Labour’s history of special conferences is not an entirely happy one. While the conference which formed the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 was one such – triggered by Thomas R Steels, a member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, proposing in his union branch that the Trades Union Congress call a special conference to bring together all leftwing organisations and form them into a single body that would sponsor parliamentary candidates – more recent special conferences have had mixed results.
In January 1981, the Wembley special conference triggered the formation of the Social Democratic party – a schism which helped split the centre-left vote, guarantee Margaret Thatcher re-election in 1983, and inflict such a heavy blow on Labour that it took another 16 years before it was able to form a government. By contrast, the special conference of April 1995 which approved the new Clause IV marked a turning point in Labour’s path to power in 1997, helping demonstrate to sceptical voters that the party was truly changing under Tony Blair’s leadership.
Ed Miliband’s decision to call a special conference next spring to debate and approve changes to the party’s relationship with the trade unions is thus a gamble, but one well worth taking. In the wake of the furore over the selection of the party’s candidate in Falkirk, Miliband announced both some very specific changes – principally, his desire that all members of affiliates formally opt in to membership of the party – and a wider aspiration to end the kind of ‘machine politics’ which has historically done such damage to Labour’s standing. Over the next few months, through the review the Labour leader announced under former general secretary Ray Collins, and the debate around the country that Harriet Harman and Phil Wilson will lead, the party will have the opportunity to debate both the implications of Miliband’s changes and the realisation of that wider aspiration.
As we argued in March, Labour’s aim should be to ‘mend, not end’ the union link. This is not a fight about whether Labour retains its historic link with the unions; instead it is about how the link can be reformed and strengthened. The party is immeasurably stronger because of its relationship with the unions. We should not fear to defend it in the face of Tory attacks, nor should we fear to reform it in the face of those of the far-left.
We should not pretend either that machine politics is simply a characteristic of some elements of the trade union movement. The undemocratic electoral college which picks Labour’s mayoral candidate in London has its origins in New Labour’s bid to prevent Ken Livingstone being chosen as the party’s candidate in 2000. Despite initial promises of doing things differently, New Labour too often fell into the old right trap of attempting to fix votes and selections rather than winning its case among members.
We remain of the view that the boundaries between all those who join an affiliated union and opt in to a relationship with Labour and those who join the party as individual members should become increasingly irrelevant. Such a change will be hard fought, but the potential prize is the mass membership party which New Labour promised but failed to deliver. The size of that prize is clear. While turnout in the affiliated section of the electoral college was poor in the 2010 leadership election (less than nine per cent as against 72 per cent among constituency party members), if the 203,759 people who voted in that section and ticked the box to say they supported Labour had been treated as full party members, it would have doubled the size of the party overnight.
Changing the nature of the relationship between Labour and the unions will have far-reaching implications. But the party should seize the opportunity to look again at its decision-making bodies and how the power of under-represented groups can be enhanced.
On the National Executive Committee, for instance, the trade unions hold 12 seats, but constituency representatives only six. Labour’s 7,000 councillors, who, as Newcastle council leader Nick Forbes argues on page seven, are now collectively the single biggest financial backer of the Labour party, have a mere two. The Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation argued in its submission to Refounding Labour that ‘equal weight’ should be given to ‘constituencies, trade unions and other stakeholders’. We agree. With CLPs, the unions and elected representatives having equal representation, members in each English region and Scotland and Wales could elect their own representative. Higher BAME representation would also be possible to ensure.
The unions currently hold 50 per cent of the vote on the conference floor, with 50 per cent in the hands of CLPs. This is unsustainable. Instead, the union and CLP share should fall to one-third with parliamentarians and councillors taking the final third. Finally, the electoral college which elects Labour’s leader should be scrapped. In its place, the party should adopt one member one vote, with MPs shortlisting the candidates.
Miliband is right to want a primary to pick Labour’s 2016 mayoral candidate in London and to suggest that primaries open to all Labour supporters might also be appropriate for parliamentary selections where CLP membership is so low as to be unrepresentative of the local community. He should go further and allow any CLP to experiment with a primary if it chooses, with unions and local party branches retaining the right to nominate candidates.
Miliband’s plans and commitment to consign machine politics to the history books will face fierce resistance from some quarters. In order to overcome that, Labour’s leader should call a ballot of all party members on the final package of reforms. It is one we are confident he would win handsomely.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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