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

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


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

4 thoughts on “Welsh Labour Leadership election: lessons from 1998

  1. There is no attempt to justify the “super votes” of MPs. As someone who currently serves in the Assembly i would make three observations
    1) I am supporting Mark Drakeford because he is in my opinion the best candidate but I would have no problem if either Eluned Morgan or Huw irranca Davies, both of whom I am friendly with, won
    2) Because between a quarter and a third of Assembly members changes at each election, someone who had majority support in one Assembly could lose it at the next election
    3) The system is set up to make it impossible to have more than 4 candidates

    Surely the basic rules of democracy are a) everyone has one vote b) each vote is of equal value and c) The candidate with the most votes wins
    The electoral college fails all 3 tests

  2. I am not keen on the electoral college either. I believe it undermines the principle of a representative democracy. However one member one vote is worse.
    Why? Because Mike Hedges first basic rule of democracy doesnt apply. Everyone doesnt have a vote. Only Labour Party members have a vote. They alone would decide who leads the government in Wales. Mr Hedges has a super vote and uses it often. He votes as the representative of the people of Swanea East. All of the people, not just party members and not just those that voted for him. I would prefer a system in which the decision rested with those elected by the people and no one else.
    However thats not going to happen. Trade unions and party members have voted in leadership elections for 30yrs and they are not going to give up that privilege. As I explain in my article the electoral mechanism has historically been entirely academic as elected members and the wider membership shared the same view. That may no longer be the case.
    Mr Hedges second argument makes a strange point that because the Assembly membership changes then that could result in a changed leader. Good ; whats wrong with that? Party membership also changes. The majority that voted for David Miliband didnt suddenly change their mind and vote for Jeremy Corbyn.
    It is difficult to justify the super votes of MPs and Mike Hedges points out that I didnt try. However there is a problem if you exclude them. The Labour leader in the Assembly is also the leader of the party in Wales and exercises a degree of authority over its MPs. In truth this is a fudge as you cannot serve two masters. Maintaining this convenient fudge would be impossible if the Welsh elected representative with the largest mandates (MPs) were left out of the process.
    Giving party members the exclusive rights to decide who governs a nation works well in China and other one party states. Our systems are far messier but I prefer the mess.

  3. A practical argument deserving a similarly practical reply.

    The notion that an AM’s vote should wield more weight on the basis that they must have faith in the then First Minister, assumes a lack of accountability outside the Assembly Group. In reality, the majority of AM’s depend upon the organic link with their constituency labour party. The fact that so many CLP activists are no longer simply content to knock doors, but also express an active interest around policy and direction, speaks to the wider rejuvenation of the party.

    As with MPs, in the unlikely event that an AM were to hazard a move against a popular First Minister, the local membership can adopt any number of measures short of a nuclear option.

    Over time, the college had adapted to the parties hollowing. The results of the Deputy Leadership contest reveals a relatively high member but painfully low union affiliate vote. I would argue that this disparity represents an unfortunate legacy which we are now well positioned to change.

    Either way, for as long as we are gifted with an active membership, Welsh Labour does not need to fall back on the expedient of substitutionalism in order to ensure its stability.

    Given that the author begins by describing a mash-up in which the college was essentially packed by the leadership, ensuring what was ultimately an unsustainable outcome, we should take care that party democracy is positioned to rake full advantage of a new, happy reality.

  4. Jamie I made no argument about the AM`s being in a better position to have faith or otherwise in their leader. My argument rests on the democratic legitimacy of the selectorate. AMs are accountable to the people. Party members are not.
    As to happy reality; in Westminster we have no discernible leadership on Brexit and on a massive infrastructure development (Heathrow) the leader leads and the MPs walk in the opposite direction.

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