I hope with today’s bold announcement about party reform, following on the heels of economic and welfare policy announcements, fellow members who like me are on the right of the Labour party, but unlike me didn’t vote for Ed as Leader, get what the qualities were that I saw in Ed back in 2010.
Ed has demonstrated today the same courage, decisiveness and vision that led him to stand and win against the odds in 2010 and which will make him a great prime minister.
Len McCluskey used the media this weekend, and internal party channels for weeks before, to try to bully and bluster his way out of being accountable for the membership stacking scandal in Falkirk. If he had at any point apologised, backed down and recognised rather than questioned the authority of the Labour party over its own internal democracy, he could have preserved far more of the status quo of the union-party relationship.
Instead he upped the ante and made this about Ed’s credibility as a leader. In doing so he provided Ed with a second chance to fundamentally review Labour’s democracy and make it fit both Ed’s own values as a pluralist and democrat and those of the wider public. Ed tried to do this with Refounding Labour but at that stage Unite was just too strong for fundamental changes to get through. Their exposure over Falkirk fundamentally weakens their ability to block Ed’s reform agenda.
I haven’t overnight become a supporter of primaries, which I am a long term opponent of. On principle I would still rather Labour party members alone picked candidates. I am concerned about the implementation of the London Mayor closed primary. We will need to work really hard to ensure that there is mass registration to vote as supporters and we don’t end up with a selectorate that is either tiny due to lack of public interest (only 20,000 people voted in a city of 8 million in the 2008 Tory primary that selected Boris Johnson) or unrepresentative and disproportionately stacked with people recruited by particular interest groups that have organisational capacity, whether that’s unions (affiliated or not) or ethnic or faith groups. We also need to think about how we can avoid the possible pilots in parliamentary selections in Labour seats with low memberships being implemented in a factionalised way, i.e. the choice of which seats they happen in being made to the partisan advantage of certain candidates. There is also the risk that their existence further discourages MPs from retiring early enough before the election for a full process to be run.
The more important reform is the opt-in for union levy payers. We are basically asking other unions to follow UNISON’s model of an opt-in affiliated political fund (APF) and a separate general political fund, which seems to work well. It has the advantage of us being able to tell the assorted Trot and Stalinist political parties that like to infiltrate some unions that they are not allowed anywhere near the affiliated political fund or its policies. If Unite want to employ Communist party of Britain hack Andrew Murray as chief of staff they can, but our rulebook should stop him having any interaction with or influence over Labour’s internal democracy. UNISON’s APF is Labour’s second largest donor so the idea that moving to this model is necessarily going to damage Labour financially is false – that will only happen if union leaderships do not promote opting-in. They have to decide if they want to make this new relationship work or if they want to wander off into the political wilderness like Scargill did after the new clause IV vote.
I would personally like to see everyone who opts-in become a full individual member of the party so that CLPs can interact with them direct and we start to look like a mass membership party, but we need to make sure that the town hall trade unions don’t use this as a mechanism for local government workers to stack the selection of the councillors who employ them!
The hard left are going to squeal that these measures damage the link and will destroy the party. They said the same about every previous reform including OMOV – opposed vehemently by Len McCluskey’s TGWU Broad Left predecessors – and it’s always fallacious, the party and its relationship with affiliates is robust and organic and changes over time to reflect the way society changes.
This latest set of proposals is a bold modernisation that puts individual trade unionists, not political office machines, at the heart of the trade union link.
John Prescott, backing John Smith’s OMOV reforms, told the 1993 Party Conference:
‘There is no doubt that this man, our leader, put his head on the block by saying basically, “I fervently believe in a relationship – and a strong one – between the trades unions and the Labour Party”. He has put his head there now it is time to vote. Give us a little trust.’
We should follow this same advice now. Ed has put his head on the block and we need to trust his courage and his judgement and push through his reforms and make them work.
Luke Akehurst is a councillor in the London borough of Hackney. He tweets @lukeakehurst
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