UK Labour chooses a new leader

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The UK Labour Party is currently entering the final stages of a months-long process to choose a leader to succeed Gordon Brown, following their election defeat earlier this year.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown resigned, both as Labour leader and as Prime Minister, on 11 May, six days after the general election produced a hung parliament, leading to a coalition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Under Labour Party rules, the Leader and Deputy Leader of the party are elected by a vote of three groups of people, with their votes weighted such that each group makes up one third of the votes counted:

  • Labour members of the House of Commons and European Parliament
  • Individual members of the Labour Party
  • Individual members of affiliated organisations (mainly trade unions)

Votes are counted using preferential voting. In 2010, voting will close today, September 22, with the result announced at the Labour conference on Saturday September 25.

It’s important to stress how different this is to how all political parties in Australia elect their leaders. Under this system, which was introduced in 1993 and used to elect Tony Blair in 1994 and Gordon Brown in 2007, grassroots members of both the party and affiliated organisations become much more significant, although the one third of the vote cast by Members of Parliament is nothing to sneeze at.

At the leadership election in 1994, Blair was easily elected, winning over 50% in every category, although that varied from 52% of party members to 60% of MPs. In 2007, Brown was elected unopposed.

The only close election conducted under this system was the party’s deputy leadership election in 2007. None of the six candidates gained more than 20% of the vote in the first round, with the three voting groups leaning towards different candidates. After a series of eliminations, Harriet Harman narrowly defeated Alan Johnson. Johnson won a majority amongst affiliated organisations and MPs, but lost due to Harman winning a larger majority amongst party members.

There are five candidates standing in 2010. Former Foreign Secretary David Milliband; former Climate Change Secretary Ed Milliband; former Education Secretary Ed Balls, former Health Secretary Andy Burnham; and London MP Diane Abbott.

Each candidate was required to receive 33 nominations from Members of Parliament. Left-winger John McDonnell originally made an attempt at achieving  this number, before withdrawing and endorsing Abbott. David Milliband, who was nominated by many more than 33 MPs, “loaned” some of his nominators to Abbott to get her over the line.

Four of the five candidates are strikingly similar, while the fifth stands out. Abbott is a member of the party’s left and held no ministerial office in the Blair/Brown Government. She is the only woman and the only candidate from an ethnic minority standing. She has been a Member of Parliament since 1987, while none of the other candidates was elected to Parliament before the turn of the decade.

The leading candidates are the brothers Milliband. David, the older brother, was elected to Parliament in 2001 and was previously a senior advisor to Tony Blair. Ed was elected to Parliament in 2005 after serving as an advisor to Gordon Brown.

Ed Balls was an advisor to Gordon Brown in opposition and the early years of government, going on to serve as chief economic advisor at the Treasury before being elected to Parliament in 2005. He went on to serve in the Brown Cabinet, alongside his wife Yvette Cooper, who has been a member of Parliament since 1997. Cooper was considered a possible candidate for the leadership, but withdraw in favour of her husband.

Andy Burnham has been an MP since 2001, and served as Health Secretary from 2009 to 2010, and a number of other roles before that.

Limited opinion polling has shown that, on primary votes, the Milliband brothers stand out ahead of the rest of the field, a September poll showed Ed Milliband slightly ahead, although David was winning a slim majority amongst MPs. Their campaigns have drawn a sharp distinction in terms of the direction of the Labour Party. David Milliband has emphasised the need to win back the voters lost to the Conservatives by maintaining the centre ground staked out by Tony Blair, while Ed Milliband and his supporters have talked more about winning back those alienated by Tony Blair’s “third way” agenda.

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