Welsh Labour Leadership election: lessons from 1998

Jon Owen Jones reflects on the 1998 election and the role of the electoral college in Welsh Labour

Jon Owen Jones is a former Under-Secretary of State in the Welsh Office

With the election of Welsh Labour’s deputy leader and the forthcoming election of a new leader there has been much discussion of labour’s electoral college. Many commentators have drawn comparisons with the election of Alun Michael as the first Assembly Leader and the defeat of Rhodri Morgan. I was a Welsh Office Minister at the time and had a front row seat over the machinations that achieved that unlikely result. Not wishing to wash Labour’s dirty linen in public I have stayed silent for 20 years  But now I think it’s time to explain what was done and how that knowledge may inform our future elections.


Ron Davies, then Secretary of State for Wales had recently been elected as Labour’s Leader in the future Assembly. When he resigned, the party needed a replacement quickly. It was a frantic 24hrs and I was occupied with appointing the leaders of every health trust in Wales. I am not sure whether that was a reason or an excuse, but I was the only member of the Welsh leadership team who was not invited to a meeting with the Prime Minister to decide what to do and who to back.


Alun Michael was appointed the new Secretary of State for Wales and was to stand as leader of the Assembly with the Prime Minister’s clear endorsement. Rhodri, who had stood in the previous election against Ron, would stand again. The party machine was expected to deliver the Prime Minister’s wishes.  This betrayal of devolution’s principles did stick in the craw but I knew I had little chance of persuading Tony Blair with that argument. Instead I thought that I could persuade people that the objective wasn’t achievable or sustainable. I had spent the last four years in the Whip’s Office and I began to work through the numbers. After a week or two I presented my findings to the Welsh leadership team. Rhodri would win the members’ vote (that was always assumed) but he would also win the vote of MPs and prospective AMs. Therefore Alun couldn’t win and it was time to build bridges with Rhodri. As I recall there was quite a silence and little more was said. A few days later someone came up with a cunning plan.


The Cunning Plan


A third of the college vote went to MPs , MEPs and AMs, but as yet the AMs hadn’t been elected. However the party had selected its 30 most winnable seats and my figures were based on the assessed preferences of those people. In fact, most of the other 30 candidates for largely hopeless seats had not even been selected. Suddenly it was decided that all candidates across all seats would have equal votes, and so who was fourth on south east regional list suddenly became a matter of great importance. If your vote was promised to Alun the party machine would deliver for him. These people selected for unwinnable seats would swing the result.


The party had ways of checking. The election was organised by an “independent” trade union body. However it either leaked or worked hand in glove with the Alun Michael team. How do I know? Well I had privately decided to abstain and days before the ballot closed I had a phone call from another minister who asked me why I hadn’t voted. I replied that as it was a secret ballot how could he possibly know about my vote? He replied that I shouldn’t ask that question. Hours later 10 Downing Street called. I was told that they expected loyalty from their ministers.


As for the trade union section, that was always in the bag for Alun. I don’t know what inducements were offered but as local government minister I was determined to make an example of the grossly inefficient and loss making direct labour organisations in Rhondda Cynnon Taf. I proposed that the Welsh Office take over their management. Alun blocked that decision and the union involved the GMB voted for Alun. Later Labour lost the Rhondda seat and the most pressing issue was local government incompetence.


The majority of AMs did back Rhodri and in a straightforward electoral college contest Rhodri would have won.  In the end the cunning plan worked but only in the short term, Within the year Alun’s lack of support in his group brought about his downfall in an effective coup.


A short history of the electoral college


Labour introduced an electoral college to elect its leader more than 30 years ago. It divided its party into 3 sections and gave each section a weighted proportion of the total vote. At first the trade unions were allocated 40%, party members and MPs 30% each. In the 90s that was changed so that each section received a third of the vote. For most of this time it appears to have produced stable and effective leadership, however that has little to do with the electoral college. Neil Kinnock was elected in 1983 and again in 1988. John Smith in 1992 and Tony Blair in 1994 (Gordon Brown was unopposed in 2005). In all of these cases the winner won every one of the sections. Therefore we would have ended up with the same leader even if the MPs alone made the selection.


Of course the Welsh result in 1999 was an exception to this rule and as I have explained it didn’t produce a stable result. Carwyn Jones’s result 10 years later reverted to the earlier pattern: that is he won comfortably in all sections and has enjoyed a long period of stability. When Gordon Brown stepped down after the 2010 general election the consequent leadership contest produced a result which was very difficult to justify. A majority of members and a majority of MPs voted for the older Miliband brother but the trade unions strongly backed Ed who was narrowly victorious. His poor performance in the last election left David Cameron with a majority in the Commons and having to deliver a referendum on Brexit (which I am sure was never his intention).


In the UK Labour has turned away from the college in favour of an equal vote to all party members. It has now has a leader backed by the membership, but shunned by a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party.


A parliamentary democracy not a presidency


A presidency is easier to understand and easier to report but it is not what we have. The people pick a president but parliamentarians pick a Prime Minister or First Minister in the Assembly. Within a parliament the Prime Minister is the person who commands more support than anyone else. The parliament can change its leader as it sees fit, which is how Rhodri took over from Alun and May took over from Cameron. Generally we tend to think this is a good thing. Try to imagine a Trump prime minister (not possible) or ask yourself why Erdogan creating a presidency in Turkey is worrying.


Now it’s possible to be a party leader in a parliament without the support of your group. It’s difficult but you can patch something together. However if you are aiming to form a government there are huge and probably insurmountable obstacles before you. A government must be able to govern. It must be able to win votes in parliament at almost all occasions. A leader whose support is mainly outside the institution but commands little support inside will either be completely ineffectual or be led by the nose by a de facto real leader or be ousted by a coup.


The party leaders in Westminster and in Scotland were both selected by one member one vote. They are both in opposition. The next Welsh Labour Leader will also lead a government. It is a practical requirement that whoever is chosen is acceptable to the group they lead.


I am not saying that the current electoral college is the best or only way of doing this. It is however nonsense to suggest that the opinion of an elected member of the Assembly is of no greater importance than that of any other party member. I am not saying that the AM’s view is better, I am just acknowledging that it’s more important that the next Labour leader commands the support of the team of AMs they lead.


Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.


While you’re here, we’ve got something to ask you: will you join us?

We’re working every day to bring the right people together and generate the ideas to make Wales a world-leading force.

We’re independent of government and political parties. We provide a much-needed space for open, transparent debate about the ideas that can make Wales better.

To continue to do this, we need people like you to join us.

Join us today and you’ll be supporting vital work that’s making our country better than ever.

Find out more