Constituency Labour Parties across Wales are being asked what they think about the way in which we elect our leader. Until that weekend in Llandudno in April this was an obscure issue which excited only those who get excited about such things. Now Carwyn has ensured that we are all talking about it. And like others I will be writing to Paul Murphy with my own views on the issue.
In short the question is – do we replace the electoral college which provides for a third each to parliamentarians, the trades unions and other affiliates and the final third for our members? Those who argue against change point out, quite rightly, that the college has done its job. It has provided for leaders who can claim a wide mandate across the party and movement. It has delivered stability and a strength which has sometimes alluded other parts of the Labour party and movement. So why change they argue? Why disenfranchise socialist societies and the collective voice of trades unions?
The short answer is because we are now a much changed party and organisation. The longer answer is that any electoral system that delivers multiple votes for some individuals and where each vote carries a very different weighting is one which is difficult to describe as democratic.
Whatever anyone’s views on the changes that have taken place in the party over the last few years, there is no argument that those changes are real. And the party needs to evolve and change as well.
Today it would be simply unacceptable for anyone to become leader without the support of the party members. The imposition of a leader by the weight of votes of either our affiliates or by our parliamentarians is unthinkable and would make their position untenable.
Speaking personally I want to protect the place and role of the trades unions in the structures of Welsh Labour. In fact I would like to strengthen and expand the role of trades unions in other aspects of the party’s policy-making and decision-taking. But that’s for another day.
So my preference would be to move to a system of one member one vote where we all share the same single vote. And for the purists reading this I would support the option in the consultation which allows all individual levy-paying trade unionists to vote alongside individual members in an OMOV ballot. This means that the place of trades unions and trades unionists is secure in our structures and elections.
However I also believe that we need to go further than simply change the way in which we vote for our Welsh Leader.
And this is important.
We are not electing the leader of Welsh Labour at the National Assembly. We are electing the leader of our party in Wales.
Not for Welsh Labour the tortuous and tiresome debates that have taken place in the Welsh Conservative Party where they are not electing a leader of the party, but only the leader of a group. Whosoever wins our election when it finally takes place in the autumn will not only become Welsh Labour’s candidate to be First Minister but will also be the party’s Welsh Leader. And that demands a wider and more inclusive approach to the whole election process.
And this is something that we have not yet even began to discuss.
At present it is only Assembly Members who have the right to nominate candidates. I believe that the right to nominate should be extended to include our MPs ( and for this election our MEP) and to Welsh Labour council leaders. We may even wish to consider the role of our Police and Crime Commissioners in the process.
I have argued before that Welsh Labour council leaders should be brought more fully into the family of Welsh Labour and this is another area where our councillors need to be more fully integrated into the structures of the wider party.
But by ensuring that any candidate would require support from both Westminster and council chambers across the country the leadership debate would extend beyond Cardiff Bay and would force potential candidates to think about the wider party and not simply the hothouse of the Senedd.
In terms of a threshold I will argue that 10% provides the right level of challenge with restricting the field or establishing too high a barrier for potential candidates.
Two final points.
Firstly, Carwyn’s intervention a couple of weeks ago on the issue of equality and gender balance was important. And it exposes a fundamental weakness at the heart of our politics. It is clearly unacceptable for Welsh Labour to polish up its credentials as a party which has led the way on equality to hold its only leadership election in a decade without a woman on the ballot paper. I agree with Carwyn – there should be a woman on the ballot paper. But unless the current position changes then this is becoming increasingly unlikely. And this will reflect poorly on Welsh Labour and our sense of priorities. It would be well for all members of the National Assembly Labour Party to reflect further on this.
Secondly, since the creation of devolved government nearly twenty years ago we have had three First Ministers. And in reality this period of time has been defined by Rhodri and Carwyn’s tenure. I can think of no-one in the group in Cardiff Bay who wants to see another long ten year stretch. And in an institution such as the National Assembly a long period of leadership certainly creates stability but sometimes the price of that stability is also a sense of stasis. Certainly one of the characteristics of the current non-debate in the Bay is a wish not to elect someone else who may wish to be in office for an extended period. Best elect an interim leader rather someone for the long term. My view is that we should elect a leader for a five year term. Long enough to fight an election, establish and run a government but not so long as to create the impression of permanence. Whether the leader wishes a second term would be a matter for debate. But I would certainly not want to see any leader serve more than two terms.
So let’s extend our democracy. Let’s involve and fully enfranchise our membership. But lets also think more creatively about how we bring the party together and how we reach out to unite the whole of our democracy and the points of political power that Welsh Labour would seek exercise on behalf of the people we represent.