The process of the reforms to the Labour party demonstrates what is wrong our internal structures. Despite that, the reforms are well worth supporting.
I’ve not talked much about the Labour reform process, because I had no idea what the reforms were actually going to be.
That is symbolic of what is wrong with Labour’s decision-making. The Leader of the Labour party announces that he wishes to make some positive sounding changes. Instead of this being debated by party members, we then quietly awaited the result of private negotiations between the Labour party and the Trade Union movement to discover what the proposals would be.
Today, less than a month before the special conference that will decide the reforms, we have a picture of what the reforms will be only through media interviews, off the record briefings and interviews with Trade Union General Secretaries.
The most official account of the reforms so far is a press release on the party website.
The National Executive is meeting tomorrow to discuss the reforms, and there may still be changes. When we do get the final document, it will be a fait accompli ((One small point about the process: As an ordinary Labour party member, I’m not quite sure how my view on the proposals is supposed to be taken into account. The NEC will presumably agree a document tomorrow, I’m assuming this will then be published, and my CLP delegate will get a vote at the March Conference. How they will work out if local members agree in the intervening three weeks, I don’t know. Perhaps there’ll be a GC meeting, but that doesn’t give anyone much time, and I’m not a member of my GC anyway. In any case, it doesn’t matter, because if the Union leaders back it, it’ll go through)).
Why did it happen like that? Not because Ed Miliband’s team are control freaks, or have capitulated to the unions or whatever.
We’ve got a sucky process because that’s how the Labour party has always works.
Any reform in the party needs to get the approval of at least some Trade Unions. John Smith won his OMOV party reforms at conference more because MSF agreed to abstain than because of John Prescott’s rhetoric. Even when Constituency parties vote 9 to 1 to support a measure, as they did with New Clause IV, it required some trade unions to *shockingly* ask their members’ views to secure victory.
Back then, there were a lot of unions, and quite a few different views among them. Today though, many of the unions that took those decisions, like the MSF, no longer exist. That gives the Labour leadership a headache when it comes to party reform. The union movement has, by mergers, created a small number of mega-unions. This means that the approval of the General Secretaries of Unison, the GMB and Unite is needed to secure passage of any party reform. If they share a common position,it’s game over.
Internal negotiation therefore has to take precedence over open debate. The Union leaders’ views matter more than members opinions because the party constitution makes it so.
Now, I’m no great admirer of the current leadership of the Trade Union movement, but it would be stupid to pretend they are utterly inflexible. They are Trade Unionists, and Trade Unionism is all about collective representation and negotiation. The General Secretaries are willing to negotiate. However, they will not simply roll over to a Labour Leader’s demands, and given the structure of the party, they cannot be made to, even if the overwhelming view of the rest of the membership is against them.
It’s against this imperfect background that any reform of the party must be judged.
When it comes to party reform, I want a hell of a lot.
I find Labour’s selection processes ridiculous – primarily the farce of union branch nominations, which effectively guarantees a union backed candidate a place on the shortlist, and is usually settled by a quiet regional political committee stitch ups, guided by a Union officer working to the agenda of a political faction. Then there’s the fact the resources available to such candidates can massively outdo that of non-wealthy alternative candidates. Equally, because the leadership want to get round this, you end up with a lot of late selections where the shortlist is effectively a negotiation between the leadership and the unions. This is a bad joke..
Even worse, there’s the total farcical irrelevance of Conference, where half of the votes are decided by a tiny group of union leaders, which effectively strangles party democracy and policy debate. It also means that the leadership can simply, as New Labour often did, shrug off policy defeats as an irrelevance. Even when the Leadership is out of touch with members, the madness of Conference structure means no-one cares or pays any attention.
So in my model party, MP selections would be pure OMOV on a tight spending limit, with no nominations by distant affiliates. I’d make one exception: where the party was small, primaries could be used.
I’d remove the trade union vote from party conference entirely, making Conference a members-only body, but make up for this by retaining Union seats in the NEC (though with more members representation than the derisory six we have at the moment) and in return giving affiliated unions a bigger say in the NPF, where the policy decisions that go before conference are supposed to be decided.
As for leadership elections, I’d make them a national primary (They do these things so well in France and Italy), with a parliamentarian voice in making nominations.
Like I said, I’m an ultra.
My model Labour party is very far from what we’ve got now, or what the (almost) announced reforms will apparently give us.
But the current reforms are still well worth supporting.
Ed’s team have secured important changes.
First, all Union members will be asked individually if they want to affiliate. Those that do will then be asked if they want to join a sort of ‘associate members’ scheme, which will give them votes in any leadership election. Crucially, the party will hold the ‘associates’ details, so sending out ballot papers in an envelope telling people who to vote for will be stopped.
The right to vote for leader would also be extended to ‘registered supporters’ so the vote won’t be expanded only by union members. In essence, the reforms would turn a leadership election into a closed primary, which would be pretty damn good.
Nor am I bothered by the idea that hundreds of thousands of trade union members will become ‘associates’, swamping the ‘full’ membership. Partly, that’s because I doubt it’ll happen, but mostly it’s because, absent dodgy envelopes, Union members political judgement will be similar to that of most Labour supporters. Further, to the extent that union members are unrepresentative (too public sector, too old, too white, too professional) that could be balanced by the registered supporters scheme, which would finally become meaningful.
On top of that, there are hints that there will be tougher spending limits on selection campaigns. I hope that the free breakfasts, drinks receptions and speaker meetings with food we’ve seen in recent selections from candidates with well-funded campaigns will get banned. Treating is illegal in elections, and should be illegal in selections too.
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, the reforms don’t appear to touch is the internal decision-making structures of the party themselves. There’s no proposal for more member representatives on the National Executive, and Conference seems to be unchanged.
However, the reforms will eventually make the existing structures untenable.
There are probably around three and a half million potential union-affiliated members..
You’d expect between a twentieth and a tenth of those to affiliate, which would mean that the Unions affiliation fee would be around a million pounds a year, representing around two or three hundred thousand people. For that, Union General Secretaries would effectively get a veto on Conference votes and party rules, with no requirement to consult those voters on their opinions, even though they’ve chosen, as individuals, to participate in the party.
I just don’t see that as credible – for a start, a Labour leader could demand that Union leader’s ask their members opinions, and reflect that in their voting. Or the leadership could just ask those union members who have become associates themselves, and point out the difference between the members views and that of their leaders.
The other element that might be a concern is if affiliation money drops dramatically, Trade Unions would simply make an top-up donation from their political fund to the party to make up the difference. The risk is that this donation would become conditional.
However, if I were Len McCluskey, and my union had the financial problems Unite does, the chance to save a few million by keeping the political fund in the union coffers would be very attractive. I’m not sure that money would be handed over. Second, if it did happen, the political damage would be so great, I doubt it would happen twice. The image of Paul and Len dangling a cheque before a Labour leader during some NPF away day would be politically fatal, and no Leader would fall into that trap a second time.
Instead, I think Labour is going to become a lot more positive about capping donations and providing state funding, and be willing to force through change along these lines in government, probably strongly supported by the LibDems, even in the face of Tory opposition. Labour has hinted at this before in it’s changing attitude to various party funding proposals. The big sticking point in previous negotiations was treating Trade Union’s differently to other donations. If that objection falls as a result of these changes, that opens the door to a politics where Labour affiliation income would be smaller, no further big donations would be accepted by anyone, with the difference made up by state funding (or less likely, small donations).
All this means that these reforms will deliver useful changes in the next few years, and make further changes inevitable in future.
Considering the limits on what could practically be achieved given our party structure, they probably represent a near-maximum.
On that basis, they deserve full support, even though, amusingly, the support of ordinary members is of absolutely no consequence to their special conference success, which is one big reason reform is needed.