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Whatever happened to One Member One Vote?

Millbank seems intent on introducing heavy-handed control systems on party democracy reports Trevor Fisher.

Over the last decade, the principle of One Member One Vote (OMOV) has become a talisman for reform in the Labour Party. Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair have all embraced the right of party members to make key decisions as fundamental to a healthy party. When Tony Blair claimed in Darlington last August that "basic decisions should be taken on a 'one member one vote' basis through a broad based enlarged Labour Party", he was re-stating the established creed that OMOV was crucial to his personal drive for modernisation.

The application of OMOV to Labour's internal processes has, however, taken a number of curious twists over the last year. Enthusiasts for membership democracy have scrutinised with growing concern changes in the rules for selecting candidates for the European parliament, the Welsh and Scottish Assemblies, the new London mayor and Assembly, and now the current NEC consultation document on the selection of Westminster MPs. Like the hunting of the Snark, the more they have looked for OMOV the harder it has been to find the beast.

The search for OMOV in the new modernised party began earlier this year when proposals for European election selections were unveiled. The introduction of proportional representation for the Euro elections in 1999 means a new selection system for candidates, since these will no longer be elected by Euro constituencies but from a regional list. As the government had made the controversial decision that voters would have to vote for a closed list, party by party with no choice of candidates within the lists, the placing of the candidate on the party list is decisive. The highest placed name becomes the first to be elected, with those lower down winning seats only as the votes cast by the electorate are allotted proportionally between the competing parties.

This is unavoidable in a PR system, and does not preclude the use of OMOV by the Party. Indeed, a simple OMOV ballot could be used for members within a region or nation, with the candidate receiving the highest number of votes topping the list, the second highest going second and so on. Positive discrimination for women and other groups can also be built in. However if the principle of OMOV is to rule, then the final ranking must be based on the OMOV ballot. Surprisingly, it became clear over Christmas that the party leadership was not prepared to do this. It emerged that while an OMOV ballot would be used for short listing candidates, the actual selection and ranking would be undertaken by a sub group of the NEC, behind closed doors, with a minority of regional representatives taking part in the process.

This was controversial, and when the January NEC put the proposals out to consultation, it left the door open for an OMOV ballot for the crucial ranking process. And when the results of the consultation were announced to the March NEC it transpired that 59% of the constituency parties which responded favoured an OMOV ballot, and 55% of the Euro CLPs. Only 23% favoured the NEC system. However, the NEC over-rode this result, announcing that as this was an unusual situation, due to the tight deadline, OMOV could only be used for the initial short listing, with the NEC sub committee making the crucial final decisions. The NEC was, however, at pains to reaffirm its commitment to OMOV as a principle, and stressed that this was a one-off decision which did not set precedents. The Party was merely in a difficult transitional period. What Labour is in transition to is deeply controversial.

The MEP selection issue was decided by the March NEC. Hardly had the NEC finished when crucial decisions on selection of candidates for the Welsh and Scottish Assemblies emerged. Supporters of OMOV were delighted to hear that the Euro situation had indeed not set a precedent. Candidates would be selected by the membership, and not by a small central committee meeting behind closed doors. Delight was short lived, however, as democrats learnt that the system would indeed involve a small central committee, one for each country, meeting behind closed doors, which would vet intending candidates and set up an approved list from which the members could then exercise their democratic right of One Member, One Vote. Supporters of this system argued that it was no different from the existing panels of council candidates, from which wards select their candidates. They were also anxious to assure critics that the tests would be only about basic competence, with no intention at all of any New Labour political motivation in the selections.

These arguments went some way to reassure critics, for the panel system in local government has worked well. Relatively few people have been excluded, competence has indeed been the key criterion, and Labour's broad church traditions have been maintained. Only in a few well known, scandal ridden, authorities have there been obvious abuses - Liverpool under Militant for example - and the precedents have been largely satisfactory. The actual results of the new process in Wales and Scotland have been anything but satisfactory.

In both countries, the first stage has been a written application with the selection committee making decisions to interview based on an application form. When the results of this initial stage emerged in May, it was found that many experienced Labour figures had not been allowed to proceed to the interview stage, while a high proportion of New Labour figures had been approved. To add fuel to the fire, the selection committee responded to its critics by arguing that its selection process had been objective. It had used three key tests to evaluate the forms - a commitment to equal opportunities, the ability to represent others, and to communicate effectively. This seemed odd to Jeff Jones, leader of Bridgend Council, since he is a lecturer teaching access courses for women, writes a weekly column for the Glamorgan Gazette, and has a regular spot on Welsh television. Keith Griffiths, deputy leader of Caerphilly County Council, has cited experience of equal opportunities going back to 1974 in support of his application plus years of experience representing miners at industrial tribunals and in fighting elections. He dismisses claims that the process has been politically neutral since, he argues, the requirement to set out relevant experience on the form used identifies key characteristics of the person concerned. Activists have appealed and are currently in the middle of an appeals process due to end in mid July.

The Welsh arguments have, however, paled into insignificance beside the furore which has broken out in Scotland. The selection process north of the border has been more rapid than in Wales because of the drive to speed up the elections for the Assembly. Plans to vet candidates for the Scottish parliament were approved by the Scottish executive in April, following approval of a paper tabled on the morning of the meeting. As in Wales, the initial selections were by application forms. 534 potential candidates returned the forms. Of these 208 were rejected without interview. The rest were then interviewed by a panel which included neutral observers whose role was to guarantee impartiality. The list was announced on June 13th and immediately caused uproar. A mere 167 candidates were finally approved for selection by OMOV ballot. Both the small size of the list, and the nature of the much larger pool of rejected candidates have led to uproar north or the border.

There are 73 constituencies for the Scottish parliament plus 56 candidates on the additional member list. Thus only 38 on the approved list can be left out, a ratio of places to candidates which has caused deep concern over the credibility of the choices available on the OMOV ballot. The situation is particularly controversial where women are concerned. Under arrangements designed to produce gender equality, at least 34 of the 69 on the list have to be selected for constituencies, plus another 28 on the additional member list, meaning that only 7 will fail to become candidates. Critics of the system claim that this effectively means that the pre-selection committee, and not the members, are making the choice of who should be the candidates.

The major controversy has however focused on the astonishing character of the pool of rejected applicants, which includes some of the best and most experienced politicians Labour has in Scotland. It is claimed that the selection process was rigorously based on ability only and was not designed to weed out independent and socialist thinkers. Yet the list of rejectees includes leading local government figures Elizabeth Maginnis and Anne Wallace, all four asian councillors who applied, members of the Scottish Convention, Isobel Lindsay and Esther Roberton, Mrs Ian Davidson, Dennis Canavan, Mike Connarty, and Mark Lazarowicz, ex-leader of Edinburgh council. Claims that the process was not simply a purge of the left, however, were supported by the rejection of Murray Elder, friend of former leader John Smith and senior advisor to Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar. Nevertheless, the contention by Rosemary McKenna, whose daughter is on the approved list, that the rejectees simply did not perform well on the day, have been treated with derision.

Those searching for OMOV have been puzzled not simply by the controversies over selections in the Celtic nations and for those seeking positions in Brussels. A similar conundrum has been developing in the capital itself. Plans for a London Mayor, approved by Londoners on May 1st, have opened up the thorny question of how Labour candidates for Mayor and the Assembly will be selected. Advocates of membership democracy have assumed, naturally, that it would be by One Member, One Vote. Yet there is surprising reluctance by the leaders of the party to confirm that this is so. Instead, an almost obsessional desire to stop Ken Livingstone running has dominated debate since May. This unfortunate lapse into personality politics has caused considerable anger among Labour members in the capital; so much so that the London Labour Party regional meetings in June passed a motion calling for an OMOV ballot with only one vote against.

These developments throw into sharp relief the current NEC consultation over Westminster selections. In New Labour's seemingly permanent revolution, selection of Members of Parliament has now reached the top of the agenda. A lengthy consultation document - sixteen closely typed pages - was issued after the May meeting of the NEC. Remarkably little time has been allowed for responses, since many affiliates did not receive the documents till the start of June and the deadline for responses was July 15th. Yet this is the most important change, and will affect every constituency in the UK. It is unfortunate that the NEC has chosen to issue a highly complex document with such a short deadline and with little notice, particularly as the issues posed by the document are so complex that they demand sustained consideration. Some of the proposals are sensible, some are not. It is sensible for the party to ban the so-called "chicken run", where sitting MPs in marginal seats are allowed to challenge MPs in safe seats. This is a recipe for civil war, and should not be allowed.

Other proposals are, however, far more controversial. Two stand out. It is proposed that the Chief Whip should send out reports to constituencies on laggard MPs with poor voting records in the Commons. This apparently technical matter is open to abuse, through malevolence, incompetence or both. There can be no reasonable objection to the publication of attendance records on all members, in a form which is open to scrutiny and challenge by the members concerned, and which can be made available to all voters. But for the Chief Whip to take power to selectively finger particular MPs is reminiscent of the Bennite pamphlet How to Select and De-Select Your MP issued to constituencies fifteen years ago. It led to civil war then, and any similar measure now would have the same consequences. Similarly, the proposal to establish an approved list, which to enter potential candidates must undergo training by the Millbank machine, have provoked comparisons with old style democratic centralist regimes. The furore similar methods have provoked in Scotland and Wales should cause the NEC to reconsider.

The last six months have shown conclusively that OMOV is not the simple matter that it once appeared to be. In the case of the MEPs, it has not been allowed to operate. In Wales and Scotland, it can operate only after a selection committee has vetted and weeded the applicants. In London, it may or may not operate according to political whim. And when the NEC makes up its mind about Westminster selections, the Welsh and Scottish controversies may be replicated across the Britain. Yet in principle OMOV is a very straightforward and unifying process. A broad swathe of candidates, selected with only the lightest of touches to remove obviously unsatisfactory candidates, can be put to the members for the free operation of their individual preferences. Those who win the highest number of votes by fair and open means win the selection.

That the process needed fine tuning to meet the changing needs of the late nineties is obvious. But in an imperfect world, OMOV has worked well and brought credit on the Labour Party. It is not obvious that the heavy handed control systems now being imposed up and down the country will do likewise. At the heart of the matter lie the basic rights of the member. Tony Blair once said that it was a sorry state of affairs "if we can't actually trust ordinary Labour Party members with decision making within the Labour Party". He was right. So why the massive emergence of control systems across the UK? What sort of Party does Tony Blair now want? Whatever happened to OMOV?