Much has already been made about Ed Miliband’s victory depending on the unions, and no doubt there’ll be more of the same to come over the next few weeks. Even before the votes were in the Guardian was calling the voting system an undemocratic ‘relic’ crying out for reform and comparing poorly with those used by the Tories and Lib Dems. (This of course ignores the inconvenient reality that the Tory party’s system is only one member one vote once all but two candidates have been eliminated by MPs’ votes, which isn’t very democratic at all, but never mind.) There’s a lot of talk, too of the return of the age of ‘union barons’ controlling the party again, 1970s-style.
Except, of course, that this is all bollocks. Every Labour-affiliated union member (each of whom has deliberately chosen to be so – plenty of members of Labour-linked unions, including me, choose not to pay the party levy) gets an individual vote. This has already been pointed out by Ed himself and by various blogs, but don’t expect the press to take any notice. If the Guardian are happy to denounce this as a travesty of democracy, I can’t see the Telegraph et al being any more sympathetic. (And yes, the GMB dubiously got round the rules about not endorsing candidates, and they probably shouldn’t have done, but it was just a recommendation. I fail to see what’s so flagrantly anti-democratic about a democratically-elected union general secretary telling the union members who voted for him or her which candidate they prefer.)
If anything a one member one vote system would imply that the Labour-affiliated trade union members’ votes should be given equal weight to ordinary party members, rather than the much lesser weight they’re given now. But actually, I don’t think this would be a fair way of doing things. If you join a trade union your main motivation for doing so is likely to be your own working conditions (it certainly needn’t be the only motivation, but it is likely to be the principal one). Opting to pay the party levy is something you may or may not choose to do as part of that, but choosing to do so is not making a commitment to the Labour Party of equivalent strength as opting to join as an individual non-union member. As such an electoral college system which takes account of these two different kinds of relationship to the party is a perfectly sensible system. The fact that the votes of MPs and MEPs are given so much more weight than anyone else’s could much more plausibly be argued to be unjustifiable, but naturally no one’s paying that any attention at all.
In any case, even if none of the above is remotely convincing, there’s also the fairly simple freedom of association argument. Everyone who gets involved with the Labour Party in any capacity does so voluntarily. This being the case, how the party’s leaders are selected is really a question for the party and the party alone. Voluntary organisations of all varieties are and should be free to structure themselves however they like.