Critics of Labour’s electoral college system should be careful with their logic.
There’s been a lot of commentary about how perverse it is that Andrew Little won the Labour leadership pretty much because of support in the unions. I sympathise, but if that’s why it’s a problem that Mr Little won, it’s worth asking exactly what you want from the voting system.
Here’s the thing: Whenever you grant any person, group or other actor any right to vote, you must accept that there is at least some circumstance in which they can single-handedly change the outcome. If there isn’t, then there’s literally zero—not just negligible—chance of impact from the vote, so why would you bother with it?
So when Labour’s electoral college gives the unions any weight greater than zero, it must expect that a situation like today’s, where a candidate lost the caucus and membership but still won the leadership, is possible. Conversely, if it bothers you that Mr Little basically rode in on union support, then you have to advocate that the unions should have no say in the Labour leadership at all.
Now, to be honest, this is pretty much my position, and I’m sure commentators outraged at how the result was achieved would agree. But this requires more than just the observation that the unions don’t agree with caucus or the membership. The fact that there’s a split in opinion there doesn’t imply that the unions are wrong.
The question of whether the unions should have a say can be answered only by asking what the Labour Party is supposed to be about. The Labour Party has its roots in the trade unions, so it’s not outrageous to suggest that they have a stake in the leadership. History isn’t alone good reason, though. The Labour Party is supposed to be a government-in-waiting (or ideally, a government), and there’s a strong argument that any formalised union influence detracts from that role.
This all also means that the fact that Mr Little had 76% union support in the final round isn’t part of the argument. If you want to give unions weight, then presumably you’d accept that the stronger one’s support there, the bigger the potential impact it should have on the final outcome. (I suppose you could have a winner-takes-all scheme like America’s Electoral College, but I hope you’ll agree that’s much worse.) People keep pointing to the numbers as if the extent of the union victory has some particular impact on the result’s legitimacy. Yet I bet if the caucus, members and unions were all close, and it was ultimately the unions that got Mr Little over the line, these critics would still all be saying the same thing
The only qualitative argument I can think of is that Mr Little’s support came about because of his former role as a union boss, so the unions were installing “one of their own”. Perhaps it would be better if Labour’s electors tried to be more objective, but presumably the unions were backing Mr Little because they actually thought he’d do a good job. How is the fact that that belief came from prior experience any different to any other support based on prior work someone’s done with a candidate?
The problem isn’t that the numbers fell a certain way. It’s that Labour instituted a leadership system that obsesses so much with itself that it insists accountability to a weird numerical mash-up of three distinct, and often clashing, parts. If we want to leave one part out of it, then use substantive arguments about why the unions shouldn’t matter, not just an observation that they can, and do, sway the result.