9 Sep 2010

Labour leadership: how a contest works

Unions, the PLP or the electoral college? Channel 4 News looks at how the process of electing a Labour leader works and the candidates likely to benefit from the system.

Labour leadership: Labour Party pin badges. (Getty)

The Labour inside joke goes: “The next leader will be called Ed or Miliband. No, let me correct that. He will be called Miliband or Miliband.”

But the process of choosing a Miliband or anyone else is complex and brings together several bodies, including the trade unions.

National Executive Committee (NEC)

The NEC is the governing body of the Labour Party. It oversees the overall direction of the party and the policy-making process.

It carries out this role by deciding objectives once a year and meeting regularly to review the work.

The NEC is due to discuss the leadership contest in a scheduled conference call, but is thought unlikely to make decisions on its process or timetable at this stage.

Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP)

The term “Parliamentary Labour Party” refers to the Labour party in parliament.

To mount a bid for the leadership – when there is a vacancy – candidates need a nomination of 12.5 per cent of PLP – 33 MPs at present.

Originally, the leader of the Labour Party was elected purely by the PLP but now an “electoral college” is used.

Electoral college

This process involves Labour MPs and MEPs, grassroots activists and affiliated organisations, including trade unions. It came about after the party’s “Bennite” (led by Tony Benn) left wing pushed for a more democratic structure in the late 1970s and early eighties.

At the last contested election of a Labour leader, in 1994, 700,000 individuals were entitled to cast a ballot, but their votes were not all worth the same. The vote of an individual MP is worth more than that of an activist or union member.

Ballots of the three sections of the electoral college will be conducted in time for the new leader to be named by the party’s annual conference in Manchester at the end of September.

Labour leadership: whose vote counts the most?

So who might the college favour?

Ed Miliband has the support of Unite the union, the largest trade union in the UK.

Ed wrote the 2010 election manifesto but it is brother David who is viewed as a talented diplomat and statesman as foreign secretary.

Grassroots Labour supporters might be tempted by Ed Balls. Never without a mug of tea he is keen to project a down-to-earth demeanour, despite his Oxford education.

Andy Burnham has certainly underlined his “ordinary bloke” credentials during the campaign, telling Channel 4 News: “My parents didn’t go to university, and they weren’t party activists.

“So I didn’t come from a background where this life that I’m leading now was expected. My route in has been different, and obviously that gives you a different perspective on life.”

The Milibands bring with them a rich left-of-centre heritage. They are the children of Polish Jewish immigrants and grew up surrounded by progressive political thinkers. Their father, Ralph Miliband, was a Marxist theorist.

Labour’s die-hard left may plump for Diane Abbott who has stressed to Channel 4 News that she is “more than a token candidate” and the only contender who can “move Labour on from the Blair/Brown years”.