An explanation. Since 1983, new Labour leaders have been chosen by an electoral college of three parts: i) Labour MPs and, more recently, MEPs; ii) members of constituency Labour parties; and iii) members of affiliated organisations, such as trade unions and socialist societies. The above graph shows what proportion of the winning candidates’ final tally came from each of these parts.
Unions on top. You’ll notice that the red line – aka, the union vote – is often at the top of the graph. This was clearest in 1988, when a full 44.8 per cent of Neil Kinnock’s support came from affiliated members, compared to only 28.0 per cent from Labour parliamentarians and 27.2 per cent from party members. But it was also true for Kinnock in 1983, John Smith in 1992, and Ed Miliband in 2010.
Exceptional Blair… Technically, there are two exceptions to this rule. Gordon Brown is one of them, but he was crowned without competition in 2007, so we won’t count him. The other is Tony Blair. Back in 1994, Tone ascended to his party’s leadership by turning the usual paradigms on their head. 30.6 per cent of his support came from affiliated members, compared to 34.0 per cent from party members and 35.4 per cent from parliamentarians.
…is the exception in more ways than one. I don’t want to start confusing cause, correlation and coincidence here, so it’s worth pointing out that Blair was actually the union’s preferred candidate in 1994: he gained 52.3 per cent of the affiliated vote overall. But it’s still striking that the Labour leader with the lowest level of union support, among these leaders, was also the only one to win an election. Or three.
The Burnham conundrum. Of course, Labour have changed their rules this time around to try and diminish the influence of the unions. But affiliated members will nonetheless be voting in large numbers, so the old conundrum remains. The candidate who relies on union support may well win his party’s leadership – but perhaps not the next general election.