Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Zarah Sultana: Electoral College Is a ‘Shameful, Anti-Democratic Power Grab’

The proposal to abolish 'One Member, One Vote' in Labour leadership elections is an attack on democracy by a Westminster elite – and betrays Keir Starmer's commitment to empower party members.

(Leon Neal / Getty Images)

There’s nothing really that special about MPs. We’re not necessarily the finest minds (look at Gavin Williamson) or the best public speakers (try listening to Tory MPs in the Commons). But what we are is representatives, elected to serve our constituents in Parliament, a responsibility we owe to our parties. Were it not for Labour members and trade union affiliate members – who knock on doors, deliver leaflets, and build support for socialist politics in our communities and workplaces – I and my colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) would be nothing.

The hundreds of thousands of people who sustain our party and the millions of workers who make up the wider labour movement are rooted in their communities. They face the same struggles as millions of ordinary people do. They know what it’s like to face cuts to Universal Credit, underfunding of schools and hospitals, and the injustice of low pay and unaffordable rents. My CLP is made up of nurses, teachers, students, pensioners and many others – people from all walks of life. They are the lifeblood of our party, and often are at the heart of the community too.

Any notion, then, that Labour MPs have a better understanding of the challenges facing the people they’re elected to represent, and the members to whom we owe our positions, is offensive elitism, driven by an unfounded arrogance. This kind of attitude – the idea that a small group of politicians who spend the vast majority of their time in, and are often enraptured by, the Westminster bubble – know better than everyone else is precisely why so many outside SW1 find politics profoundly alienating.

When Keir Starmer ran for Labour leader, it seemed to many members that he grasped this. He pledged a “more inclusive, more democratic culture” in the party, and to “push power, wealth and opportunity” away from Westminster. Keir even wrote that we “must embed into our systems and actions this principle that all members are equal.” His leadership thus far has hardly lived up to these promises. But Keir’s attempt to reintroduce an electoral college for future leadership elections is a new low and marks a grievous betrayal of his mandate.

The return of an electoral college would be a shameful, anti-democratic power grab by the leadership, hoarding yet more power in the hands of MPs in Westminster. It would mean that the vote of a single MP in future leadership elections would be worth the same as literally thousands of members and trade unionists. In attempting to push through this proposal, Keir is not only further trashing the mandate on which he leads the party, but turning his back on the most basic of democratic principles: one person, one vote.

Opposition to this elitist Westminster power grab isn’t limited to socialist MPs on the backbenches. Multiple shadow ministers have spoken out against it. So too have Open Labour and Simon Fletcher, a former senior special advisor to Keir, who wrote that a return to the electoral college would be a “totally unacceptable diminution of the rights of Labour Party members.”

After all, it was Ed Miliband who introduced the ‘One Member, One Vote’ (OMOV) system in 2014 as Labour leader. While the media were determined to spin it as a set-piece confrontation with the trade unions, Unite, my union, alongside GMB, saw that it was in fact a historic advance for party democracy. Ed himself said that one member, one vote was about “letting the people back into our politics,” and making “us more reflective of the country we seek to govern”. He was absolutely right.

As was my colleague Jonathan Reynolds, now the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, when he said in 2016 that he sees “no justification for MPs having a third of the vote to themselves.” Jonathan pointed out that the electoral college “belongs to an era of machine politics that is no longer with us.”

These are not the actions of a party leadership that has any interest in winning the next general election. Keir should be taking the fight to the Tories and presenting a compelling vision to the country. Instead, he is attempting to entrench permanent control over the party by a faction whose only agenda for the past decade has been aggressively opposing first Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn – and publicly trashing their respective social democratic and socialist programmes.

All those across the party and movement who want Labour to be a progressive, democratic party that faces the challenges of the twenty-first century – rather than a Blairite rump ruled by a narrow Westminster clique – must unite to oppose this anti-democratic power-grab.