Sunday, September 26, 2010

What's wrong with the electoral college?

So Ed Milliband has been elected Labour leader, winning the unions big, and losing the members and MPs. Are the system and result wrong in some way? Does it matter that not all votes are equal? I don't think so.

There's nothing inherently unreasonable about having a ballot just of MPs or just of members, or just of some wider constituency, like an open primary. So what can be wrong with a heterogenous compromise between these homogenous ballots?

And yes, there is something wrong with representing the interests of unionised workers over and above everybody else - lower paid non-unionised workers, the unemployed, the self-employed, etc - but it is a wrong that is at the core of the Labour party identity. If the Conservatives had an electoral college with such a wider constituency, it would include all the already privileged and powerful people. Well perhaps not all of them - they might make a point of leaving out Trades Union bosses.

And if the Liberal Democrats had an electoral college including non-members, it would include everybody, or at least all self-identified supporters, reflecting our belief in not dividing people up arbitrarily by class or some other aspect of identity.

And we're not so far off an electoral college. Nick Clegg had the support of many more MPs than Chris Huhne, and this fact alone doubtless influenced some members to support him. And a leader should enjoy the support of MPs, so perhaps this could be recognised in the ballot rather than relying on the power of endorsement. On the other hand MPs are perhaps more likely to back the winner, so a ban on endorsements would be a good complement to an MPs section in an electoral college. And for deputy leader MPs vote and we don't. And it's not an outrage.

The Conservatives also have something like an electoral college, but cleverly have the MPs reducing the contenders to 2, and then the members making the final choice. I say cleverly, because this process is designed to enjoy all the benefits of AV while looking as little as possible like it.

Ah yes, AV. Did I mention that Ed Milliband only won on transfers, and that David was leading not only on first preferences but in every round but the last one. But of course supporters of Diane Abbot and Andy Burnham deserve to have some say in the final outcome. It's not a gerrymander to let them transfer their votes to one of the Millibands. Ed had more support than David in the electoral college as specified, and the FPTP result would have been a travesty.

So it is good to see the importance of transfers in proving the winner is better supported than the runner-up, is not just supported, but taken for granted by the Labour Party. Amen to that.

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