Collins helps make Labour fit for the 21st century
I attended my first Labour party annual conference 30 years ago. I was the 17-year-old delegate from Enfield Southgate CLP, conference was in Blackpool, and Neil Kinnock had been party leader for just a year. At that conference, he proposed the adoption of One Member, One Vote but it was defeated. Nine years later John Smith succeeded by a narrow margin after an impassioned speech by John Prescott.
On 1 March this year the Labour party can take a bold and significant step building upon Smith’s 1993 reform. It is a remarkable tribute to Ed Miliband and Ray Collins that the proposed changes have won strong support across the spectrum of party and trade union opinion. Progress has long championed the principle of One Member, One Vote – and made the case for involving Labour supporters as well as members in decision-making. The Collins report does both.
The electoral college may have made sense in the particular circumstances of the early 1980s but it fails some pretty basic tests for a party that wants to reach out to the wider electorate in the 21st century. Far from One Member, One Vote, the electoral college meant that some members had several votes, and even these votes were not of equal value, with the votes of members of parliament and members of the European parliament being worth far more than those of party members. The Collins report rightly abolishes the electoral college.
Moving to an ‘opt-in’ system for individual trade unionists is a sensible reform. As Alan Johnson put it in last month’s Progress, ‘It is time to admit that auto-enrolment is right for a pension scheme but wrong for a political party.’ A lot has been said about the financial challenge this will pose for our party. Undeniably there is a financial risk. However, there is also a massive political opportunity – to reach out and attract thousands to become ‘opt-in’ Labour supporters.
There are two features of the Collins reforms that I find especially attractive. First, the opportunity to engage individual trade unionists in activity at a local level. Second, I welcome the extension of the franchise for leadership elections to registered supporters. Taken together, these two reforms have enormous potential. If local parties, councillors and MPs have the will to do so we could ensure that far more people participate locally in political activity.
We can learn here from the example of Birmingham Edgbaston and Gisela Stuart. They have succeeded in keeping a traditionally Tory seat in Labour hands by engaging local members and reaching out to the wider community of Labour supporters. My experience in Liverpool and Enfield has taught me that the most effective way of working is to engage members and reach out to our supporters who are not members. There is no need for this to be an ‘either, or’ matter.
Some will say, ‘Why become a member when supporters get an equal vote in leadership elections?’ I understand the point being made. However, my view is that people join political parties for many different reasons. In my experience most people join because they share the values and support most of the policies of that party. Under the Collins reforms full members will retain the exclusive vote in deciding who stands for Labour in their area – including parliamentary selections and council selections. The wider franchise will apply only for the leader and deputy leader of the party and for the Labour candidate for London mayor.
If we succeed in engaging our supporters at a local level there is every prospect that some of them will choose to become full members. So we can look to increase our membership and our network of Labour supporters.
Some have expressed disappointment that the Collins report does not propose reforms to the composition of Labour’s National Executive Committee. I support reform of the NEC to ensure a stronger voice for members and a bigger say for local Labour councillors. The case for this remains very powerful and it is something to which the party can return in future years.
1 March 2014 has the potential to be a historic date in our party’s history – bringing to an end what Alan Johnson has called ‘One Member, Multiple Votes’ and ‘Non Member, One Vote’. There is an exciting opportunity to strengthen Labour’s relationship with our supporters both locally and nationally. A party that is prepared to reform itself to meet the new challenges of the modern age is surely a party well placed to persuade the British people that we are ready to govern in 2015.
Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for political and constitutional reform and honorary president of Progress
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