Let’s complete John Smith’s unfinished business
As we commemorate the centenary of the start of the first world war, it is ironic that the Labour party is looking again at a structure that largely emerged from that period.
When the war began the party existed as a federation of trade unions and socialist societies with one declared objective: ‘to organise and maintain in parliament and in the country a political Labour party’. As the war ended, Arthur Henderson unveiled his blueprint for a party that would for the first time admit individual members formed into constituency parties in order to contest seats right across Britain. Labour would, in the words of one impassioned speech to the decisive 1918 conference, ‘make laws, not for a small section but for the happiness and the freedom of the whole people’.
To spatchcock a federation of organisations with a membership system was no easy task and was done as elegantly as possible, but with many anomalies. For instance, it was not until the mid-1960s that membership of the party became a prerequisite for being a union delegate to general management committees and party conference. As universal suffrage made Labour’s delegated decision-making look more anomalous, the party too often acted like representatives of a section of society while seeking to appeal to ‘the whole people’. Tinkering with the 1918 structure did not resolve the contradictions.
After our fourth successive electoral defeat in 1992 John Smith, the new Labour leader, set out proposals for reform the following year. As general secretary of an affiliated union I supported him, finding it impossible to defend a situation where trade unions had more than 90 per cent of the vote at conference, 40 per cent of the electoral college votes and a block vote in constituency parties to outvote members in candidate selections.
I was surprised at the hostility of some of my trade union colleagues who almost ended Smith’s leadership before it had begun. I struggled to recognise which essential element of democratic socialism was being placed in jeopardy. Certainly, I have heard nobody proposing to reintroduce bits of the old system that his changes eliminated. I was clear at the time that this should be the beginning of a process and that we in the trade union movement should take the initiative in proposing the next phase of reform.
After the 1997 election when Labour was back in power and I was a member of parliament, Barrie Clement, industrial editor of the Independent, produced a front page story about a draft Fabian pamphlet he had got hold of containing my ideas for further changes which I intended to publish if I had stayed with the union.
I was not keen to re-engage with the debate. We had won the election; what was the point in focusing on an internal process when we were implementing our manifesto? Like the rest of the party, I let sleeping dogs become comatose. In hindsight, we should not have waited until we were back in opposition before tackling these difficult issues.
For us now to shy away from the glaring anomalies that remain even after the 1993 reforms would be to suggest that we are prepared to tackle everybody else’s problems except our own.
Despite Smith’s valiant efforts, we have yet to move to OMOV (One Member, One Vote) in leadership elections. Instead, we have OMMV (One Member, Multiple Votes) and NMOV (Non Member, One Vote). It is very kind of us to offer political opponents a vote in electing our leader but I doubt if our generosity will be reciprocated. And asking voters to tick a box to say they support our objectives is not exactly a failsafe way to prevent outside interference.
Levy-payers have been the ghosts in our machine for too long. It is time to admit that auto-enrolment is right for a pension scheme but wrong for a political party – particularly a party whose leader wants to forge a new kind of politics based on transparency, openness and integrity. Unison has led the way on this aspect and this has enhanced rather than damaged its internal democracy.
There is no earthly reason why affiliated unions should have 50 per cent of the vote at conference. The input of trade unions is invaluable at conference, the National Policy Forum and the National Executive Committee (where we need to increase the presence of members and local councillors). But it should not be exercised through disproportionate, antiquated voting procedures.
A perception that Labour is in the pocket of the unions is damaging to the party and to the trade union movement. The precious link between Labour and the unions becomes a liability rather than an advantage when it is allowed to look like a transaction.
If we agree the basic principles of One Member, One Vote and individuals joining the party through a conscious decision everything else – including finance – will fall into place. It is the principles that need to be the starting point, not the finances.
Ed Miliband, like John Smith before him, is being courageous and bold. The party has to be as well.
Alan Johnson MP is a former home secretary
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.