STV, or not STV?

By Mike Phipps

Pressure is mounting on Labour’s National Executive Committee to adopt the STV method of electing its constituency section in future. It’s a bit odd that a committee should determine the method by which it is itself elected when there are higher bodies in the Party that could decide, but leaving that aside, there are more substantive reasons why this might not be such a good idea.

STV is a voting system, used for example in the Republic of Ireland, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference and in a general election to choose between candidates of the same party. Clive Lewis wrote recently on Labour List, arguing that the first past the post system for NEC elections “encourages a culture of ‘winner takes all’, stitch-ups and diktats”, whereas STV would foster “a culture of cooperation and consensus building.” The Electoral Reform Society favours the change and over 500 Party members have signed a letter supporting it.

The idea of moving away from factionalism in the Party has a tremendous appeal among ordinary members. It was part of the attraction of Keir Starmer’s campaign for the Labour leadership. However, as his subsequent appointments to his inner team underline – for example, his Chief of Staff Morgan Mc Sweeney, former campaign manager for Blairite Liz Kendall’s unsuccessful leadership bid in 2015 – moving beyond factions may be easier to talk about than achieve.

There is actually something to be said for slates, organised on a clear political basis, where people can see the platform of ideas for which they are voting. This makes for greater transparency, with individuals held to account by members for their record in office. With STV, members are more likely to pick well-known candidates from either side of the spectrum. It sounds post-factional, but will inevitably favour well-known names, including people who have become well known for other things – Tony Robinson, Eddie Izzard and other celebrities. So much for breaking out of the metropolitan bubble!

The fact is if we are to win back the ‘red wall’ seats outside London and the metropolitan centres , including in Scotland, we are going to need people on the NEC who may not be well known from areas where the Party is less embedded. We need better representation for BAME comrades, disabled activists and other sections who are under-represented in the Party. Slate-making allows these considerations to be factored in. An STV election would sideline these issues and turn the election into a popularity contest.

It’s interesting that there should be so much focus on changing the election of CLP reps to the NEC, the one area where the left has traditionally done well. There is no similar debate about the more opaque methods by which other sections of the NEC are chosen.

May’s NEC decided to defer the debate on STV until June, along with the whole discussion about whether to go ahead with NEC elections this year, with local CLPs unable to meet and nominate and Party Conference cancelled, due to the pandemic. That gives members time to reflect on the proposed change and to lobby NEC members that this may not be the great idea its supporters claim it to be.