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Ballotgate – time for less ‘exhaustive’ secrecy

Ballotgate – time for less ‘exhaustive’ secrecy

🕔02.Dec 2015

Chamberlain Files readers have much for which to thank Dale’s Diary – countless insights into and distractions from the rich tapestry that is our city’s governance, writes Chris Game. Latest and most welcome distraction would appear to be Ballotgate, the fallout from the recent City Council leadership election.

Unlike the hush-hush election itself, from which we mere city residents and voters were emphatically excluded (RJF Public Affairs’ best efforts notwithstanding), Ballotgate is open to all.  At least, I assume it is – and even if not, I’d like to plead a special case, as a nerd with a personal interest. For I myself was once, as last week’s eventual election winner John Clancy might easily have been, the victim of an ABC campaign.

In my case it was Anyone But Chris, and, although it wasn’t an election and in fact involved relatively few participants (or bastards, as I prefer to call them), it was real and hurtful enough for me to identify readily with other C targets – like Clancy and the Blessed Jeremy.

First, though, I have questions, because in the Dale’s Diary account there were a few things I really couldn’t make sense of, particularly in the following key paragraph:

Clancy’s supporters are demanding to know why a last minute decision was taken by Labour’s West Midlands regional office to change the voting system from single transferable vote to exhaustive ballot. Labour councillors had been informed by letter weeks before that STV was the preferred choice, only to be confounded on the night when officials insisted it had to be an exhaustive ballot.

Just to clarify: an exhaustive ballot is a potentially multi-round ballot in which an elector casts a single vote for their preferred candidate. If no candidate receives an overall majority of votes, the one with fewest votes is eliminated and the process continues, round by round, until one candidate does achieve a majority. Exhaustive – and on occasions, with only one candidate eliminated per round, exhausting.

I have no personal involvement with the Labour Party, and I obviously wasn’t allowed anywhere near last Monday’s count. But, if I had been, far from being surprised, I’d have been expecting an exhaustive ballot, for at least two reasons.

First, whatever today’s Labour Party may happen to believe in this week, the Labour Party of Kier Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson has, pretty well from its formation, believed almost passionately in exhaustive ballots as the most democratic means of electing individual party leaders.

The great political columnist, Alan Watkins, went as far as to label them “the silver thread running through the party’s fabric”.

It’s how Scotland’s First Minister is elected, and the House of Commons Speaker, the host city of the Olympics (OK, no system’s perfect), and all Labour leaders from 1922 (MacDonald) to 1980 (Michael Foot, having finished some way behind Denis Healey on the first ballot).

Even when the electorate was extended beyond MPs to an electoral college including constituency parties and ‘affiliates’ like the trade unions, the exhaustive ballot remained, although it wasn’t required in 1983 and 1988, when Neil Kinnock was elected on the first vote against Roy Hattersley and Tony Benn, or in 1992, when John Smith faced only Brian Gould.

Only after the party’s 1993 rule changes – replacing union block-voting with one-member-one-vote (OMOV) and introducing postal ballots – followed by Smith’s sudden death in 1994, was the exhaustive ballot abandoned. It was seen by some at the time as a fix to deprive the party of a choice between Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Robin Cook and force one of them alone to fight John Prescott.

Anyway, when in 1994 the party did switch electoral systems, it was very definitely NOT to STV (Single Transferable Vote), which is a system of (approximate) proportional representation that can only be used in multi-member constituencies.

There is one round of voting in which voters can rank candidates in order of preference, and, if necessary, as many rounds of counting as are required for the number of seats to be filled by candidates reaching a calculated electoral quota.

STV simply CANNOT be used for the election of a single leader. What Labour switched to in 1994, therefore, was the Alternative Vote (AV) – the totally non-proportional electoral system that we were offered for parliamentary elections in the 2011 referendum.

AV is, if you like, a kind of streamlined, superficial – or whatever the opposite of exhaustive is – STV, in that there’s a single vote, in which voters can rank-order their preferences, and potentially multiple counts with bottom candidates eliminated, but the result is one winner with a majority, not several having reached a quota.

Whatever you may like, though, the fact is that it’s totally different from STV and has its own name, AV. And, after using it for over 20 years, and however disarrayed the party is currently, I find it difficult to believe that Regional Office staff would send out batches of letters to party members not only changing such a longstanding and cherished electoral system, but referring to the new one as STV.

But, of course, I could be wrong. Which brings me to the second reason why I’d have been expecting last week’s election to be conducted by exhaustive ballot – which is that I read it weeks before in the Birmingham Mail

The ballot is secret – the councillors do not have to say who they have supported. If there are more than two candidates, there will be successive rounds of voting with the losing candidate eliminated each time.

I remember thinking at the time that, with Chamberlain Files’ Oddsmeister offering Clancy at a miserly 1/8, the election could still be a whole lot more interesting than it would be under AV.  Because, returning to my ABC theme, notwithstanding those odds, Anyone But Clancy looked to have far more legs than Anyone But Corbyn seemed to back in September.

Indeed, despite using different systems, the two elections did have their tactical similarities, at least to an outsider – no, I meant me, not Barry Henley, the candidate whose single vote necessitated a whole round of voting on its own, and must have extended the evening’s deliberations by at least an hour.

The only way in which Corbyn, towards the end of the summer-long campaign, might possibly have lost would have been either by Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper withdrawing or by both getting all their supporters, if they themselves were eliminated, to make the other candidate their second choice. Use that choice, don’t waste it, either completely or on Liz Kendall – better looking than Henley, but with no better leadership prospects.

In the end, with Corbyn winning easily on the first count, it didn’t matter, but it might have. And in our election it did.

It must have been patently – indeed, rather excitingly – clear after the first round that Clancy (31 votes) was eminently defeatable by either Penny Holbrook (23) or Ian Ward (22).

And after the second round, following which Ward was eliminated, everyone knew exactly what was required, if Anyone But Clancy was to succeed. Ward’s 22 votes had to split at least 16-6 in favour of Holbrook. It’s a precision that those used to fighting AV elections would almost kill for.

So perhaps ABC wasn’t the prime objective that it appeared to be from the public pronouncements of the two defeated candidates. Perhaps they really didn’t mind who would and wouldn’t become Leader and Birmingham’s most important politician – unlike Clancy, who unashamedly and creditably cared hugely.

Or perhaps, given that there were apparently two spoilt ballots – that’s over 2.5%, which would be a disconcertingly high figure in a local or parliamentary election – they simply blew it. It would be nice to know.

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