Why UK Labour MP David Miliband’s Resignation Should Alarm The ALP

BRITISH Labour lost one of its brightest MPs yesterday, with David Miliband — brother of Labour leader Ed Miliband — quitting the House of Commons to take up a post running a charity in New York. For the ALP, soon to return to opposition, it carries a message that should ring alarm bells.

It’s a salutary lesson in why elected MPs should elect their own parliamentary leader.

In 2010 — after 13 years in office, its reputation for economic management in ruins, and saddled with a deeply unpopular Prime Minister in Gordon Brown — the British Labour Party lost an election for the first time since 1992.

The Conservative Party didn’t win, mind; a poor campaign by its leader, David Cameron, saw it finish with 306 of the 650 seats* in the House of Commons, and 18 seats short of a majority was forced into coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats.

But whilst the Tories didn’t win outright, Labour certainly lost; down almost 100 seats on its 2005 result, it returned to opposition: and the first item of business was a new leader.

The Labour Party in Britain, since the contest in 1994 that made Tony Blair opposition leader after the death of John Smith, has used an electoral college in determining its leadership: the parliamentary Labour Party, the rank-and-file membership, and the affiliated trade unions are all entitled to vote, and each of these three blocs are weighted so the votes from each are worth exactly a third of the total.

In 2010, five candidates stood for the Labour leadership to replace the outgoing Brown, and the two leading contenders throughout the four-ballot process were David Miliband, who was Foreign minister in the previous government, and his younger brother, Ed.

Whilst Labour conducts its leadership ballots using preferential voting (the “alternative vote,” as it is known in the UK), David Miliband was the preferred choice of both the parliamentary party and the membership throughout the process, whilst his younger brother — from the Labour Left — was the clear choice of the affiliated unions.

And so it came to pass: in the final round — head to head — the combined votes of the parliamentary party and the membership saw David leading Ed, 37% to 30%, but the left-wing Ed was the unions’ candidate, and an emphatic showing there pushed Ed over the line — narrowly — to become Labour leader.

In the three years since, Ed Miliband has rated very poorly with the British public; and despite the fact Labour leads the Conservatives in voting intention, the lead is soft: generally less than ten points ahead in Britain’s first past the post voting system, the Labour lead is nothing like the 20 and 30-point mid-term leads that have generally pointed toward a change of government in the UK in recent times.

And there is a further consideration here; the broad Left-Right split in voting intention, as measured by reputable polls, is no better for Labour than at the 2010 election; indeed, were the Tories not losing support to the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), it is dubious as to whether Labour would even have a lead at all.

(As an aside, a firm change in Conservative Party policy or a change in its leadership could well knock UKIP on the head, but that is a discussion for another time).

The point is that Labour is saddled with an unpopular leader, who is arguably not the best prospect to lead the Party, and the defeated David Miliband is now leaving the Parliament, in part to help give his younger brother clear air and to ensure his leadership isn’t subjected to destabilising speculation, innuendo or undue plotting.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

The Conservative Party, too, moved to a system where the rank and file are the final arbiters in deciding the leadership of its parliamentary wing about ten years ago; theoretically, MPs go through however many rounds of balloting needed to produce two final candidates who are then voted upon by the membership.

The requirement for a ballot of the membership was circumvented in 2005, when the Conservative Party — trailing desperately in the polls, and likely to go backward under then-leader Iain Duncan Smith — closed ranks around a single candidate, former Home Secretary Michael Howard, who was declared to be unanimously elected.

But at the other two ballots that have occurred under these rules (and had the matter been decided purely by MPs), it is arguable that IDS would not/should not have become Tory leader in 2001, and with the benefit of hindsight, David Cameron was probably the wrong choice in 2005 as well.

The point is that by opening decisions on the parliamentary leadership to the membership, or to a bloc of trade unions, or other affiliated blocs, there is great potential for parties to find themselves led by individuals that may enjoy popularity in sections of the party, or are beholden to a particular faction, but are the wrong footsoldiers to send out to the electorate from a purely political standpoint.

And it’s directly relevant to the ALP — especially in the current climate.

In the wake of the nonsense Labor got up to last week, culminating in an uncontested leadership ballot and a great deal of egg on the party’s collective face, some elements in the ALP have openly pondered reforming its leadership ballots to move to an electoral college system.

It’s unclear as to precisely what form such a change would take, whether an electoral college along the lines of British Labour, or a membership vote on final candidates as the Conservative Party does, or whether the matter would be determined by the membership altogether.

But I contend that whichever way you look at these options, they are all vastly inferior to allowing MPs to decide among themselves who should lead them.

Certainly, party room decisions on both sides of the spectrum have produced some truly shocking leadership figures in recent times.

But there are Australian precedents too; the Australian Democrats (remember them?) used to determine their leadership by a vote of the membership; the process threw up some reasonably good people, like Janine Haines and Meg Lees, but it also produced some absolute shockers (John Coulter and Janet Powell, take a bow).

It also produced a leader in the form of Natasha Stott Despoya: popular with the rank and file, telegenic and articulate, she was nonetheless far too left-wing for the wider body of Democrats support in the electorate to stomach, and led the party into virtual oblivion at the 2004 election.

Would Paul Keating, reviled but respected, have ever become Prime Minister if an electoral college was used by the ALP in the 1990s? Could John Howard have ever become Liberal leader a second time, after earning the moniker “Mr 18%” during the first? Would Tony Abbott be nearing a thumping election win at all if forced to face the highly popular but politically less-adept Malcolm Turnbull in a membership vote?

The position of leader within a political party is precisely that: a political one; and with no disrespect to the rank and file membership of any party, the decision on who should lead ought to be made by the elected parliamentary representatives that the rank and file have endorsed in the first place.

And whilst it is arguable the rank and file would have supported Kevin Rudd had last week’s mischief included them, the reality is that the unions, given a bloc vote, would have fallen in solidly behind Gillard anyway, buttressed in their support by that of a majority of Labor’s MPs.

Rudd would have been beaten anyway.

And changing the mechanisms by which leaders are elected (usually to support a given agenda at a given time, rather than as the result of any long-term strategic, political or positively reformist notions) offers even greater potential to throw up “leaders” who might tick the boxes for those who install them, but who singularly and utterly fail to connect to the intended audience: the wider electorate.

In British politics, the Conservative Party is a leadership change away from fixing its politics, reclaiming most of the votes it has lost to UKIP, and eliminating Labour’s lead in the polls.

Labour, meantime, is stuck with an unpopular leader who may be incapable of sealing the deal at an election, and this week has seen its best long-term prospect simply walk away.

The Conservative Party may or may not find the cojones to replace David Cameron, but if it does — and if that change is managed prudently — then British Labour may yet find that the 2015 election is no foregone conclusion.

Here in Australia, Labor types would be well-served in observing the situation and heeding its import: after this year’s election, the likely candidates for its leadership are Bill Shorten and Greg Combet; neither passes muster on an objective analysis of their broad appeal electorally, but if the matter is opened up to the membership and (especially) the unions, Combet will prevail by a mile.

Under such a scenario, Labor really would dwell in the worst of all worlds; a parliamentary rump led by an inoffensive but unappealing trade unionist, and little prospect of redeeming itself from such a self-inflicted would in the short to medium term.

The ALP is going to have a tough enough time over the next five to ten years without indulging in jingoistic, trendy “reforms” to justify such an injurious course of action.

If the ALP wants to engage in meaningful reform, it should be looking at ways to slash the internal influence of its union allies, or to cut formal ties with them altogether — not instituting additional methods of further entrenching their reach.

But screwing around with discredited mechanisms for conducting leadership ballots will only be of interest to its insiders, vested interests, and the faceless hacks who already control Labor, and who would view such a change as a simple way to exert even more control — even if it further alienated the party as a whole from the general public.

*In practice, the total is 646 seats; four Sinn Fein MPs from Northern Ireland invariably refuse to take up their seats at Westminster, making “a majority” 324 seats, not 326.