Monday, 11 May 2015

Should Tony Benn Have Been The Winner Of The 1981 Labour Deputy Leadership Election?

We are now entering a political summer of leadership elections - at least among parties whose leaders haven't resigned, or have been de-resigned in circumstances which would be rejected as a plot for an Ealing comedy on the grounds that it was too far fetched.

Ted Miliband's resignation as leader of the Labour party means that there will be an election to replace him. I have no intention of considering standing to succeed him [in November 1991 there was an election to see who would succeed him as our JCR President. I considered standing, but after having a chat with him about what it entails, decided not to].

The current Leader of the Opposition Harriet Harman, has confirmed that she will not seek re-election as Labour's deputy leader.

And this brings me to one of the most interesting deputy leadership elections - that of September 1981, when the serving Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Denis Healey, saw off a challenge from Tony Benn.

In the Republic of Ireland all legislative elections are by the Single Transferable Vote, where a candidate needs to reach a set number of votes, known as the quota, to be elected. But sometimes, the last candidate to be elected in a contest has failed to reach the quota. The reason for this is that the quota is calculated based on the number of valid votes in the first round of counting. As candidates are removed by being elected (for reaching the quota) or eliminated (by coming last), then there will be an increasing number of non-transferable votes, which do not have a preference for any candidates left in the election. But the quota is not recalculated.

That means you can get to the stage where there are two candidates left, neither of which has reached the quota - and the reason for this diversion will become clear in a bit.

In those days Labour used an electoral college with the following weightings:

  • 40% for the trade unions and affiliated socialist societies (collectively called "affiliates")
  • 30% for the constituency Labour parties (known as "CLPs")
  • 30% for Labour MPs

Each elector was able to list their candidates in order of preference, like the Alternative Vote.

There is one candidate I have missed out - and the third man was John Silkin, at the time the Shadow Leader of the House of Commons. And it is his elimination for coming last that creates an interesting situation.

I remember reading that if non-transferable votes had been dealt with differently then Benn would have won. So I decided to examine this.

First consider the first round:

Candidate MPs CLPs Affiliates Electoral college vote
Healey 125 112 3,968 45.37%
Benn 55 490 1,030 36.63%
Silkin 65 24 1,429 18.00%
Total 245 626 6,427 100.00%

Then Silkin is eliminated and his votes redistributed according to second preferences:

Candidate MPs CLPs Affiliates Electoral college vote
Healey 137 118 3,969 50.43%
Benn 71 506 2,383 49.57%
Total 208 624 6,352 100.00%

So, there we have it. Healey wins.

But look at the totals down in the bottom row. It is clear that not all of Silkin's votes actually had second preferences. When the weightings were calculated for the final round of voting then these non-transferable votes were ignored - so Healey's 137 out of 208 votes from MPs became 65.87% of the votes in the MPs' section and became 65.87% x 0.3 = 19.76% of the overall electoral college vote.

But should it have been? Isn't this like recalculating the quota in an STV election at each round of voting? Shouldn't it have been Healey's 137 out of 245 votes from MPs (including the non-transferable ones from Silkin's first preferences), becoming 55.92% of the votes in the MPs' section and hence 55.92% x 0.3 = 16.78% of the overall electoral college vote?

Couldn't the exact same result been expressed as..?

Candidate MPs CLPs Affiliates Electoral college vote
Benn 71 506 2,383 47.77%
Healey 137 118 3,969 47.13%
Non-transferable 37 2 75 5.09%
Total 245 626 6,427 100.00%

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