24 June 2007


Thanks to Gregg (comments on previous post) for directing readers to Luke Akehurst here and the following details of the first round of voting in the Labour deputy leadership contest:
1st round: MPs, Members, Unions, Total
Benn 4.26, 7.21, 4.93 T:16.4
Blears 4.99, 3, 3.77 T: 11.77
Cruddas 4.63, 5.67,9.09 T 19.39
Hain 4.81, 3.87, 6.64, T:15.32
Harman: 6.54,8.04,4.35 T;18.93
Johnson 8.08, 5.53, 4.55 T:18.16

Now, what this means in terms of real first preference votes, given that there was a 99 per cent turnout among the 371 MPs and MEPs, a 53 per cent turnout among the 180,000 individual members and an 8 per cent turnout among the 3 million affiliated trade unionists is something like this:
Benn 57,000
Blears 36,000
Cruddas 82,000
Hain 59,000
Harman 55,000
Johnson 49,000
OK, all these figures are very rough (and they're exaggerated because of multiple voting, in particular by people who are individual members as well as members of affiliated organisations). But they do suggest that a genuine one member, one vote ballot would probably have yielded a very different outcome (at least if members of affiliated organisations were included, which is a moot point). Hunch tells me it would have gone to Cruddas against Benn in round four — though of course there's no way of telling.

If you exclude members of affiliated organisations, first preferences stack up like this:
Benn 22,000
Blears 9,000
Cruddas 17,000
Hain 12,000
Harman 24,000
Johnson 17,000
With all the necessary caveats, I reckon that would mean Benn by a whisker against Harman in round four...

The Guardian has a neat chart here.


Well, not really — but it does seem that Harriet Harman's victory in the Labour deputy leadership election was far from straightforward. She won only on the fifth round on votes redistributed form John Cruddas; and, according to the BBC website, "In the first round she was first choice among Labour Party members, second choice among MPs and MEPS, but fifth choice of union members." True to form, the Labour Party has not published the actual voting figures on its website: is there anyone out there who can supply them?

23 June 2007


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 June 2007

At least it’s nearly over. Labour’s deputy leadership contest has been even more uneventful than I expected when I wrote about it last month. It hasn’t set off a serious debate about the future of British social democracy inside the Labour Party — let alone among the voters as a whole. In fact, it has barely engaged even my most political friends. I don’t remember a single discussion of it lasting more than two minutes that went beyond speculation about who will win.

Which of course is the only interesting thing about it, not least because it may well highlight the absurdities of the electoral college Labour uses for leadership and deputy leadership elections.

Labour headquarters and lazy political commentators always describe the party’s means of choosing its leaders as “one member, one vote”, but it’s a bit more complex than that. Every member does have a vote. But, because the electorate is divided into a three-section electoral college, each section with one-third of the total vote, some members have more than one vote because they belong to more than one section. And, more important, the weight of your vote depends on what sort of member you are.

In the first section are Labour MPs and MEPs; in the second individual Labour Party members; and in the third members of affiliated organisations (mainly trade unions). So, because there are 371 MPs and MEPs, 180,000 ordinary members and a little more than 3 million members of affiliated organisations, the vote of each MP and MEP is worth nearly the same as 485 ordinary members’ votes and more than 8,000 affiliated trade unionists’ votes. (These figures are based on the assumption that everyone entitled to vote does so, which of course isn’t so, but you get the picture.)

I’ll accept that this system, adopted in 1993, is less of a dog’s breakfast than the electoral college that preceded it, introduced in 1981. In that electoral college, the unions had 40 per cent of votes, MPs 30 per cent and constituency Labour parties 30 per cent — and neither the unions nor the CLPs were under any compulsion to ballot their members before casting block votes at Labour conference. At least the current electoral college involves the counting of individual votes rather than an aggregation of decisions taken by various committees behind closed doors.

The current system is a dog’s breakfast all the same, however. The only time it has been used before this deputy leadership election was in 1994, when Tony Blair swept to victory in the leadership election and John Prescott won the deputy leadership, with both securing more than 50 per cent of first-preference votes in each of the three sections of the college. But this sort of clear, unequivocal result is by no means guaranteed. The electoral college could also produce a winner who has — say — little support among MPs but strong support among individual members and trade unionists. And in a six-candidate contest the winner could be the fourth on first preferences who picks up a large proportion of second preferences. And so on.

I’m not saying that this weekend will see a messy result, just that it might. And if it does ... look forward to 18 months of Labour doing what it used to do best: arguing about its leadership election procedures. I don’t really want to go there, but if pushed I’d back the leader being elected by MPs alone, with the deputy elected by ordinary members alone — and mandatory annual parliamentary selections. (Just kidding about the last one.)


OK, it's last week’s news, but I’d like to add my tuppence-worth to the controversy over Tony Blair’s assault on the “feral beasts” of the media last week. Having been at the receiving end of the Blairite spin machine during the 1990s, I’m not inclined to sympathy with the man or his way of operating. It was cowardly of him to pick on the poor old Independent and the BBC as his only examples of how the media have dropped the habit of straight reporting: he should at least have fingered the Mail. And he should have made it clear that Rupert Murdoch’s policy of editorial support in return for relaxed media regulation (and no euro) is an outrageous affront to democracy.

But Blair has got a point. The arrogance, cynicism, pack mentality, superficiality, sensationalism and sheer ignorance of much British media coverage of politics are not new, but their ubiquity is. Twenty years ago you could avoid them by shunning the popular national press, local radio and William Rees-Mogg: if you stuck to the qualities, the weeklies, the BBC and ITN you could get your politics straight and in depth. No longer. There is plenty of good political journalism out there, but the smart-arsed, the asinine and the hysterical now crop up pretty much everywhere — and far too much goes unreported. As to why this is so — well, that’s another column.

Footnotes: Gordon Brown is brilliant on Newsnight here. And Hitchens, C does us all proud on Question Time here. Maybe there's some hope after all.


Paul Anderson, review of The Offbeat Radicals by Geoffrey Ashe (Methuen, £17.99), Tribune 22 June 2007

The Offbeat Radicals is a book I can imagine being published in the 1930s. It is an erudite introduction for the general reader to a vast swathe of English radical writers from the French revolution to the early years of the 20th century who would once have been labelled “romantic”. It’s rather like what H. N. Brailsford or G. D. H. Cole used to do.

Footnotes are sparse; prĂ©cis is the norm. The autodidact who reads it from cover to cover will get a very good idea of what a large number of (broadly speaking) 19th-century polemicists and poets had to say – some of them, such as Blake and Shelley, read widely today but rarely put into context; others, such as Godwin, Carlyle and Bradlaugh, very much forgotten; still others, such as Morris, acknowledged but largely ignored.

Ashe is a specialist in Arthurian myth and a great enthusiast for G. K. Chesterton. His theme here is the persistence with which, after the French revolution went sour for English radicals, the latter adopted a rhetoric and a way of looking at life that were borrowed from dissident Christian myths of a pre-capitalist world of co-operation, equality and social cohesion. They were alternative medievalists, precursors of “small is beautiful” and dead keen on tradition.

Some Tribune readers will recognise this as an old anti-socialist tune. And indeed Ashe’s target, if there is one, is those who would subsume the Godwins, the Blakes, the Shelleys and so on, right up to William Morris, into a narrative of class struggle and proto-Marxism. My hunch is that he wants to capture them for something mistily and nostalgically Eurosceptic.

If you, like me, are still there with Edward Thompson in your reading of the 19th century, you will have a problem with this. Although Ashe is right when he argues that there is a tradition of radicalism that goes beyond left and right as we now know them, he underplays the extent to which it influenced working-class culture in the early and mid-19th century and socialism (and indeed modernism) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His calling it “offbeat radicalism” is also annoying: the old tag “romantic radicalism” works much better, not least because it is familiar. (It is also as flexible, if not more so, than his clumsy coinage.)

But these are small points. There is no better recent introduction to the radical writers of 19th-century England than this. It is beautifully written, difficult to put down, and more books like this should be published.

18 June 2007


Paul Anderson, review of Young Stalin by Simon Sebag-Montefiore (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25), Tribune 15 June 2007

The central tenet of Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s account of Stalin’s early life – from his birth in 1878 to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 – is that nearly everyone else has got it wrong as a result of taking Trotsky at his word.

For Trotsky, Stalin was a “provincial mediocrity”, a bit-part player before 1917 whose subsequent rise to supreme power owed everything to his skilful bureaucratic manoeuvring after the Bolshevik revolution. With a couple of exceptions, says Sebag-Montefiore, all those who have written about Stalin have concurred: most biographies deal cursorily if at all with the first 40 years of his life.

He is exaggerating a bit: there’s actually quite a lot on Stalin’s early life even in such pioneering attempts at biography as those by Boris Souvarine (1937) and Isaac Deutscher (1949). But he has got a point. Apart from Robert Tucker’s Stalin as Revolutionary, published more than 30 years ago, most studies of the man baptised Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili have focused almost exclusively on what he did to seize power and what he did once he seized it. How it was that “the pre-1917 mediocrity” became “the twentieth-century colossus” has remained something of a mystery. This book is the first in English to use recently opened archives in Georgia to put flesh on the bones provided by Souvarine, Deutscher and Tucker – and it is an absolute gem.

Even if some of the story is familiar – joyless childhood, training to be a priest in a seminary, conversion to revolutionary politics, Bolshevik underground work, imprisonment, exile to Siberia – Sebag-Montefiore has found an extraordinary amount of new material that gives human colour to his narrative, and he writes with unusual zest and terseness.

The book opens with a brilliant reconstruction of a notorious 1907 bank robbery in Tiflis (now Tblisi) that the young Dzhugashvili organised, and its pace never slows. Sebag-Montefiore handles everything deftly: his subject’s poetry, his love affairs, even the notoriously dry and fractious politics of the Russian empire’s Marxist left in the early years of the last century. Dzhugashvili – he adopted the nom de guerre Stalin only in 1913 – comes across as a complex, dynamic figure: a vicious thug and a charlatan, to be sure, but also a charmer, an accomplished journalist and a much more central figure in pre-revolutionary Bolshevik politics than Trotsky-inspired authorities allow.

Sebag-Montefiore’s account of the influence of Stalin’s experience as a young man on his actions as Soviet dictator is for the most part convincing. For example, it is difficult to disagree with his insistence that the paranoia that set in train the Great Terror of the 1930s was rooted in Stalin’s past in a revolutionary underground milieu riddled with Tsarist secret-police spies and accusations of treachery. (Stalin himself was probably a spook for a spell.)

But there are points on which Sebag-Montefiore takes things too far. Stalin’s being a Georgian undoubtedly made him an outsider in Russia, but did it really predispose him to tribalism and blood feuds? Georgia was the only part of the Russian empire that briefly established a working democracy after 1917, under a Menshevik government that was crushed by Bolshevik force of arms in 1921. Georgia’s most famous son might have embraced psychopathic gangsterism, but it’s hardly a national characteristic.