leader, though the rules in this case were slightly different to those in the UK.

  • A $15,000 nomination fee was set.
  • Candidates were limited to a maximum spending cap of $500,000.
  • The candidates participated in six public leadership debates across a variety of platform issues.

A ruling of the NDP Federal Executive had eliminated the carve-out of votes for affiliated trade unions, which had previously been guaranteed at least 25 per cent. This had a substantial impact because unlike the UK, where trade union affiliates voted individually, the NDP trade union delegates had previously voted as a block and therefore had a significant impact on the final result. The ruling essentially enforced a policy of one vote, one value.

With over 65,000 grassroots party members casting a vote in the ballot, Thomas Mulcair was elected the new leader of the NDP and leader of the Official Opposition of Canada.

Once again, the result was a massive increase in membership. The NDP gained over 45,000 new members during the internal leadership election. The party now has a total membership of almost 130,000 – all while the membership of other political parties shrinks around it.

It’s even more interesting to reflect on the success of Jack Layton himself. Layton was elected to the party leadership in 2003 on the back of the rank-and-file vote, and in the face of opposition from the parliamentary party and trade union affiliates. Even more astoundingly, he wasn’t even a member of parliament at the time.

He not only won his own seat, but over the next eight years increased the number of NDP members of parliament from 13 to 103. In the 2011 Federal Election  the NDP won enough seats to become the new Official Opposition of Canada, replacing the previous left-wing Liberal Party for the first time.

There are some important lessons the ALP can take from these case studies.

The first is that democratisation doesn’t necessarily dictate a decline in quality. Factional chiefs do not always know best and, as the Labour and NDP results prove, grassroots party members can and do make intelligent political choices about their leaders.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to the ALP. The party’s National President has been directly elected for years, and grassroots members have in the past chosen such eminently qualified candidates as Linda Burney, John Faulkner, Mike Rann, and Anna Bligh. It’s a shame that the National President is vested with little more than symbolic value.

The second lesson is that direct elections do not mean the party will lose touch with it’s working class base. An election model similar to UK Labour – with a three-way split between the grassroots membership, trade union affiliates, and elected MPs – would have distinct advantages for the ALP. Firstly, it would preserve the Labor Party’s formal and historical ties to the trade union movement while still democratising the party’s internal processes. Secondly, the weighting of the parliamentary vote will go a long way to assuaging the concerns of those who fear the democratic process will inevitably lead to bizarre and unelectable fringe candidates.

The third lesson is that giving members a voice is the key to growing a social-democratic party. Both Labour and the NDP received a massive membership increase when the rank-and-file were given the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the party’s parliamentary leadership. These parties are now in a excellent position to mobilise their new members for the next election.

Again, these results should not be surprising to the ALP. Although the recommendations of the National Review were abandoned at the 2011 National Conference, the Tasmanian ALP implemented every single one of them on a state level. The branch has since seen a 10 per cent increase in membership.

Your perspective on party democracy will ultimately depend on what your vision for the ALP is.

If, on the one hand, you’re comfortable with Labor being a catch-all party, operated by a relatively small number of elected parliamentarians and a cadre of factional operatives, then the status quo will do fine.

If, on the other hand, you see Labor as the political extension of a broader social-democratic movement, then one of its key objectives in terms of party organisation must be to engage with progressive activists at a grassroots level.

At the moment it’s hard to work out exactly what the Labor Party wants its grassroots members to do. They aren’t being trained to spread the Labor message in their own communities. They don’t have any influence over policy development. And they certainly don’t have a say over the party leader or, in many cases, even their own local MP.

Unless you’re actively involved in a faction, it would be understandable to think that your job – as far as the ALP is concerned – is to put in as much time as possible campaigning for them during an election, and be thankful for the experience.

If we want to build and support a movement, giving grassroots members a vote on the leader of their party would be a very good place to start.

This article was originally published at Chifley's Hill, an online forum for discussion about politics and society from a progressive perspective, operated by Young Labor Left SA. Visit the website here.

Author: Angas Oehme 

Chifley's Hill

Angas is the Secretary of the Young Labor Left. He is currently studying Law and Arts at Flinders University, where he serves as the Convenor of the Flinders University Labor Club.

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