The Big Society has spoken…

Well, congratulations to Ed Miliband on being elected Labour leader, and congratulations (I think!) to the Labour party for taking such a high-risk (but potentially high-reward) course of action. I’m not going to pretend I’m free from trepidation – quite the opposite – but I do think Ed made a solid start in his acceptance speech, and perhaps my fears about his ability to find the right tone will (as I’d hoped) prove unfounded.

Ed is of course already being attacked as “the unions’ choice”, thanks to the fact the only section of the electoral college in which he came first was the Affiliates section. But it’s worth taking a look at the actual voting results to see what has actually happened.

First, a total of 338,374 people voted in this election. I don’t know if that’s a record for a party leadership election, but it’s pretty impressive. Of those, 266 were MPs, 126,874 were Labour party members – and 211,234 were members of trades unions and affiliated societies.

Contrary to the perception which the Tories (aided and abetted by the media) will be assiduously seeking to promote, there is not a single “union block vote” to be found: those 211,234 Affiliate votes were mostly from ordinary working people who pay voluntary political contributions along with their union dues. If anything, that section of the electoral college is the one that most reflects the wider electorate. The Tories like to talk about the “Big Society”: well, the trades unions are Britain’s largest voluntary organisations, and here are hundreds of thousands of their members engaging in politics as individuals. It’s the Big Society that has made Ed Miliband leader.

Does this result mean that Ed Miliband is in the pocket of the trades unions? At the very least, he’s likely to engineer some sort of minor confrontation with the unions in the near future to counter suggestions that he is beholden to them. More fundamentally (and more constructively), the fact that he’s been voted in by ordinary union members, rather than by union bosses, could well be a means for him to assert himself against union leaders: “You didn’t vote for me; your members voted for me, and I’m going to act in their interests rather than yours.”

As for claims that union members blindly follow their leaderships’ guidance: in 1994, union leaderships recommended that their members vote against Tony Blair, but 52% voted for him.

Let’s be honest, though: the “voted in by the unions” millstone is going to be hung round Ed’s neck by the Tories and the media, and his first big test as leader is going to be how he avoids being defined by this.

The other threat to Ed Miliband is the narrowness of the result. However, even there the 50.65% to 49.35% result thrown out by the complexities of the electoral college belies the fact that in terms of total votes, Ed beat David by 175,519 votes to 147,220. In other words, 28,299 more people voted for Ed than for David.

I haven’t been able to find figures yet for the total 1st & 2nd preferences cast for each candidate (as we don’t know how Ed and David’s second preferences went), but YouGov’s last poll suggested that 43% of party members voting for David Miliband as first preference then put Ed Miliband as their second preference. Sunder Katwala observes that 66% of party members will have voted for Ed as first or second preference, which gives him a solid mandate among party members. (Ed was my second preference.)

I haven’t had time to run the numbers yet, but it looks like Ed will also have a solid majority of MPs and MEPs voting for him as first or second preference. (Update: by my reckoning, Ed got 78 MPs’ first preferences and 70 second preferences, giving him the first or second preferences of 148 MPs, 58% of the total. Contrast Iain Duncan Smith – the last party leader generally reckoned to have been imposed on his MPs against their wishes – who only achieved 32% of Tory MPs’ final-ballot votes in the 2001 leadership election. So, once again contrary to what certain Tories and sections of the media are already saying, Ed is no IDS Mark II on these figures.)

Bottom line: despite what the Tories and the media will say, this is not about union leaders imposing Ed Miliband on MPs and the rest of the Labour party. Ed Miliband may not have been my first choice in the end, but he’s got a wide mandate from across the Labour movement. It’s up to him, now, what he makes of it and how he establishes himself as leader.

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2 thoughts on “The Big Society has spoken…”

  1. Let’s be honest, though: the “voted in by the unions” millstone is going to be hung round Ed’s neck by the Tories and the media, and his first big test as leader is going to be how he avoids being defined by this.

    Including those viscerally right-wing chaps at the Guardian’s politics blog. (link)

    Plainly he has been voted in on the strength of the unions’ support, provided we understand that it’s political levy union members and not the likes of Bob Crow. In one sense, I agree that this is more positive for him: activists and MPs are not entirely renowned for their ability to select a leader who will chime with the British public. This is about as close to an open primary for the job of party leader as we are likely to get, and in that sense I think it’s quite a good idea.

    However, I do foresee a difficulty. The reason many party members, including your good self, like him is because he’s the best compromise between being left-wing and being electable. But I don’t think he’s sufficiently electable unless he becomes less left-wing, which rather defeats the object of having a soft-left leader in the first place.

    1. He’ll tack back towards the centre now he’s been elected. He was already doing so in his speech this afternoon.

      I agree that being elected by union rank-and-file members is actually quite positive. MPs are calculating politicians, and Labour members are unrepresentative politics nerds. (Except for any who happen across this comment. You’re excluded from this sweeping judgment, even if I’m not. *cough* 😉 )

      The reason many party members, including your good self, like him is because he’s the best compromise between being left-wing and being electable.

      Though one reason I ended up turning away from him as first choice was I found him insufficiently left-wing in theory and insufficiently electable in practice! I’d rather have a right-wing* Labour government than a left-wing Labour opposition, any day…

      (* In relative terms, y’dig…)

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