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Welsh Labour, the trade unions and one-member one-vote

FOLLOWING Carwyn Jones’s dramatic announcement at Welsh Labour conference of his plans to step down as leader and first minister before the end of the year, the party now faces an election to choose his successor.

Controversy continues, however, about the system by which that election should take place.

It was only in 2016 that Welsh Labour gained responsibility over the election of its leader, along with the opportunity to create a new post of deputy leader.

The party’s Welsh executive committee (WEC) undertook a consultation of its constituency parties (CLPs) and affiliates last summer over the arrangements for electing its leadership team. A clear majority of responses favoured the introduction of one member, one vote (OMOV), which had been adopted for UK Labour leadership elections in 2014 and for Scottish leadership elections a year later.

A minority of responses, however, favoured retention of an electoral college system, versions of which had been used to elect Alun Michael in 1999 and Jones 10 years later and this minority included all five trade unions that made submissions — Unite, Unison, GMB, Usdaw and Community.

The views of the unions should always, of course, be taken very seriously, but what most party members didn’t expect was that the WEC would simply decide to commit the Welsh party to using the electoral college, disregarding the overwhelming weight of responses it had received, without even taking the matter back to Welsh conference.

Yet this is exactly what happened on November 4. The party’s first-ever deputy leadership election then got under way, with Julie Morgan AM and Carolyn Harris MP as the two candidates.

Morgan decided to stand precisely because of her anger over the WEC decision to reject OMOV. She had seen her husband Rhodri Morgan lose out to Michael in an electoral-college vote in 1999, despite winning the support of almost two-thirds of party members.

Moreover, Julie’s views on this were shared by a number of her fellow AMs, including Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford, and by a majority of Welsh CLPs, which launched a campaign to overturn the WEC ruling.

The OMOV issue dominated deputy leadership hustings in March and April, with many members expressing incredulity that the three-section college gave 58 full-time politicians — 29 AMs, 28 MPs and 1 MEP — the same combined voting weight as more than 25,000 ordinary party members.

When the election result was announced at Welsh Labour conference, the problems with the electoral college were laid bare.

Like Rhodri 19 years before, Julie had won nearly two-thirds of members’ votes but lost the overall election. It was the politicians, above all, who delivered the election for Carolyn and there was concern also at the paltry 4.7 per cent turnout in the affiliated supporters’ section and over reports that some people had voted as many as eight times, due to the number of affiliated organisations they had paid to join.

The result emboldened campaigners for OMOV and conference provided an opportunity to revisit the way that such elections are consulted.

A motion was carried calling for a Welsh Labour Democracy Review, which would consider all those areas of party activity devolved to Wales and therefore omitted from the UK party’s ongoing review.

Leadership and deputy leadership elections were explicitly included and Carwyn’s announcement made this aspect more pressing.

The demand started to be raised for the Democracy Review to have a first phase, running through the summer months and concluding with a special conference in early autumn, to look specifically at leadership elections.

This would allow the voting mechanism to be reformed before the contest for Carwyn’s successor begins in the autumn.

This demand was repeated by Mark Drakeford when he announced his intention to stand for the leadership two days after conference. He and his fellow OMOV campaigners were berated, however, in a public statement from Unison, GMB, Usdaw and the CWU, who complained that “certain people” were seeking to “bounce” the party into scrapping the election and warning that OMOV would “take away the trade union voice.”

This latter claim neglects to acknowledge, however, that under the system of OMOV used in two UK Labour and two Scottish Labour leadership elections, all members of affiliated trade unions who pay the political levy are entitled to a vote.

The only requirement is that they sign a statement endorsing Labour’s aims and values and do not support any other party. In the last UK leadership election in 2016, almost 100,000 affiliated supporters (mostly trade unionists) duly registered for, and used, their votes in this way.

Given that there are far more affiliated supporters than there are fully paid-up party members, OMOV could potentially increase rather than reduce unions’ influence, provided they make an effort to get their vote out.

It is significant that Unite did not join the other four unions in signing the statement. It is apparently committed now to supporting OMOV in Wales, in line with its UK-wide policy.

In any case, the WEC is expected to decide on the Democracy Review’s timescale, structure and terms of reference at its next meeting on June 9, so the campaign for OMOV could be about to enter a new stage.

Darren Williams is secretary of Welsh Labour Grassroots

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