The origins of the slate system

This post is the result of a collision of two very narrow interests of mine. The geekery of electoral systems and the Kremlinology of the UK’s far-left. Thank you for your time, I’ll try to keep it brief.


What is the slate system?

The slate system is a method for electing an executive or committee. It generally works like this, with minor variations;

  • the outgoing committee recommend a complete list of who the incoming committee should be.
  • others are able to recommend a different complete list, some of whom may be the same people as on the first list, or simply the same list with a name or two missing.
  • conference votes on which alternative slate they prefer (it’s never a postal ballot, you have to put your hand up publicly in front of your leaders).
  • voters cannot cross out names or add them in themselves. You either propose a whole list or nothing.
  • everyone on the list with the highest vote is now on the new committee.
  • the committee sorts itself out (who chairs, treasurer, etc). Members have no say on the division of labour or posts held.



Who uses this system in the UK?

No one.

Well, that’s not strictly speaking true. No trade union, no political party outside of the hard left, no campaigning organisation that wasn’t set up by a hard left group, and no stamp collecting society or multi-national corporation use it (at least as far as I’m aware).

The only people who use this system of election are groupings who look to Lenin for their political inspiration and campaigning organisations that those groupings have been central to setting up.

The reason for this is that the slate system does not come from the labour movement and bears no relationship to any democratic system that would naturally occur to people setting up an organisation. Indeed it is designed to elect people who you have never heard of, that is its “strength”. You only need to know who approves of them as their individual capabilities, their strengths and weaknesses have already been assessed for the voter by the proposer of the list – voters need not concern themselves with anything except whose list they are intending to support (and often there is only one available, making it possibly the only system where numerous people can be elected in one uncontested election).


Where does it come from then?

Well, if it’s people who like Lenin it must have been Lenin’s idea, yes? No. Lenin died a decade before the slate system was first used.

It was Stalin who had the system introduced, in 1934 at the 17th congress of the Communist Party, long after he had consolidated power but before he’d ceased caring about consolidating power. As an aside 139 members were elected to the Central Committee that year. 98 of them would be executed by the regime and just 24 would be re-elected at the 18th Congress. That’s by the by, the slate system doesn’t normally produce swathes of disloyal turncoats, that’s not its purpose.

So, despite the “revolutionary” justifications for the system the Bolsheviks never used it, in those days candidates for the Central Committee had to get more votes than other candidates to get elected. How transgressive! Lenin was dead by the time the slate system was introduced and Trotsky was far, far away from having any influence on its adoption.

In Britain its first use on the Trotskyist left was in 1950 when it was introduced into the Revolutionary Communist Party by Gerry Healy (replacing a federal system where places were appointed by internal factions according to their support). They didn’t use it long mind because its sole purpose was to elect an entirely factional leadership without dissenters. The RCP was then dissolved in order to promote “entryism” into the Labour Party.

As a second aside the Trots (if I may use that term in a genuinely friendly way) went three ways. Into Labour, as they’d been told to, into tiny groupescules which became the forefathers of all the Trot groups of today, or just left politics demoralised by the whole thing. More detail can be found in this interesting article by Pat Byrne.


In practice it’s great though – right?

In the course of writing this note I remembered that I was elected under this system once, to the National Executive of the Socialist Alliance, so I’ll use this as a mini-case study.

You will be surprised to hear that getting elected to the National Executive did not involve being a household name or even vaguely known by the members of  the organisation. No, it involved someone putting a word in on my behalf with Rob Hoveman, at the time a full timer for the SWP with particular responsibility for the Socialist Alliance. He was also national secretary of the Socialist Alliance, I think, something along those lines anyway.

These negotiations went well enough that Mr Hoveman granted my inclusion on the list and I was elevated to one of the least coveted positions in the land. I did not need to introduce myself to a single member, make a single speech or subject myself to any scrutiny to those who were expected to elect me. I did have to write out a two paragraph statement outlining where I lived, what job I did, my union and the fact that I did not belong to any of the affiliated organisations of the Socialist Alliance but that’s it.

I’m fairly sure I would have survived a hustings or a Q and A – but none were required.


So there are problems then?

Well that depends who you are really. If you are privileged enough to command the smokey backrooms you can negotiate beforehand exactly who is, and who is not, in the golden circle. It’s probably pleasant to have such influence. If you basically aren’t bothered who’s on your executive it’s probably quite good too because it’s much quicker to stick your hand up for one of a very small number of slates than it is to fill in a ballot paper with crosses or numbers next to an array of non-entities. If you’re allergic to paper the slate system is for you.

However, if you’d quite like to have a choice or have some sense of nuance then you’ll probably want to use one of the systems normal people use. Or STV.

You may think “Ernesto” is fit for leadership but is a bit of a prat when it comes to your group’s election work. A slate system prevents you from keeping him from becoming the national election agent because you either vote in a list with him on or a list without  him.

You might think “Rosa” is a brilliant speaker, but is a touch too lazy to actually be given a party job. You may not realise it but in fact lots of delegates think the same thing. None of you particularly want to get up, look into her puppy dog eyes and make a *political* argument for an alternative slate without her name on it but you’d all prefer someone with a larger supply of elbow grease. The slate system forces you to publicly denounce her or put up with below par leaders. If  she had to fight for her place in front of the voters she could be given a much needed rest in favour of an up and coming “Rosetta”.

Finally “Fred” is disliked by the members. He bullies and demoralises them. People find it difficult to stand up to him but he’s unpopular and ineffective as a leader. Everyone knows that  to attempt to remove him from the executive would be personally disastrous if he was re-elected. Putting up a slate without his name on it is political suicide if unsuccessful and, in fact, because he gets to stand next to you as you vote even putting your arm up at the wrong time might find it broken.

There’s no way you could persuade the current leadership to take him off the list because the only people who do like him are his executive colleagues and, just like “Rosa”, they are the only people he needs to persuade in order to be included on the list. The slate system demands that even simple democratic choices amount to public political schisms. Holding one leader to account involves confronting the entire leadership. Maybe that’s why the left splits so much.

You don’t need highfalutin jargon to see there are alternatives to the slate system. Forget permanent factions for a minute (although every stable UK political organisation of any size has them, even if they don’t tend to dominate internal political life). Just let the members choose who does and does not lead them. It doesn’t even *have* to be by post, although letting everyone vote is quite a good way of engaging less interested members and retaining them. I know it costs money and you have to be honest about how many members you actually have so stick to votes at conference if you must but really, the slate system is a bit rubbish.

Update: I knew this would happen, Alex Gordon informs me on twitter that it’s not just the Leninists who use the system. The South Wales Labour Party also elect their executive using the slate system, he adds ” I know one retiree given present of piece of Welsh slate as lifetime fixing award.” Brilliant!

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