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The Labour Party leadership and deputy leadership elections of 1994.

THE sudden death of John Smith on 12 May 1994 stunned the Labour Party. It was widely portrayed by the media as not merely a `tragedy' and a `watershed' for the party, but as `altering the political landscape'. Parallels were drawn with the death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963, for Smith, like Gaitskell, was credited with having taken the party to the threshold of power. Since his election to the leadership in 1992,(1) party morale had risen dramatically. Labour was now 20 points ahead of the Conservatives in the opinion polls and it appeared set to repeat, in the elections to the European Parliament, the success it had just achieved in the local government elections.

Smith's death deprived the party of a figure of genuine political stature -- its only front-bencher with Cabinet experience. His opinion poll rating had been well ahead of the Prime Minister's and his authority within the party had been unrivalled. His brief tenure was characterised by a high degree of party unity and many feared that his death would put that at risk. He had in many respects stood above the internal party differences between `modernisers' and `traditionalists' so that there appeared a danger that these would be reopened in the struggle for the succession. The difficulty of organising an election which did not damage the party's image was compounded by the fact that it had to be conducted under new rules introduced in 1993.(2) Moreover, although the reforms introduced at the 1993 annual conference had reduced the role of the trade unions in the party's decision-making processes, Smith had been forced to compromise over their participation in leadership elections.(3) It was by no means certain that the adverse publicity their activities had attracted in 1992 would not be repeated. The logistics of conducting a contest with a potential electorate exceeding four million (including individual party members and trade union political levypayers) were beset with difficulties. Further, no contest having been expected so soon, numerous `loose ends' in the procedures remained to be sorted out.

The timetable

The first problem concerned the election timetable. Unlike the Conservatives, Labour's cumbersome leadership election processes do not permit a choice to be made within a few days. The party was thus again confronted with the dilemma it had faced on Neil Kinnock's resignation in 1992: it had to choose between electing a successor to Smith in the minimum possible period (by some time in mid-July) or leaving it until later in the summer -- the result then being declared at the annual conference in October.

In 1992 the party had opted for July -- largely because Kinnock had wished to hand over quickly. On this occasion, however, there were additional complications, not least because amendments to the rules made in 1993 had the potential to lengthen the process. Votes in the trade union section of the electoral college had now to be based upon individual ballots of unions' Labour-supporting levy-payers, and identifying and polling those entitled to vote promised to be a complicated logistical exercise. Moreover, with European Parliament elections due on 9 June, a leadership contest might detract from the effectiveness of the Euro-campaign. The precise timing of the contest could have a crucial bearing upon who would be the party's deputy leader. The rules did not provide for a challenge to Margaret Beckett's position until the party conference, so that opting for July would prevent what many felt was the advantage of simultaneous election of a leader and deputy leader, as had occurred in 1983 and 1992. A subsequent autumn challenge for the deputy leadership would be very improbable; two separate ballots would be both highly expensive and divisive, so potential deputy leadership challengers would be pressured not to provoke a contest. But there were also powerful arguments against deferring until the autumn. Internal party divisions would be much more liable to be exposed during a protracted campaign period; they would also inhibit Labour's capacity to exploit the difficulties the government was experiencing. An early election would give the new leader time to establish him or herself before the conference and Parliament's resumption after the summer recess.

An emergency meeting of the shadow Cabinet was convened immediately after Smith's death. Chaired by Beckett (who, under the rules, automatically assumed the leadership until the succession could be resolved), it agreed to defer leadership campaigning and even the declaration of candidatures until after the Euro-elections. An overall timetable for the election was to be determined at the next regular meeting of the National Executive Committee (NEC) on 25 May.

Before this, the NEC had to resolve some confusions over the rules. The 1993 conference had decided that voting in each section of the electoral college should be by one member one vote (OMOV). But -- apparently by an oversight -- it had left unchanged the provision that in the event of no candidate obtaining 50% of the votes on the first ballott, `further ballots should be held on an elimination basis'. This requirement had been appropriate when electoral college delegates could decide how the votes of the bodies they represented should be cast. It was clearly not feasible under OMOV. A close-fought contest between more than two candidates would require expensive and time-consuming reballotting. There was a further difficulty over the votes in the trade union section: though requiring all unions to ballot their members, the conference had left it to individual unions to determine the precise form of their ballots. Fears were now expressed that discrepancies between unions' procedures might expose the election to ridicule and even legal injunctions.

The NEC substituted election on a preferential (Alternative Vote) basis for the exhaustive ballot. It also required all unions to conduct ballots which guaranteed their members a secret vote. The assumption was that they would hold postal ballots, although other systems might be employed with NEC approval. (Alternative arrangements were subsequently approved for the print union GPMU, the pit deputies' union NACODS, the fire brigades' union FBU and the bakers' union BFAU.) As had been widely predicted, in determining the timetable the NEC opted for a short contest to minimise disruption and uncertainty. Nominations were to open on 10 June and close on 16 June, with ballot papers being sent out on 30 June. The result was to be announced on 21 July at a `gathering' rather than a full electoral college (the cost of which in 1992 had incurred much criticism). There was one major surprise. At Beckett's suggestion, it was announced that (to avoid the expense of a possible second contest in the autumn) the date of the deputy leadership election should be advanced, so that in the event of there being a challenge the contest would coincide with that for the leadership.

The emergence of the candidates

The official moratorium on campaigning could not, of course, prevent speculation about potential contenders. Indeed, this rapidly became widespread in the media and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) itself. Most attention immediately focused upon the party's two leading `modernisers': Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The adoption of OMOV and preferential voting meant that, by contrast with 1992, both could have entered the contest without splitting the `moderniser' vote and ceding the leadership to a `traditionalist' left-wing candidate. But they had a long-standing agreement not to stand against each other and this was renewed after Smith's death. A contest would risk damaging their close personal friendship and creating divisions between their supporters as well as dilute the modernisers' campaign. It was believed, from the outset, that whichever stood would win the leadership -- neither wanted the deputy leadership. Much clearly depended upon who seemed likely to have the greatest appeal not simply within the party but also amongst the wider electorate.

It was generally agreed that, had Smith not stood in 1992, Brown would have been the front-runner. Slightly older than Blair (43 to 41), he had been the principal member of the shadow Treasury team under Smith before the general election and shadow Chancellor since. In 1992 he had come top of the shadow Cabinet poll for the fifth successive year. He had, however, slipped slightly since then, his declining popularity being generally attributed to his attempts to change Labour's economic policies in the hope of dispelling the impression that the party was committed to excessive public spending and high taxation. Blair's star, by contrast, had risen rapidly since the election and he had come ahead of Brown in the 1993 NEC election. An effective shadow Home Secretary, he had converted the traditionally `Conservative' law and order issues into `Labour' ones. He was also much more telegenic than the rather dour Brown. As early as 15 May, opinion polls showed Blair well ahead amongst both Labour supporters and the broader electorate. He was the clear favourite of the media, which made much of his apparently greater capacity to attract support in the south of England -- indispensable to Labour's electorate success. Successive polls giving Blair substantial leads made it increasingly probable that he would be the modernisers' candidate. It was therefore no real surprise when, on 1 June, Brown announced his decision not to stand.

Brown's statement evoked a twofold response. Most welcomed it as a selfless action designed to `end speculation and confusion' and to `avoid any diversion from the unity and teamwork necessary ... to ensure the election of a Labour government' (Independent, 2.6.94). But some criticised this `breach of the understanding that there would be no pronouncements about the leadership until after the European election' (Guardian, 2.6.94). The endorsement of Blair, which Brown coupled with his own withdrawal, was seen as unfairly disadvantaging other potential candidates. There were allegations, too, that, as a quid pro quo, he had been guaranteed the right to shape the party's economic policy.

Blair's rapid emergence as the front runner led to some calls for him to be elected unopposed. The President of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union announced that `it would please us no end if a natural leader emerged and the politicians had a consensus on their next leader' (Independent, 16.5.94). This was, however, very much a minority view; Blair himself was reported to believe that victory in a public contest was important to his future legitimacy and authority. After the controversy over the introduction of OMOV it was widely believed, both for the party's public image and to avoid rank and file disenchantment, that the new procedures should not be circumvented by what would inevitably be depicted as a `fix'.

There was considerable media speculation during the `phoney' campaign period before the Euro-elections as to who else would contest the leadership. John Prescott was thought certain to stand. He had been defeated for the deputy leadership in 1988 and 1992, but his stock had risen after his vigorous (and, many felt, telling) support for Smith's OMOV proposals in 1993. He had come third in the shadow Cabinet elections in 1993. Many saw Robin Cook, the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, as a possible contender. He had topped the shadow Cabinet poll in 1993 and was one of Labour's most astute tacticians and effective parliamentary performers. However, his physical appearance and poor television image were considered disadvantages. Moreover, being on the party's soft left, he would be competing for much the same constituency as Prescott, who could count on stronger trade union support. Another possible contender was Jack Cunningham, the shadow Foreign Secretary who, though never previously thought of as a potential leader, now pointedly declined to rule himself out as a candidate. He was, however, very much an outsider and was thought unlikely to be capable of mustering the nominations of the 12.5% of the PLP (34 MPs) required for a valid candidature. A further `possible' -- Ken Livingstone, a member of the hard-left Campaign Group -- was in a similar position, having obtained only 13 nominations in 1992.

Much attention inevitably focused upon Margaret Beckett. Her intentions remained unknown until the end of the Euro-election campaign. There was a general consensus that if, having performed effectively as acting leader, she wished merely to revert to the deputy leadership, she would easily retain it. Indeed, had she done this, her position would have been so strong as to have rendered even a challenge extremely difficult. Her suggestion that the deputy leadership election be brought forward offered no clue as to her plans, for it would have been compatible with her seeking merely to reinforce her tenure of that post. However, she appears to have come under considerable pressure to contest the leadership -- not least from a number of women MPs eager to make the party more attractive to female voters. She eventually opted for what was judged to be the high-risk course of standing for both posts, calling upon the other leading candidates to do the same. She also formally resigned from the deputy leadership. This step was significant. As a result of changes made in 1993, other contenders for the deputy leadership (because it was now vacant) would require nominations from only 12.5% of the PLP. Had she not resigned, any challenger would have required 20% support (54 MPs).

Beckett's decision appears radically to have altered Prescott's strategy. Until then, his plan seems to have been to contest only the leadership. (He had, it was believed, been influenced by the experience of Bryan Gould who, having entered the two contests in 1992, had suffered humiliating defeat in both.) It had been considered extremely unlikely that he could beat either Blair for the leadership or Beckett for the deputy leadership -- so long as she stood for that post alone. Contesting the leadership made her much more vulnerable to a challenge for the deputy leadership and as a result, when nominations opened, Prescott, too, announced his candidature for both posts.

As had by then been widely anticipated, both Cook and Cunningham declared that they would not stand for either post. An entirely unexpected development, however, was the announcement that Denzil Davies, a backbench left-wing Eurosceptic, proposed to enter the leadership contest. Though a former Treasury minister and shadow defence spokesman, his public profile was now very low and he seemed most unlikely to secure sufficient nominations. Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn of the Campaign Group announced their candidatures for the leadership and deputy leadership respectively on 12 June, only to withdraw them three days later for lack of support. They then backed Beckett instead.

The close of nominations confirmed Blair as the overwhelming favourite for the leadership. His candidature was endorsed by 154 MPs -- not far short of the 168 nominations Smith had received in 1992. Of these, 13 (including Brown, Cook and Cunningham) were members of the shadow Cabinet. Prescott was reported to have had some difficulty in securing the necessary leadership nominations. One shadow Cabinet member -- Ron Davies (a declared supporter of Blair) -- announced that he had nominated Prescott `to ensure a three-cornered contest' (Guardian 17.6.94). In the event, Prescott received 46 nominations and Beckett 42, three shadow ministers supporting Prescott but none Beckett. Denzil Davies received only seven nominations and was therefore eliminated from the contest. For the deputy leadership, Beckett received 106 nominations and Prescott 101, Beckett's including eight shadow Cabinet members and Prescott's five. Several MPs switched allegiance between them for the two posts: nine of Prescott's backers for the leadership nominated Beckett for deputy leader; seven of Beckett's supporters for the leadership nominated Prescott for the deputyship. Of Blair's supporting nominations for the leadership, 54 endorsed Prescott for deputy leader and 61 Beckett. Political commentators made much of the fact that the latter included Gordon Brown, suggesting that it indicated that she was also preferred by Blair. But following Smith's practice in 1992, Blair himself made no nomination for deputy leader. (Nor did he vote, later.) All rumours of a joint `ticket' or link between Blair's campaign and that of either of the deputy leadership candidates were firmly repudiated.

The campaign

The campaign officially began when the Euro-election polls closed, but it had commenced unofficially well before. The formal declaration of Blair's candidacy was coupled with an announcement that he allied had the support of 135 MPs. (Beckett's camp complained that her heavy official commitments as acting leader had given her rivals a head start. They riposted that the position gave her valuable publicity through Prime Minister's question time, election broadcasts and other high-profile engatements.)

As in 1992, each candidate's campaign was run by a small team. Prescott again chose Dick Caborn to head a group consisting mainly of northern MPs. Clare Short (working closely with Dawn Primarolo and Beckett's husband, Leo) organised the Beckett campaign. Blair's team was headed by Jack Straw, assisted by fellow shadow Cabinet member Mo Mowlem and Peter Kilfoyle, a Whip.

All three candidates followed the now traditional practice of issuing manifestos, though there were marked differences between them. Beckett's was the glossiest: heavily emphasising her experience and achievements, its eight pages contained no less than five colour photographs. There was a brief discussion of employment and welfare issues and a gesture in the direction of European integration, but no serious attempt to set out a policy agenda. Blair's much more austere manifesto comprised 20 photoless black and white pages of dense text. Devoted to setting out the basis of `a new policy agenda for national renewal', it ranged widely across the economy, social policy, political reform, foreign affairs and continued transformation of the Labour Party. Concentrating upon underlying principles and restating existing party policies, it contained no radical new initiatives. It did, however, give a better indication of the person and package on offer. So, too, did Prescott's 18-page document, although it was devoted almost entirely to (un)employment, identifying problems and outlining solutions. One feature of the manifestos was the late stage at which they were published: Blair's came out on 23 June, followed by Beckett's on 30 June, and by Prescott's on 4 July. Appearing at this point in the campaign, they had little or no impact in shaping its content, the main issues having emerged and been extensively debated well before they were published.

The most marked differences between the campaign strategies employed in 1992 and those adopted by all the candidates in 1994 were a consequence of the 1993 rule changes. Of these, the most significant were the abolition of the block vote and the requirement for Labour-supporting union affiliated members to be individually ballotted. They inevitably greatly reduced the role of the `union barons' who had largely sewn up the election of John Smith. It was recognised from the outset that this contest would be fought `in television studios and the columns of popular newspapers, rather than in the smoke-filled rooms or through the secret telephone calls of old' (Sunday Telegraph, 15.5.94). Several unions did provide a platform for the three candidates at their conferences and the NEC also laid on a series of seven official hustings spread around the party's administrative regions. In addition, hustings attended by either the leadership contenders themselves or their representatives were organised by many Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs).(4) But those attending such events constituted only a small proportion of the potential electorate. The switch to OMOV compelled the candidates to run campaigns designed to persuade a much wider constituency, which received most of its information about them from the media.

All three candidates undertook an exhausting schedule of television, radio and press interviews and appearances. A constant stream of press notices and briefings emanated from their campaign teams, which relied heavily upon people skilled and experienced in relations with the media. Blair's team received behind-the-scenes help from Peter Mandelson -- director of communications under Kinnock and now MP for Hartlepool. His `spin-doctoring' skills were actively employed briefing selected journalists and urging television producers to use interviews with Blair (Observer, 19.6.94). He excelled at interceding to minimise the prominence given to potentially damaging reports. Beckett recruited the party's former campaigns director, John Underwood, to perform a similar role.

The abolition of block voting meant that the differentials between the votes received by the candidates in the union section of the electoral college would be likely to be far narrower than they had been in 1983 and 1992. This factor, and the change from the previous 40:30:30 distribution between unions, CLPs and parliamentarians to a one-third share for each gave greater significance to the parliamentarians' votes. Each MP's or MEP's vote was calculated to have equivalent weight to those of 800 individual party members or 14,500 levy-paying trade-unionists (Financial Times, 19.5.94). The support of MPs who could be persuaded to switch allegiance between nomination and voting was, therefore, extremely valuable. There were, moreover, 40 MPs who had made no nomination for deputy leader and a total of 62 MEPs after the European Parliament elections. As a consequence, MPs and MEPs received considerably more attention during the campaign period than they had in 1992.

It was a significant feature of the campaign that the party emerged united from its exposure to six weeks of intensive media coverage. The political context was certainly conducive to a minimally-divisive contest; shock at Smith's death and a desire not to damage his legacy were important factors. So, too, was the confidence deriving from Labour's large opinion poll lead and success in the local government and European elections. The three candidates had also apparently got on well together as shadow Cabinet colleagues. The often hectic journeying through broadcasting studios, press conferences, union conventions and party hustings -- sometimes sharing the same platform -- was notable for the restraint with which arguments were conducted. Indeed, Jeremy Hanley, the new Conservative Party chairman, was later to urge upon his members `the discipline of the Labour Party that they showed during their leadership election' (Daily Telegraph, 8.10.94).

Of course, no such contest can be entirely devoid of personal disputes. Before Brown's withdrawal there were even signs of friction between his and Blair's supporters. Indeed, the closeness of the two men on policy issues and the risk that a contest between them would therefore focus on personality differences were important factors in Brown's withdrawal. Beckett supporters' complaints at the head start gained by her rivals have already been noted; they also expressed irritation at the expensive nature of Blair's campaign. Whereas Beckett's and Prescott's teams both operated from Westminster, Blair's patently well-financed team set up camp in rented commercial premises nearby. It also produced, in addition to his manifesto, no less than five glossy colour leaflets, each aimed at a specific category of party members. Towards the end of the campaign, when attention increasingly focused on the deputy leadership contest, friction surfaced between the Prescott and Beckett camps. The latter challenged Prescott to dissociate himself from `a rather nasty dirty tricks campaign' entailing reports that Beckett supporters in the PLP were switching to him (The Guardian, 11.7.94). (This was, ironically, a reversal of a charge levelled at Beckett's supporters in 1992). Ten Prescott supporters among Labour's women MPs found it necessary publicly to defend his stance on women's issues in response to suggestions that his record was not impeccable. Nonetheless, all such signs of friction were relatively minor.

The absence of serious differences over policy may have made for an equable campaign, but it also made it rather dull. As The Times put it (22.7.94): `Bland contest avoids opening party rifts'. Internal party organisation, particularly relationships with the unions, had been an important issue in 1992. However, this thorny question had been largely resolved in 1993 -- indeed, the `traditionalist', Prescott had been crucial to the adoption of Smith's proposals. Beckett's bid for union support by indicating preparedness to roll back some of the Conservatives, union legislation never figured prominently. The candidates steered well clear of the ongoing industrial dispute involving railway signal staff, though Prescott was sponsored by the rail and seamers' union RMT.

Employment (or unemployment) was the sole issue to generate substantial attention from all three candidates. It was the central plank of Prescott's campaign. He was clearly determined to ensure that job creation would be given higher priority and he endeavoured to recommit the party to a policy of government intervention in pursuit of full employment and succeeded in forcing his opponents to respond to his agenda. But the debate never became controversial: neither Blair nor Beckett rose to the bait of depicting full employment as an unrealistic goal. Other issues surfaced only briefly. Blair made a series of speeches on the constitution, education, the economy, the welfare state and Europe, but he avoided making new policy commitments. Towards the end of the campaign, with victory apparently assured, his keynote speeches seemed designed to add political substance and an air of statesmanship to the youthful dynamism upon which the media had concentrated earlier. Prescott stressed the need for social justice, which he tied in closely to his employment theme, but like Blair, he focused on general principles, leaving little scope for disagreement. Beckett alone provoked controversy by seeking to re-establish the left-wing credentials from which she had seemed to distance herself after entering the shadow Cabinet in the mid-1980s. She reaffirmed her support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and urged the renationalisation of the water industry. Such declarations generated little response from her opponents. (However, as will be seen, they had repercussions on her campaign.) Serious political debate was inhibited by the candidates' patent reluctance to appear to impinge upon the policy-making prerogatives of the party conference. A maverick incursion from Ken Livingstone, predicting that Blair would be the most right-wing Labour leader since the war, found no echo.

As in 1992, the outcome of the leadership contest was virtually a foregone conclusion from the start. Beckett and Prescott continued publicly to assert the seriousness of their ambition for the leadership, but it was soon apparent that the real contest was, again, for the deputy leadership. But Beckett's strategy differed from Prescott's in one crucial respect. Her ambition sharpened by having officially assumed the leadership on Smith's death, Beckett's determination to be regarded as a serious candidate for the leadership led her to pay less attention to the deputy leadership campaign. In this and other ways she conveyed the impression that she regarded the deputy's post as a poor consolation prize. Moreover, her reluctance to commit herself to serving in a Blair shadow Cabinet, were she to lose both contests, was interpreted by some as petulance. Prescott, on the other hand, happily discussed his ambitions and plans for both posts. The contrast between the two operated to his advantage.

In a media-dominated contest devoid of serious policy divisions and in which the candidates avoided personal invective, presentation of image was of fundamental importance. Blair's campaign stressed his role as a leading moderniser -- a safe strategy when appealing to individual voters. (It would have been much less so previously, when candidates had to win the support of the union barons.) Although suspicious of Blair's perceived opposition to the party-union link, few trade union leaders risked open criticism lest they reduce further the limited influence they might have over him after his anticipated election.

Beckett and Prescott projected images of themselves rather different from those of 1992. Beckett had then stood as the `establishment' candidate, capable of forming a gender-balanced team with Smith, whereas Prescott had been almost anti-establishment -- a traditionalist distrustful of the modernisers. In 1994, their roles, if not exactly reversed, were certainly blurred. Prescott was no longer regarded even by modernisers as a dinosaur opposed to all forms of changes (never an accurate image). His 1993 conference speech on the party-union issue (regarded as having saved Smith from embarrassing defeat) had transformed his image into that of the loyal colleague whose support for the leader could be relied upon. His candidacy for the deputy leadership was strengthened by the increased support he received from shadow Cabinet members. Focusing on employment also helped Prescott to dispel some of the doubts that his support for Smith's loosening of union-party links had engendered among unionists.

Beckett, by contrast, appeared to be pulling in conflicting directions. She initially emphasised her uniqueness among the candidates in having ministerial experience (as a junior Minister of Education in Callaghan's government). She made much of her role as interim leader, meeting prominent international figures like Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson, or attending such events, as a conference of European socialist leaders in Crete. She then seemed to switch tack, making a deliberate play for the left-wing vote. (This tactic appears to have been predicated on the assumption of a very low voting turn-out among trade union members, in which those who did vote would be the left-wing activists.) Individual members in the CLPs were also assumed to be more radical than the PLP. When this leftward shift was criticised, she appeared to backtrack, now presenting herself as the only candidate capable of unifying the party's traditionalist and modernising wings. But the combination of declarations that she `would be happy and proud to be described as a leftwinger' (Financial Times, 20.6.94) with assertions that her election would represent a vote for continuity of Smith's goals incurred criticism. Moreover, emphasis upon her closeness to Smith drew accusations that she had displayed insufficient loyalty during his attempts to reform union-party links.

The result

The announcement of the outcome of the leadership election on 21 July confirmed Blair's expected victory on first preferences. Like Smith in 1992, he won in all three sections of the electoral college. However, the margin of victory, although clear, fell well short of the 90.9% to 9.1% by which Smith had triumphed over Gould. He obtained 57% of the overall vote (comprising 60.5% of MPs and MEPs, 58.2% of the individual membership and 52.3% of the union levy-payers). This figure compared with 24.1% for Prescott (19.6% of MPs and MEPs, 24.4% of individual members, 28.4% of trade unionists) and 18.9% for Beckett (19.9% of MPs and MEPs, 17.4% of individual members, 19.3% of trade unionists). The result was regarded as a vindication of the new system. Aggregating individual members' votes nationally saved the defeated candidates from a repetition of the humiliation Gould had suffered through the winner-takes-all count at the CLP level and the union block vote. (On a winner-takes-all count, the votes cast in 1994 would, for instance, have given Prescott, as runner-up, even less than the 2.4% Gould had achieved in the CLP section.) But the narrowing of margins had not been such as to deprive Blair of the authority conferred by a convincing victory.

The outcome of the deputy leadership contest evoked more surprise. Opinion polls of the very diffuse electorate were unreliable and the new procedures made it difficult to predict the result at an early stage, union and CLP returns no longer being declared before the overall result. At the outset, Beckett had been the clear favourite, Prescott emerging as the more likely victor only towards the end. In the event, he won by 56.5% to Beckett's 43.5%. He, like Blair, won clearly in all three sections of the electoral college, obtaining 53.7% among MPs and MEPs; 59.4% among individual members and 56.6% among union levy-payers.

A disappointing feature of the result was the level of turnout. The total votes cast in the leadership election amounted to less than one million (952,109). As might be expected, the participation rate was highest in the parliamentary section, only 2 MPs and 2 MEPs voting for neither leader nor deputy leader. Among individual members, participation was lower but was still regarded as respectable--172,356 (69.1%). However, the union vote of 779,426 was a mere 19.5% of the potential, a figure which, it was pointed out, was average for many elections for union executives but was substantially lower than the levels achieved in the political fund ballots held in the mid-1980s (Guardian 22.7.94). The low participation rates were attributed to a variety of factors. By no means all unions possessed full centralised registers of their members and there was also a large number of ballot papers spoilt through levy-payers omitting to tick the box indicating that they subscribed to Labour Party principles and were not members of any other party. Some 150,000 levy-payers were disfranchised because their unions, the NUM and building workers' union (UCATT)--declared that they could not afford to conduct national ballots (UCATT estimated that a ballot of its 130,000 members would cost 70,000 [pounds sterling].) The NEC's Procedures Committee refused to sanction their proposed alternative of branch ballots. Overall, the turnout was widely regarded as indicating a low level of interest in the Labour Party.

The results confirmed the extent to which recent changes had eroded the trade union leadership's previous power-broking role. The introduction of OMOV in the trade union section automatically decreased its influence, but there was more to it than that. Only six union executives even issued recommendations to their members as to their preferred candidates. (They were the transport and general workers TGWU, the steel workers ISTC, the train drivers ASLEF, the GPMU, NACODS and the RMT.) The general reluctance publicly to do so had several causes. At the outset, some union leaders were clearly determined to avoid the furore created in 1992 by their hasty endorsement of Smith. Later, after Blair had emerged as the front-runner, they were reluctant to back him because of reservations over his `modernist' views on party-union links. Union leaders also feared that, since voting patterns in each union were to be published, their authority would be further undermined were the figures to reveal that a majority of their members had rejected their recommendations. In the event, the results indicated that an executive recommendation seems to have exerted a considerably greater impact than had been anticipated (Guardian, 22.7.94). It was clearly embarrassing for the TGWU (which recommended Beckett for both posts) that a plurality of its members (44%) voted for Blair. But Beckett received twice as large a share of the vote from the TGWU as she did from the GMB union--which made no recommendation (33% as opposed to 16%). In the deputy leadership election, 56% of the TGWU vote went to Beckett by comparison with 43% of the GMB. (Both unions had supported her in 1992.) In the RMT and GPMU, Prescott, who was recommended by their executives, actually received more votes for the leadership than Blair (45% to 43%). He also beat Beckett for the deputy leadership much more convincingly (72% to 28% in the RMT and 70% to 30% in the GPMU).

The results in the parliamentary section did not confirm earlier claims that numerous Blair supporters had nominated either Beckett or Prescott to ensure a leadership contest. Ron Davies alone of those nominating Prescott, and only one of those nominating Beckett, subsequently voted for Blair. (This was balanced by two initial supporters of Blair switching to Prescott.) There was more movement over the deputy leadership. Here, the Prescott camp's claims that Beckett supporters had defected to him were borne out: twelve MPs who had nominated her eventually voted for him. Three moved in the opposite direction.

Comparison of the 1994 deputy leadership result with that in 1992 reveals even more substantial changes of allegiance. Twenty-one MPs who had voted for Prescott in 1992 voted for Beckett in 1994. They were, however, outnumbered by 2 to 1 by those switching from Beckett to Prescott. Of Gould's supporters in 1992, 28 now voted for Beckett and 43 for Prescott. Beckett again received greater support than Prescott from members of the shadow cabinet, though this time by a narrower margin--10 of the 17 who voted. Beckett's vote among the women MPs (whose support her team had tried very hard to win) was again high, outnumbering Prescott's by two to one.


The party proclaimed loudly that its new election procedures made it the most internally democratic political organisation in Europe. However, satisfaction with the 1994 exercise was inevitably tempered by the low turnout; the hoped-for mass mobilisation of trade unionists did not materialise. There were also several specific features which drew media criticism. Adverse comment was attracted by the number of votes MPs and MEPs could cast: most were entitled to vote in all three sections of the electoral college by virtue of individual party, trade union and socialist society membership as well as their parliamentary status. As a result, several MPs publicly urged their colleagues to vote only once. Attracting less public attention, but affecting far more individuals, was the fact that many ordinary party members also possessed votes as trade unionists or socialist society members. David Blunkett, party chair for 1994, officially defended the system, but the possibility of such multiple voting exposed the party to embarrassment. Some attempt to reform the rules seems likely, but eliminating multiple voting will be virtually impossible as long as balloting for the electoral college's three sections is conducted separately. It was also embarrassing that while some individuals possessed multiple voting rights, some others were denied a vote at all by their unions' refusal to hold ballots on cost grounds. It was unfortunate, too, that the trade union BECTU had to rerun its ballot because 6,000 of its members had received two sets of ballot sheets.

Another issue likely to receive further consideration concerns whether the votes cast in the parliamentary section should continue to be public--as required under rules drawn up when the electoral college system was devised in 1981. (In 1994 only the first preferences were published.) The provision was introduced as part of a wider attempt to make MPs more accountable, but it also constitutes a strong incentive for MPs anxious about their careers to join the bandwagon of the front-runner. Some MPs have called for a reversion to the pre-electoral college practice of secret voting (which, of course, applies to all other party elections).

Notwithstanding such relatively minor problems, however, the conduct of the elections was remarkably smooth. Conservative attempts to depict them as undemocratic, and to represent the turnout as a failure, failed to impress most objective observers, whose verdict was positive. A major problem to emerge was the great expense of elections conducted under OMOV. There are substantial costs for the party itself, which employed a professional organisation--Unity Security Balloting Services (USBS)--to run the individual membership ballots. There are also heavy costs to participating unions, all of whose ballots were run by either USBS or the Electoral Reform Society. As has been seen, two unions offered expense as grounds for non-participation. There were numerous suggestions that the money spent on the elections could have been put to better use. The high cost of elections under OMOV may be expected to be a factor militating strongly against unforced elections: potential challengers to incumbents will inevitably come under heavy pressure not to provoke contests. Ironically, formal extension of Labour's internal democracy through OMOV may, therefore, actually inhibit attempts to hold its leadership democratically accountable.

The costs incurred by the candidates themselves, and particularly the disparity between them, caused a good deal of controversy and embarrassment. As has been seen, the evident affluence of Blair's campaign was a bone of contention in the Beckett camp while the contest was in progress. It became the object of much more widespread criticism afterwards and Blair was still being taunted about the sources of his finance at Prime Minister's Question Time in February 1995. The amount spent on Smith's campaign had been criticised in 1992, but no formal steps had been taken to regulate candidates' expenses by the time he died. Some guidelines were devised by the NEC's Procedures Committee before nominations for the 1994 contest closed which, while not establishing spending limits, did require audited accounts to be submitted to Walworth Road. It was decided that the accounts should not be published, but unofficial reports soon appeared in the press. The most detailed figures appeared in the Independent on Sunday (2.10.94). These indicated that Blair's team had raised a total of 88,000, [pounds sterling] of which 79,000 [pounds sterling] had been spent. Beckett, by contrast, was said to have spent 17,000 [pounds sterling] and Prescott a mere 13,000.5 [pounds sterling](5) Larry Whitty, the party's general secretary, publicly defended the scale of Blair's expenditure as `not excessive' (Independent, 30.10.94). However, it gave rise to sufficient criticism for new guidelines to be drawn up limiting donations and requiring the NEC in future to establish a maximum expenditure for candidates; campaigns. (The sum of 25,000 [pounds sterling] is reported to have been suggested as an `illustrative figure', (Independent on Sunday, 2.10.94.)

The media played a key role in the elections. This feature of the contests was a consequence partly of the circumstances in which the leadership vacancy arose and partly of the changes in the system of election itself. The official week of mourning after Smith's death, followed by the moratorium for the period of the European elections campaign, left an absence of official news about the succession. The media inevitably rushed to fill the vacuum, eagerly relating gossip and commissioning opinion polls. Such would have occurred in similar circumstances whatever the system of election, but OMOV and the abolition of the black vote compounded its impact. A decade earlier a conference delegate had warned that were postal ballots to become the party's principal decision-making method `democracy would move away from the CLPs, away from the general committees, and into the media'.(6) In 1994 the media took the place filled by the union barons in 1992 in immediately identifying a frontrunner. The support thus generated for Blair and media judgments as to the popular appeal(and telegenic attributes) of various potential candidates appear to have influenced the withdrawal of Robin Cook and Gordon Brown. The extent to which the candidates' campaigns were geared to media presentation was noted earlier. In 1992, once Smith and Beckett were seen to be heading for victory, media attention had become spasmodic, but in 1994 it was sustained over the whole period. Many regarded the role of the media as undesirable; some of her supporters complained of `dismissive sexism' meted out to Margaret Beckett. Evidence for such charges is hard to quantify, but the concern is clear: if leadership contests are now always to be media or `television elections', can candidates against whom the media is biased or who are non-telegenic ever succeed? The 1994 Labour leadership contest assumed many of the appearances of an American primary. The party now has a system more attuned to producing a leader possessing the characteristics required to win over uncommitted voters in a general election. But it is also one which is more open to influence by an external force which is preponderantly hostile to Labour.

Blair's election created problems for both of Labour's main political rivals. His objective of wooing the middle class to make Labour again electable presents obvious dangers for the Liberal Democrats, who face being squeezed out of their place in the `centre ground' of politics. Three founder-members of the SDP--Jenkins, Rodgers and Williams--all welcomed Blair's accession, calling for closer working relations with Labour. By this time, the party's opinion poll support had dropped to 17% (having stood at 23% in May) and it fell to 14% at the end of the year. Delegates at the Lib Dem conference in late September were largely preoccupied with the question of whether it was any longer feasible for the party to maintain its stance of `equidistance' between Labour and Conservatives.

For the Conservatives, the immediate effect of Smith's death was to relieve the pressure on John Major and previous talk of a possible challenge to his leadership ceased. But Blair's evident popular appeal presented problems for the Prime Minister. In many respects, the change of Labour leader merely compounded the Conservatives' existing difficulties. The government had already been deeply unpopular before Smith's death. The first Gallup poll after Blair's accession gave Labour a 33.5% lead over the Conservatives--the largest lead any party had achieved in Gallup's 58 years' of polling in Britain; 45% said Blair would make the best Prime Minister, by comparison with a mere 15% for Major (Daily Telegraph, 5.8.94). In January (by which time Labour had been ahead of the Conservatives for a record 31 months), the Labour lead had risen to 43.5% (Daily Telegraph, 13.1.95) and though it dropped back in February, even then it still stood at 36% (Daily Telegraph, 3.2.95). Moreover, as MORI showed, by contrast with earlier periods of Conservative unpopularity, there was evidence of substantial switching by former Conservative voters directly to Labour and of Labour eroding Conservative support among the southern middle classes (The Times, 5.1.95). Conservative strategists appeared to be confused as to how best to respond to the threat posed by a Blair-led Labour party competing for the support of `middle England'. A leaked internal memorandum by the Conservative Party's deputy chairman warned: `If Blair turns out to be as good as he looks, we have a problem.' Some urged a further move to the right--to leave `clear blue water' between the two parties; others, including Major, rejected this course.

Another source of concern for Conservatives was the effect Blair very rapidly appeared to have on some of their traditional supporters. A number of business leaders (including the director general of the Institute of Directors) expressed interest in opening a dialogue with Labour. The director general of the CBI welcomed a new Labour leadership `without any baggage from previous episodes in power'. An announcement that Marks and Spencer was prepared to consider donating funds to Labour was interpreted as `reflecting a growing disenchantment with the Conservatives by some of the biggest retailers' (Daily Telegraph, 1.8.94). In February, Pearson became the first major public company actually to make a substantial contribution to Labour. More disturbing was the response of part of the normally-Conservative press. Blair's `honeymoon' with the media was widely commented upon. His election received very favourable coverage and in August, Rupert Murdoch (whose newspapers had figured so prominently in opposing Labour in the 1992 general election) declared that he could imagine himself backing Blair. In October, there was universal press praise for Blair's speech at the party conference. Widespread adverse media coverage of internal Labour differences over education, the future of the railways and public ownership led some to suggest that the `honeymoon' was now over, but continuing Conservative divisions over Europe quickly reclaimed the headlines.

Under Blair's leadership, the `modernising' of the Labour Party itself will clearly proceed apace. Within days of taking office, he had committed himself to shedding Labour's `tax and spend image'. He also signalled continued distancing from the unions, declaring that they could expect `fairness not favours' from a Labour government. Both he and Prescott (as head of campaigning and organisation) called for maximum effort to boost party membership, with the goal of doubling it. Advertising immediately after the leadership and deputy leadership elections was said to have been `the single most successful promotional campaign the party has ever run' (Daily Telegraph, 6.8.94). By January, some 48,000 new individual members had been recruited since the beginning of August--bringing total membership to 315,000. Prescott's declared objective was-to reduce the party's dependence upon union finance, but increased membership has other potential effects on union influence: a reform introduced in 1993 authorised the NEC progressively to reduce the unions' share of the conference vote from its present 70% to 50% once individual membership reached 300,000. Several changes have been made at the party's headquarters, the most important being the installation of a new general secretary--Tom Sawyer--in place of Larry Whitty. Sawyer, formerly deputy general secretary of Unison, played a key role in modernising the party under Kinnock. As a close ally, he will obviously play a major part in Blair's attempts to create `New Labour'.

There are, however, limits to what any newly-elected Labour leader can achieve. Some are imposed by the party's institutional structure and procedures. `Only the name remains the same' ran the headline of an article on the effect of speeches by Blair and other modernisers at the conference' (Observer, 2.10.94), but the conference also witnessed the surprise election to the NEC of two left-wing MPs critical of important parts of the modernisers' agenda. Nor was Blair as successful as many had hoped in reshaping his front-bench team when Parliament returned after the recess. He assigned a number of members to different posts. (The changes included giving Beckett responsibility for a much less prestigious portfolio than many felt her performance as acting leader and her second place in the elections for the parliamentary committee merited.) But his scope to make changes was restricted by the requirement that all those elected to the parliamentary committee by the PLP be included in the shadow Cabinet; only one completely new member was elected. This outcome was a signal that the Labour Party was thus still some way from the `transformation' which Blair's election was widely heralded as signifying.

The new leader's most radical step--announced in his annual conference speech--was his call for reform of the party's constitution, including the symbolic Clause IV with its commitment to `the common ownership of the means of production'. Failure to amend the clause would, he claimed, jeopardise Labour's hope of victory at the next election. Blair incurred criticism from the left-wing for raising so controversial an issue which would divert energy from the attack on the Conservative's and upon which his victory (if he won) would be a Pyrrhic one. He certainly suffered an embarrassing defeat in October when the left secured a conference vote supporting Clause IV. the drop in the party's opinion poll standing early in 1995 was also attributed in part, to a public dispute over the caluse between Blair and many of Labour's MEPs. The great store Blair placed on changing the clause made the outcome of the special conference to decide the issue on 29 April crucial to both his authority and the maintenance of the momentum for modernisation. In the event, both were strongly reinforced by the margin of his victory--especially among party members in the constituencies.

(1) R. K. Alderman and N. Carter, `The Labour party leadership and Deputy Leadership Elections of 1992', Parliamentary Affairs, January 1993.

(2) For the full text of the rules governing the election of the leader and deputy leader, see R. K. Alderman, `Electing the Leader of the Labour Party: Revision of the Rules', Public Law, Spring 1994.

(3) See R. K. Alderman and N. Carter, `The Labour Party and the Trade Unions: Loosening the Ties,' Parliamentary Affairs, July 1994.

(4) Labour Party, NEC Report 1994, p. 8

(5) Prescott himself, the only candidate prepared to provide the authors with information about his expenditure, has said that he spent `about 10,000' [pounds sterling].

(6) Labour Party Annual Conference Report, 1983, p. 271.
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Author:Alderman, Keith; Carter, Neil
Publication:Parliamentary Affairs
Date:Jul 1, 1995
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