Thursday, 24 February 2011


The Labour Party uses the alternative vote for key internal elections – most importantly for leader and deputy leader, most recently contested in 2010 and 2007 respectively.

The system is straight AV within a three-part electoral college that gives one third of the vote each to:
  • ordinary members; 
  • members of affiliated organisations (mainly trade unions); and
  • MPs and MEPs. 
In each section voters vote preferentially and may choose to list as many or as few candidates as they wish.

The system as been in place since 1993 and was first used in the election to choose the successor to John Smith as Labour leader in 1994.

In practice
The first Labour leadership and deputy leadership elections under the current system took place in 1994. Tony Blair won the leadership with 57 per cent of first preferences and John Prescott won the deputy leadership with 57 per cent of first preferences.

There were no contested leadership or deputy leadership elections until Blair and Prescott resigned in 2007. Gordon Brown was then elected unopposed as leader – but there was a contest for deputy leader, in which Harriet Harman won from a field of six candidates.

Harman won less than 19 per cent of first preference votes, behind John Cruddas, but won sufficient second, third, fourth and fifth preference votes to beat Alan Johnson in the final round by a whisker.

In 2010, after the resignation of Brown, there was a contested Labour leadership election, which was won by Ed Miliband from a field of five candidates.

Ed Miliband came second to his brother David on first preferences – 34 to 39 per cent – but beat him 51-49 after distribution of preferences.

Internal party elections and general elections are very different beasts. Labour members know how AV works from their experience of it in internal party elections but it is difficult to see how any of this relates to the proposed introduction of AV for general elections.

There was a lot of grumbling last year from supporters of David Miliband who felt their man had been somehow cheated of the leadership by the use of AV, but it is impossible to tell how  Labour members would have voted tactically in an FPTP contest – so the grumbling is best seen as a mixture of sour grapes and wishful thinking by backers of David Miliband (on which, it has to be said, the man himself has kept a dignified silence).

The main faults with the Labour system for leadership and deputy leadership elections have less to do with AV than with the electoral college, which:
  • gives multiple votes to many voters
  • weights the votes of MPs/MEPs, ordinary members and trade union members radically differently
  • allows affiliated organisations to be partial in their distribution of candidates' election materials.
Although the Labour leadership election system will now doubt crop up during the campaign on the AV referendum, it really isn't very relevant.

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