Campaign for Labour party democracy

So now we know. Ever since he announced them, Ed Miliband’s opponents have attempted to portray his party reform plans as a rupture to Labour’s historic link with the trade unions and a severing of its relationship with millions of working men and women, who are supposedly steadfastly against his proposed changes.

The former claim is nothing more than the kind of hollow rhetorical device employed by those who lack confidence in the validity of their case. What is significant is that the emptiness of the latter assertion has now been exposed. As Labour Uncut’s recent YouGov poll of affiliated trade unionists shows, 60 per cent support Miliband’s plans, with only one in five opposing them. In short, it is the Labour leader, not the hard left or the leadership of some unions, who represents the views of the majority of rank-and-file trade unionists.

We should not find this surprising: at the heart of Miliband’s proposals is the notion that individual trade union members should be allowed to decide for themselves whether they wish to become affiliated members of the Labour party, rather than being automatically enrolled. While the consequences of such a change are, as Miliband has recognised by setting up the Collins review, complex, the case for it is simple. It is about democracy and freedom of choice.

There is a historical parallel here which should give the opponents of reform pause for thought. By scuppering Barbara Castle’s proposed In Place of Strife industrial relations reforms in 1969, which sought to place power in the hands of individual trade unionists by, for instance, requiring secret ballots to be held ahead of strikes, the forces of conservatism in Labour’s ranks did both the party and the movement immense damage. With industrial relations left unreformed by Labour, the door was left open for the Conservatives to introduce their own, rather less palatable, reforms – ones which, indeed, the 40 per cent of trade unionists who voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1983 implicitly endorsed.

After its attempts to redraw constituency boundaries to its own advantage, reform party funding in its own interests, tamper with electoral registration laws so as to disadvantage the young, poor and ethnic minorities, and limit the ability of charities to potentially campaign against its policies in the run-up to a general election, who would really bet against a future Conservative government taking an axe to an unreformed and undemocratic Labour link with the trade unions?

Miliband’s reforms should be the catalyst for engaging millions of individual trade unionists in a more meaningful, democratic relationship with the Labour party. And the consequences of such a change cannot be ducked. The power of party members should be boosted by the abolition of the electoral college which elects the party’s leader and its replacement by One Member One Vote, with MPs retaining their right to shortlist candidates and levy-payers given the same vote as party members. The unions’ domination of the National Executive Committee and votes at party conference also needs to be reformed to ensure that individual members and levy-payers have a far greater say and the under-representation of groups such as Labour councillors is addressed. On this, too, Miliband will have the support of members of affiliated trade unions, 61 per cent of whom want to end the union block vote at conference and 51 per cent of whom want to see the union section of the electoral college scrapped, according to Labour Uncut’s poll. A further 63 per cent support abolishing the seats reserved for the unions on the NEC.

We have long supported Miliband’s plans for a primary of party supporters to pick Labour’s candidate for the London mayoralty and, where membership of constituency parties is so low as to be unrepresentative, to select parliamentary candidates. We would, however, go further and allow any constituency Labour party to opt for a primary if it wished.

Together, Miliband’s reforms represent a chance to open up and democratise both Labour’s relationship with individual trade unions and its internal decision-making and policymaking processes by increasing the role of party members; as well as, by the use of primaries, the role of Labour voters in picking the candidate they will be asked to turn out for and support in elections.

But, for Miliband to succeed, the case for his reforms has to be made and won in the Labour party. Tony Blair’s fight for the new Clause IV of Labour’s constitution in 1995 succeeded because his opponents were out-organised, out-argued and out-voted in debates and meetings the length and breadth of the country. Of the 470 CLPs which followed the NEC’s advice to ballot their members, 467 backed Blair; the trade unions which supported the new Clause IV did so after balloting their members and winning their backing. Those that did not ballot their members simply voted to oppose change. That is why we believe a ballot of all party members on the final package of proposals is so important.

Now is the time for Miliband’s supporters – from whichever part of the party they hail – to come together and launch a similar effort. The minority – in the Labour party and the affiliated unions – who oppose change must not be allowed to frustrate the will of the majority. It is time for a new campaign for Labour party democracy.

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Comments: 6...

  1. On September 19, 2013 at 9:36 pm Ric Euteneuer (No Disqus a/c) responded with... #

    What is it with Progress and their soundalikes ? How about co-operating with the *existing* CLPD – or is Peter Willsman a bit Trotskyist for you ?

    • On October 8, 2013 at 1:55 pm Alan Ji responded with... #

      I have had many disagreements with Pete Willsman over the decades. I’d like to make it clear that I’m firmly of the view that he is not a Trotskyist.

  2. On September 20, 2013 at 8:46 am Anonymous responded with... #

    There is no doubt Trade Unionists’ links with the Labour party need improving. I am aware of people who voted in the Leadership election who are not supporters of the Labour Party, indeed who support other parties and in some cases are even representatives from other parties. This cannot be right. The majority of Trade Unionists are Labour supporters and this needs to be recognised in a proper way.

  3. On September 21, 2013 at 12:08 pm Old Grassroots Geezer responded with... #

    As an educationalist (retired Senior Lecturer) I like to
    get a balanced view of issues and political philosophy. Thus, I belong to
    organisations such as CLPD, Compass, Progress, SERA, War on Want, LCER and
    various Co-operative organisations. The age profile of attendees at events run
    by these organisations is strikingly different. Generally, Progress is young
    with Compass and CLPD being older and mature.

    When I first attended Labour Annual Conference in 1997
    (and each year afterwards) my impression of the Bright Young Things “networking”,
    was that they had no real ideology. They appeared to be able to sit happily in
    any party. They are now labelled “Career Politicians” who seem to be only concerned
    about their careers and progress up the “greasy pole.” Those who “make it”
    (e.g. become MPs/Ministers) are just the tip of an iceberg with the mass of political
    wanabes in “Think Tanks” or NGOs, perhaps waiting for their “chance.”
    Frightened of blotting their copy book, they may well avoid taking risks and “go
    with the flow” fawning on seniors who may influence their careers.

    I wonder if the author of the article has ever had a
    “real, long term job” in industry and commerce. Or is his/her “life experience”
    Higher Education writing a few assignments and perhaps conducting a small scale
    project? In the “real World,” where millions of ordinary workers try to
    survive, there is the age old conflict between them and their employers. The
    only protection they have from bad employers are trade unions and Employment
    Law; the latter largely developed by the political arm of the unions – Labour
    and the EU.

    Parliamentary Question Time is like a knock about full of
    immature student antics where each side tries to outdo the other by sarcastic
    insults. This whole trade union link debate was a trap set by the Tories and
    Miliband fell into it. He allowed Cameron to get under his skin with the jibe “labour
    controlled by the unions” and went scuttling into a corner saying “Oh…oh, er
    I’ve go to DO something about it!” Instead, he should have proudly defended the
    link. Whatever one feels about the man, someone like George Galloway (ex-Labour)
    would have the strength of character to see Cameron off.

    Miliband is a child and was probably shocked that he was elected
    leader. Perhaps he sat on the toilet for two hours afterwards! Over and over
    again we see young shadow ministers and MPs scuttling into corners because they
    are bland, gutless and so lacking in REAL life experience, most mature people
    acquire. Chris Bryant’s “car crash” (New Statesman 12 Aug 13) over his embarrassing
    Next/Tesco climb-down is such an example.

    To be frank, ordinary people and those particularly in my
    age group have no confidence whatsoever in immature, Career Politicians no
    matter which party they are in. Indeed, they are held in contempt. The incompetence
    of New Labour, and its army of BYTs, has devastated Britain. The legacy is a
    Government which appears to be dedicated to the destruction of the NHS and
    Public education. Labour politicians find it hard to argue against the Tories
    because New Labour laid the foundations the Tory Party is building upon: GP
    running as if a small business, Foundation Trusts, “Free Schools,” Academies,
    PFIs, PPPCs, etc.

    Instead of Labour discussing policies what will grab the
    ordinary voter, Miliband and his inner circle have allowed the Tories to force
    Conference to focus upon a fundamental tenet of Labour, which is going to be
    very divisive.

    If Miliband and the BYTs/Career Politicians want to save the
    Labour Party, they should leave politics/NGOs/Think Tanks and get real jobs in
    the real world outside the Westminster Bubble. I am sure that there is an army
    of mature, experienced volunteers to take their places. Ministers need to have had
    direct experience of the department they head up and stop the ministerial “musical
    chairs” culture reshuffles cause. One shadow Health Minister, Liz Kendall, has not
    even WORKED in the Public Sector, let alone the NHS. This is WHY the trade
    union link is ESSENTIAL. We need more politicians with deep experience of industry
    and commerce, especially on the shop floor! People like Alan Johnson (ex-postman)
    Varendra Sharma (ex-bus conductor) enrich British politics and more are needed,
    engineers/scientist for example.

    I hope that I am wrong, but Miliband and his inner circle
    of advisors may well be responsible for the collapse of Labour funding and the
    weakening of the Party. Tories and Big Business/employers will be rubbing their
    hands with glee.

    Old Grassroots Geezer

  4. On September 25, 2013 at 11:45 am Tony Byrne responded with... #

    On the issue of the figures you give from the YouGov
    poll concerning LP affiliated trade unionists, “60 per cent support Miliband’s
    plans, with only one in five opposing them”. You might want to have a look at
    the conclusion of this article: http://yougov.co.uk/news/2013/09/09/labours-limited-appeal-trade-union-members/

    It states: “…one major reason why only a minority of
    union members support the present arrangements is because only a minority of
    them support Labour.” According to the YouGov article 38% of trade unionists
    who are members of LP affiliated TUs support parties other than Labour.

    Like those of us on the left of the party this 38%
    can see that Ed Milliband’s proposals will harm the LP and severely weaken the ability
    to have trade union voices heard in the TU’s mass party; that is why that 38%
    agree with Milliband. If you take away this 38% from the 60% that support Milliband
    that means the 20% who oppose the plans who I assume are all LP supporters will
    have to convince a similar percentage of LP supporters in the affiliated TUs not
    to side on this issue with the likes of UKIP, Tory, Lib Dem and Progress who
    are all in favour of the changes.

    Those 38% who support
    other parties are being used by you and the LP leadership to try and push the
    TUs out of politics. The trade union LP link is the only thing that
    differentiates the LP from all the other parties and those other parties would
    be more than happy for the LP to become just like them so that organised labour
    had no political voice.

  5. On March 17, 2014 at 1:05 am Lee Hyde responded with... #

    I have my own concerns about these reforms and their eventual affect on the disposition of the Labour party. In the short run, it seems all but certain that these reforms will severely deplete Labour’s coffers. To be frank, that’s the fault of Labour and the PLP in particular. Any drop in affiliate income simply represents the real level of support Labour has garnered within the trade union movement over the past few decades, as it has sidled up to the ‘social liberals’ and embraces neo-liberalism.

    In the long term these reforms represent an unprecedented opportunity for Labour, the labour movement and the working classes (within which I’ve always included the white-collar middle classes) of this country. If, and only if, Labour chooses to engage with the latter rather than taking the easier option of courting big business and perhaps even state funding of political parties to plug its funding gap. The door is very much open for Labour to court big business, and I’m afraid that many in the PLP would be all too happy with taking this (the easier) option in the short term. Alas, if Labour sets out on this course, I can’t see it being a temporary solution to the funding gap opened by these reforms. Labour will have been well and truly captured (again) by the forces of capitalism.

    The door to state funded is not yet open, but the issue of party political funding is not off the table now that Labour has made reforms, nor should it be. I think we all know that the light inequity represented by the union block vote and the enforced affiliation of trade unionists is as nothing compared to the veritable river of funding for influence that affects all political parties and Tory party in particular. However, if this aspect of party funding is tackled by a future Labour government you can be damned certain that rather than courting public donations or trade union affiliations to rectify their funding gaps, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats will be demanding some element of state funding. Will Labour acquiesce? I suspect so, as I suspect that Labour MPs are every bit as afraid of being accountable to anyone as any other MPs.

    So, we could end up with three main parties (assuming the Liberal Democrats survive 2015) with some element of guaranteed funding from the state, some element of funded from commercial sources (I can’t see a £5000 par annul limit being applied – I hope I’m wrong) and in Labour’s case some element of affiliation fees from trade unionists. The current crop of MPs, dominated by spineless neo-liberal careerists, will be far more predisposed to court commercial support and/or rest on their laurels by relying on state funds and those dwindling few trade unionists willing to affiliate with Labour regardless of how dire things get. Only resorting to courting the trade unionists on those occasions when big business defects to the Tories (their natural friends). After all, the Tories and Liberal Democrats lack any equivalence to the trade union affiliation programme, which give Labour an edge, albeit one they needed rely on except in times of need (i.e. when Westminster’s pendulum of opposition swings the ‘wrong’ way). Does anyone think that the PLP will compromise with trade unionists and the left of the party unless pressed?

    I hope I’m wrong. I hope that in the long run we’ll see a cap on individual and commercial donations (from business) of £5000 per annum. I hope that we’ll see the pre-emptive abolition of state funding as a dangerous paralytic that will fossilise democracy in this country. I hope that Labour will strengthen it’s ties with the trade unions, and perhaps even certain professional bodies. I hope that Labour will make a genuine, concerted and long term effort to engage with each and every trade unionist and citizens of this country. I hope that Labour will curtail the undue power of the parliamentary Labour party (which seems to have forgotten that most of it’s members were elected for the rosette they wear, and not their ‘winning’ personalities and ‘charmingly’ ambiguous politics) and actually listens to the party at conferences and doesn’t simply allow the PLP veto proposals (their are valid concerns with making the PLP accountable to the party above the people; to those concerns I say, scrap the PLP veto and replace it with resort to a referendum. We all know that the PLP isn’t vetoing calls to renationalise the railway network because it’s not wanted by the people). In short, I hope that Labour can become a true party of the people, and wrest itself away from the depressing trend of ‘establishment creep/capture’. I’m won’t hold my breath though. :-

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