Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. REUTERS/PETER NICHOLLS
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. REUTERS/PETER NICHOLLS

THE Gauteng ANC this week endorsed calls by the South African Communist Party for a consultative conference in advance of next year’s scheduled elective conference, to be attended by all tripartite alliance formations. Such an assembly, should it occur, could agree on changes to the movement’s electoral system for the "top six" and national executive committee (NEC) .

The fear is that an ANC election under current rules will generate two mutually exclusive candidate slates. This means another pliant NEC that cannot check leaders’ power, and further purges and defections of the kind that produced the Congress of the People and EFF.

But what kind of new process might work? The academic literature on intra-party democracy identifies some potential consequences of changing the distribution of power in a party, and facilitating or excluding activist participation.

There is also a menu of electoral systems with quite well understood properties. But every party, and every party system, is different.

The study of leadership elections is also hampered by parties’ reluctance to talk about internal strife. The DA will not talk openly about the rigging of internal elections that dogged its earlier years. Nor will it release the internal audit into these abuses. But the party’s new system, according to one reliable informant, exemplifies a key facet of most reform success stories: the membership has been firmly excluded from any real influence over outcomes.

Most leaders want to centralise power to keep their parties electorally competitive. The dangers of the converse strategy — empowering party members — have recently been demonstrated in the British Labour Party. Then-leader Ed Miliband reformed the party’s antiquated leadership election system in 2014. A third of votes went to each of three electorates: trade unions and affiliated societies; parliamentarians; and branch members.

Miliband introduced a modified one-member, one-vote system, giving party members, members of affiliates and registered supporters, equal say. The new mechanism broke the power of the trade union barons, and the sway of MPs was now limited to the nomination phase: 15% support from the parliamentary party was required to run for the leadership. The implications of this change became apparent only when Miliband resigned after the party’s trouncing in the 2015 general election. Events took a darkly comic turn. Three young and televisual politicians were nominated by the required 15% of MPs. However, so too was political dinosaur Jeremy Corbyn.

There was no expectation that he could win: the electoral mechanism chosen had been designed to favour centrists (and so wider party electability). In this "alternative vote" system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. The bottom candidate is repeatedly eliminated, and their votes are allocated to second preferences, until one candidate has a majority. This encourages candidates to huddle in the political centre to pick up second and third preference votes. Reformers did not anticipate that the new participation rules would allow an organised infiltration by new members and registered supporters. The suddenly expanded membership of 300,000 was joined by almost the same number of registered and affiliated supporters, most of them anti-establishment leftists. Corbyn won by a landslide in the first round.

The consequences have been appalling for the now unelectable party: the Conservatives govern virtually unopposed. The consequences for the country have also been dire: June’s Brexit vote would not have been possible without Corbyn’s evident reluctance to support his party’s "Remain" position. Labour’s experience offers a useful cautionary tale for those who want to change the ANC’s electoral systems in a hurry.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town