The Great Stumble Forward

The proposed reforms to Labour’s links with the trade unions are both a significant step forward in party democracy and a fudge, says WILL BROWN. While the changes should be welcomed (with some reservations), the prospect of a mass, democratic and participatory party remains a long way off.

The process by which we have arrived at this set of reforms seems somewhat cack-handed even by Labour Party standards. Not three years ago, amid great fanfare, Peter Hain launched the Refounding Labour process to scrutinise the party’s inner workings and lay a new basis for membership, policy and connection to the wider electorate. That process resulted in some limited, but mainly sensible reforms of how constituencies operate, creating a new category of ‘registered supporters’.Voting hands LP conf

These are now said to number around 20,000. Originally, they were to have no formal role in the party’s democracy until there were 50,000 after which they would be given a small say in the electoral college. So far the party has been lukewarm about other proposals floated at the time, such as open primaries for parliamentary selection procedures, although some figures remain keen on this idea.

Amazingly, given its aim of ‘refounding the party’, that process did not address the party’s relationship with the trade unions, its policy processes, the role of conference, or election procedures. Subsequently, changes were introduced to the National Policy Forum, although they were hardly the root and branch overhaul some had called for.

Fast forward to summer 2013. Under intense media and Tory pressure following the Falkirk fiasco, Ed Miliband acknowledged that we do, in fact, need a fundamental rethink of the party’s links to the trade unions. After some initial bluster, discussions disappeared off into the backrooms where Ray Collins attempted to put together a set of reforms that would keep the majority of the major unions on side while allowing Miliband to claim he’d seen through a major change.

The party’s membership have been largely excluded from the process. While that may have been driven by the difficulties of thrashing out a deal with the unions, it must not be allowed to set a precedent for future discussions about party reform. A consultation exercise around the Collins report – minimal even by Refounding Labour standards – was conducted at the end of 2013. But key decisions and deals were done separately: first, between the leadership and the trade union leaders; then with the PLP; then the NEC. The whole set of reforms now goes to a special conference on 1 March where the changes are expected to be endorsed.

The reforms

Finding a reliable account of the detail of the reforms is not easy, but these seem to be the key points:

  • To become affiliate members, trade unionists will have to take two steps – agree to pay the political levy to Labour, then agree to become an affiliated member for a cost of £3.
  • All affiliated members will then have a direct relationship to the party which will hold their details, send out ballot forms and make these details available to leadership candidate elections and local constituency parties. Previously this was not possible and unions kept control of political levy payers’ details.
  • This change will be phased in over five years. All new union members will be required to go through this process immediately, but existing members will be converted over to the new system gradually.
  • The electoral college for leadership and deputy leadership elections will be abolished. Elections will be conducted on the basis of One Member One Vote (OMOV). ‘Member’ here is to be taken to include affiliated members, full constituency members and registered supporters who will each have one vote and no one will have more than one vote.
  • The candidates in leadership elections will be nominated by MPs, as at present, but rather than requiring the backing of 12.5% of MPs, they will need to receive the backing of 15% of MPs.
  • If there is a leadership election between now and five years’ time, it will be conducted on this new basis, even though many union members will not have converted to the new affiliate status.
  • Trade union affiliated members will not have a vote in parliamentary candidate nor council selection processes; that right is reserved for full party members.
  • There will be a primary to select the candidate to be Mayor of London in 2015 which will be conducted on the basis of OMOV among party members, those union members who have affiliated by that point, and registered supporters.
  • The idea of a spending limit on local selection processes was raised but put on hold for future consideration.
  • There were no proposals for changing the balance of representation on the NEC, where just six people on a 30-strong executive represent ordinary party members.
  • Voting at conference will remain as it is at present, with trade unions commanding 50% of conference votes. There will be an adjustment to how that 50% is distributed among the trade unions in five years’ time when we know how many affiliated members each union has, but at present there is no commitment to change their 50% share. Currently just three unions account for three quarters of this 50% of votes at conference.

Assessment

The ILP has a long and honourable record in debates about party democracy and has been saying for years that, at a basic level, the argument for OMOV is unanswerable. Given that this represents a move towards OMOV, it is to be welcomed.

The downsides should also be noted, however. First, what is proposed is not in fact OMOV, but something more like OMOAMORMOV (one member or affiliate member or registered member one vote). That is, full members may see their voice challenged, some think drowned out, by individuals who make a far more limited commitment to the party, financially or organisationally.Miliband One Nation landscape

To say that all will be treated fairly and equally, as Miliband claims is disingenuous in a situation where members pay over 10 times the amount in membership fees than people joining via the two other categories. There is a danger too that political opponents could use the registered supporter section to influence party elections. At the time of Refounding Labour, the ILP argued strongly against registered supporters having a formal say in party processes.

The reforms include a significant shift in power from MPs (who lose their 30% say in leadership ballots) to members, and this is to be welcomed. MPs appear to be very positive about the change and even argued for a reduction in the nomination threshold from a proposed 20% or even 25% threshold to 15%. They will still have significant power because OMOV counts for little if there isn’t a strong field of viable (and varied) candidates. Although keeping a nomination threshold restricts the field, it is right that any candidates for leadership should be able to demonstrate some backing from fellow MPs.

However, last time around under the existing system – when backing from just 12.5% of MPs was needed – we still ended up with the slightly farcical situation of one candidate (David Miliband) nominating a rival candidate (Dianne Abbot) in order to broaden the look of the field from one consisting entirely of white men. The underlying problem here, of course, is the lack of diversity – political and otherwise – in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

At the moment, local selection procedures are reserved for party members and this too is welcome. The prospect of political factions, or political opponents, packing in newly registered or affiliate members to influence an election is far more dangerous at a local level (because of the smaller size of the electorate) than nationally.

However, as Harry Barnes has pointed out, there are many more problems with local selection procedures, which remain subject to considerable central party influence, than merely who gets to vote. In particular, Harry has argued that candidates should be restricted to those who have a connection with the constituency in question, so preventing ‘carpet baggers’ being imposed by either unions or the party leadership.

The introduction of a primary for London Mayor is more worrying. Aside from grabbing headlines, it is presumably intended as a trial run for other selection procedures. The commitment to leave local party members in control of candidate selections will look vulnerable if the London process is deemed a success. It may also lead to a rush to sign up registered supporters in London.

Key amendments

Key amendments to the current proposals should include:

1. There should be a time-limit of 12 months membership before anyone (members, registered supporters or affiliated members) can have a vote in party elections. This is necessary to prevent attempts to influence elections at short notice and to demonstrate that those voting have a minimal level of commitment to the party.

2. Some thought should be given to how it might be possible to convert affiliated members into full party members whether through incentive schemes or involvement in local parties. The aim should be that affiliated members and registered supporters become full members in due course.

By the same token there needs to be some thought given to how to retain, encourage participation by, and attract more, full members. As Harry has noted, one danger of the new scheme is that existing full party members who are also trade union members may actually have an incentive to quit their party membership and become an affiliate given that they can still have a say in leadership elections for less than a tenth of the cost.

3. There should be a commitment to revisit the question of how votes at conference are distributed. If the party is now more willing to recognise the absurdity of the paper army that is the trade union block vote, then this cannot remain off the agenda. Whether trade union leaders should in future be allowed to cast votes on behalf of their affiliated supporters in party conference is a moot point. The desire to keep this ‘collective voice’ within the party is very strong in some quarters.

On the other hand, if individual affiliated members are deemed to have a right to a say on party leadership issues, how is that right to be recognised within the policy processes? What cannot be ruled out from future debate is the unions’ share of conference votes – whether collectively exercised or not.

This is a point on which unions have flatly refused to budge this time around. But unions now have five years to try to get levy payers to sign up as affiliated members. After that period – arguably it should be possible well before then – we will be better able to judge the level of union members’ support for the party. This support may be as low as 200,000 willing to affiliate, out of some 2.7 million levy payers. If so, it is unacceptable that unions’ voting weight at conference would not come into question.

4. While a spending cap on selection procedures has been kicked into the long grass for the time being, there has to be a commitment to look at how selection procedures can be made more open to a diverse range of candidates. This could take the form of a guaranteed level of support from the party for candidates (party funding for mailshots, for example, as argued here), the kind of residency requirement argued for by Harry, or by some other means.

All those amendments are necessary, but above and beyond these organisational issues is a larger political one. Even with a democratic internal structure (something we are still a very long way from achieving) there is a need for a participatory political culture, one which welcomes vibrant debate and discussion.

At the local level, many parties are moribund or, where active, are geared almost entirely to work around council and parliamentary elections. To have a more active, engaged internal life, the party has to become a place that welcomes disagreement, debate, and is open to dialogue with activists, campaigns, organisations and movements that are not solely focused on electoral politics.

As we argue in Our Politics, this relationship between different forms of political activity, party and movements, needs to be re-forged. It is not so much a matter of ‘bringing the people back into politics’ in an organisational way, as Miliband claimed, but of bringing the politics back into political parties.

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The ILP has a long history of campaigning for democratic change within the Labour Party. Click here to read more.

10 Comments

  1. Harry Barnes
    9 February 2014

    Whilst I am thankful for the three favourable references and links in Will’s article, it should not be assumed that I agree with the the general thrust of what he says. The style of OMOV which has been developed inside the Labour Party has been mainly counter productive. It relates essentially to elections for the Party leadership (which are never likely to be frequent) and the selection (but not the nominations) for certain Labour candidates who stand for public office. This leads to situations such as the adoption of a candidate for the Rotherham by-election, where the bulk of the members attending the selection meeting walked out when they felt they were not given a reasonable choice.

    The use that is made of the OMOV stystem has also helped to destroy participatory democracy inside the Labour Party. This was never perfect, but it gave members a chance to meet collectively to determine both their nominations for candidates and their policy proposals. There is little scope for this in the modern Labour Party. Policy ideas can, of course, be submitted. There are the national policy reviews and we have had Refounding Labour and now the Collins Report.

    But individual members don’t have to participate within the Labour Party to do this. They don’t even have to be any form of Labour Party member. If they have the skills, they can just sit in front of a computer and submit their ideas. There will, of course, be no feed back. At best an acknowledgment. They won’t know what ideas are floating around from their fellow members. They will (at best) only see the final document of the proposals, which will then be presented on a take it or leave it basis at a Party Conference.

    I don’t know of any procedure under which Will’s suggested eleven amendments to the Collins Report can get onto the Labour Party’s agenda – even if I take them to my local Labour Party branch meeting on Wednesday. The Refounding Labour process was a disaster and not the “mainly sensible” reforms that are suggested by Will. In one fell swoop Refounding Labour was used at a Labour Party conference to change a quarter of its rules. The only advance warning of part of what was to happen was an email circulated by Collins a fortnight before the 2011 Party Conference. Currently we have OMOC – one member, one confusion.

  2. Will
    9 February 2014

    Hi Harry

    I’m responding in haste which is probably not a good idea. And I’m tempted to say that I agree with you even if you don’t agree with me! The places where I cited your comments are areas of agreement, however, and your comments and analysis of problems of selection procedures do make points that (regrettably) I don’t hear others making.

    We agree, for instance, on the limitations of shortlists so I generally endorse your point that OMOV without better choice doesn’t get us very far. I think I said much the same in the post above?

    Whether OMOV, as currently practiced, makes things worse or better I’m not sure. As you know, in days gone by the ILP argued that the right to vote should be conditional on attendance at a minimum number of Labour Party meetings in order to encourage participation. This isn’t something we have discussed recently, I’d be curious to revisit it – is it still a viable proposition in today’s world?

    As to Refounding Labour. I agree entirely that the process was a disaster and both I and David Connolly wrote on this site about those failings. (In this regard I think the last sentence in the second paragraph of my post might have been clearer if it had read: “That process resulted in some limited, but mainly sensible reforms of how constituencies operate, and created a new category of ‘registered supporters’.” We argued against the creation of registered supporters and, in our submission to that process, against various other ideas being floated (like primaries). But the changes in how constituencies are run – opening up the scope for constituencies to experiment in how they organise themselves and their business, in order to make them more open, campaigning, participatory… we generally saw that as a positive move, worth trying at least. Aside from the deficiencies of the process, however, my sense is that what was most wrong with Refounding Labour was more what was not changed (NPF, trade union links, conference) than what was.

    As to my eleven amendments – I wasn’t aware I’d made so many! I listed four, three of which came out of the NAC’s discussion a week ago. The fourth came from you, among other places. How are these to be realised in a Labour Party that has no credible procedure left for members to get their views translated into changes in policy or constitution? Well this is a key question. But the criticisms we and others have made about the NPF and conference – including the fact that trade unions control conference – are made with exactly that point in mind. But in a party where democratic processes have been gradually closed down over many years, surely there is still some value in raising our voices, if and where we can? I assume, given your own activity, raising points of criticism on your blog, you don’t think it is an entirely pointless thing to do?

    With best wishes,
    Will

  3. Graham Wildridge
    11 February 2014

    Ann Black’s Report from the Labour Party National Executive Committee Meeting on 4th February says: “After nearly three [only three! – my comment] hours, the NEC endorsed the Collins’ Report (40+ pages of draft 18 and amendments agreed on the day) with Christine Shawcroft and Dennis Skinner against, and Martin Mayer abstaining.

    Ann’s personal report, together with occasional others, is the only way party members get to learn what goes on at the NEC. Now here’s interesting REFORM #1: A full and proper record of NEC meetings be available to members within 24 hours of end of meeting.

    I read on Labour Uncut website that the vote was 28 to 2. That means that of all the trade union NEC members only UNITE’S Mayer abstained. Shawcroft (one of only six NEC members from CLPs) voted against. Who didn’t turn up? We’ll never know! Interesting REFORM #2: CLP NEC members to number more than 50% of NEC membership.

    Counting the votes of the trade union NEC members, the indications must be that the Special Conference on 1st March is a foregone conclusion. That explains why the conference will only have a take-it-or-leave-it option on the whole Collin’s Review and is reportedly scheduled for only two hours duration.

    The problem is that, having elected Ed, the party (ie. you and me) is coerced into supporting any crackpot idea Ed nails his banner to for fear of being hacked to pieces by the despot. I am not singling out Ed. The same would apply to any of the Labour Party leadership candidates who stood in 2010.

    Another CLP NEC member who reports on NEC Meeting is Johanna Baxter. Johanna matched Ann Black with the following: “As a trade unionist I really welcome the fact that individual levy paying trade unionists will have the ability to become affiliated supporters. One of the key aspects of this change is that they will then provide their individual details direct to the party. This will allow local constituency parties to contact them directly and involve them in their activity.”

    “This will allow local constituency parties to contact them directly and involve them in their activity”? Wasn’t exactly that what was happening in Falkirk when Ed’s circle of worse-than-Blairites kicked of this whole “STUMBLE”.

    Personally, I have a resolution to this dreadful mess. I am a member of a union and pay the political levy. But my union does not affiliate to the Labour Party. And so I can become a Registered Supporter for far less money than my party membership now costs me, use the saved £s for something useful, and still be the same active member in my CLP. PERFICK!

  4. Harry Barnes
    11 February 2014

    Graham: There is only one problem about leaving the Labour Party and signing up as as a supporter. Do we really want to be known as “supporters”, rather tham grumpy members? Becoming a supporter might be a step too far.

    Wiil: my problem is that I have always believed in being in meetings with people I can identify with to discuss politics, whilst having healthy differences as part of the dialects of debate. So when I became secretary of the Easington Colliery branch of the Labour Party in 1958, they agreed to my proposal to have speakers with discussions at each alternative meeting. Then I studied and/or taught politics from 1960 to 1987, mainly alongside fellow trade unionists. For most of that time I was also active in the Labour Party. From the mid 1970s I supplemented my efforts with activities within the ILP, until I became a parliamentary candidate in the lead up to the 1987 election. Although I still retained the comfort zone of my Constituency Labour Party and was able to address more than 80 meetings against the Poll Tax soon after I was elected, parliament became problematic for someone like myself who wished to discuss democratic socialist values with fellow minded people, especially after the triumph of New Labour. So I joined the Socialist Campaign Group as there was nothing else, and then often argued against their main lines.

    I appreciate that new technology alters the scope and nature of such discussions. And as you see now, I have attempted to adjust to this. My own blog has existed for more than 7 years and has carried 717 items. But this only encourages occasional debates in my comment boxes, so I turn to other webs and blogs to try to stimulate debate. But it is a slow process and can’t match, say, the two stimulating political discussion meetings I went to on Sunday. Perhaps in time, more people will be stimulated to return to the meeting format, while using new technology to support the ideas they have develop in a more Socratic atmosphere. After all, there is a lot of human development behind that approach. And it still makes sound educational sense.

    All is not lost in the Labour Party. At tomorrow night’s meeting of my Labour Party branch, I will put forward a motion for submission to our Constituency Labour Party which is aimed at obtaining discussions at its branches in March on the Labour Party’s current round of policy documents, with a view to us having a constituency meeting in April along with an East Midland Region member of the National Policy Forum. Such a move has worked in the past. Good grief we even had a meeting with our old ILP friend Jon Trickett to discuss how to get more working class Labour Party parliamentary candidates! Even if this has led to nothing, it was a worthwhile meeting for the participants. We even obtained a Constituency Meeting on the initial Collin’s report, which we kicked into touch. It was just like a meeting from the good old days, when our constituency was at the epicentre of the Clay Cross rent rebellion as the 11 councillors were all our members.

    What I am pushing is opposed to isolated OMOV where we sit at a computer or post a ballot paper. It is old fashioned participatory and collectivist democracy (and shared poitical education), even if I have to get my walking stick out to make my way to a meeting. So I am with the hard left of Skinner and Shawcross on this one, even though my arguments might differ from theirs.

  5. Will
    12 February 2014

    Hi Graham, Harry

    A joint response, not that I want to get into a position where I am cast as defending the proposed set up. But…

    Graham: the point of the current proposals is that as a registered supporter you wouldn’t have the same rights as a full member as you couldn’t take part in selection processes. And, ‘hacked to pieces by the despot’…I mean, really? Ed Miliband…?

    Harry, I sympathise with a great deal of what you say about collective face to face politics. I rather wish I was more free to participate myself instead of just making paltry contributions like this. But still in what you’ve said, even if decisions are made at meetings and not by post or computer, you’ve not said how you would distribute rights among different elements of the party (other than that you’d have voted no to these proposals).

    Best wishes

    Will

  6. Harry Barnes
    13 February 2014

    Will, I appreciate that the dam burst a long time ago. But that is no reason for just removing a few more bricks. What I am opposed to are continuing acts of vandalism.

    There are many varieties of an alternative approach that can be adopted. Here is one alternative vision. But as I am not a utopian, I only offer this to show that there are better roads than the one we are expected to go down. No doubt, other forms of improvement are possible.

    To start an alternative pattern, we could decide that Labour parliamentary candidates should come from the constituencies they live in or from a neighbouring constituency. And that they must have been Party members for several years with a proven record of activity and have lived in the area concerned for a set period. Then there should be automatic re-selection procedures in place for the run-up to each election.

    With such contols in operation over those who become Labour MPs, then they could be left to decide who their leaders will be – as long as we are informed who they voted for. The Party conference could then be the general policy making body in the party. Labour MPs and other elected representatives would have to work out the details of implementing conference policy. This could lead to occasions of dynamic tension between the Party and its representatives. But that is all part of a serious democratic process.

    To facilitate the drawing together of all the elements in the Party, then the annual conference would deal with resolutions (rather than just adopting manipulated policy forum reports and fixed Collin’s style reports). To draw each element of the Party into a democratic structure for determining policy, the votes at conference could fit into thirds: a third for all elected representives from the EU to the parish council; a third for indiviual members; a third for affiliated bodies.

    But I don’t have to stick with this alternative scheme. It is the principles upon which it is based that count.

  7. Graham Wildridge
    14 February 2014

    Will (and others ?) shouldn’t be so po-faced. ‘Hacked to pieces by the despot’ is a reasonable, rhetorical exaggeration to describe the awful position that the Labour Party has got itself into with the existing (and I would say unwanted) Leader of the Labour Party arrangement. As soon as Ed Miliband (or any other incumbent Leader) declares for a particular policy position then his/her faithful hounds are set loose. The crazy argument is that however ill-considered the Leader’s decision might be, no one can seek to reverse the diktat because that would challenge the Leader’s authority. “And don’t we all know (children) that challenging the Leader’s authority is bad ?” Anyone who answers that question NO will be put under pressure. Not me personally, but others with more influence within the Labour Party most certainly are subjected to all sorts of “reasons” to conform.

    The Collin’s Report/Review is really only concerned with who can take part in candidate selection processes. And so it seems is Will ! Were I to “downgrade” to a Registered Supporter (Harry, I am not going to do that.) then all I would “lose” is the ability on the rare occasions it happens to cast a vote for prospective MP or councillor. What would I be missing out on ?

    I think Harry’s piece of 13th February does put forward principles that the ILP should promote. The framework Harry outlines gives back meaning to being MEMBER.

  8. Matthew Brown
    18 February 2014

    Readers may also be interested in this comment on the proposals from Caerphilly MP Wayne David: http://labourlist.org/2014/02/party-reform-should-be-welcomed/

  9. Graham Wildridge
    20 February 2014

    In the comment piece to which Matthew directs us, Wayne David destroys two straw men completely of his own fabrication. I’ve not heard anyone else suggest such nonsense.

    It may or may not be significant that Wayne (with a long and “distinguished” political career – which doubtless he wishes to extend to the benefit of his constituents!) is currently Parliamentary Private Secretary to Ed Miliband.

    And the straw men?

    First of all, Wayne kindly tells me that I and every other person who keeps the Labour Party alive are OK kind of people: “… there are no grounds for there to be concerns about the Party membership, or indeed of the new category of registered supporters.”

    With this comforting thought in his head, Wayne isn’t worried that the threshold of only (only?) 15% support that an MP needs of his/her peers to become a candidate for Leader or Deputy Leader “might allow an ‘unsuitable’ candidate to ‘slip through’ the PLP net and go on to win widespread support from Party members, but then fail to command wider electoral support”. Thank goodness for that, eh?

    Secondly, and reminiscing about battles with Militant, Wayne assures us that there is no need to FEAR the newly-empowered registered trade union supporters from affiliated trade unions ‘moving into’ moribund Party branches and sweeping to one side long-standing Party activists. Fear them, Wayne? The long-standing Party activists of my acquaintance would love to be swept aside. But they sadly reflect that the Collins’ recommendations aren’t going to result in that influx of new “supporter-members”.

    And so, I really don’t think that readers of ILP web pages will be remotely interested Wayne’s World.

    In any case, I should report that my CLP has instructed its delegate to the Special Conference to vote against the Collins’ Review.

  10. An Unfit System - ILP
    20 February 2014

    […] ‘The Great Stumble Forward’, by Will Brown, sums up nicely Ed Miliband’s response to the Falkirk debacle where cooking the books and buying votes was the order of the day as different factions tried to circumvent one member one vote to parachute their preferred candidates into a safe parliamentary seat. […]

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