Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Rage against the machine

The Collins reforms are welcome but machine politics may yet strike back

When Ed Miliband launched his attempt to reform Labour’s relationship with the trade unions last July, he set himself a huge challenge: to put an end to the closed, machine politics that had been exposed in Falkirk.

With this month’s special conference that process reaches its conclusion. The bar that Miliband set was always likely to be a little high: decades of ingrained cultural behaviour by the fixers and factionalists of machine politics do not just end with the passage of a rule change.

Nonetheless, the Labour leader’s test is a good criterion by which to judge the impact of the reforms drawn up by Ray Collins, the party’s former general secretary and the man Miliband appointed to turn his high-minded vision into concrete reality.

But, first: step back from the substance of the reforms to the process by which they have been arrived at. Deal-making is a necessary but unattractive part of politics. In this case, however, where the goal is a more open form of politics, it is less easy to dismiss the importance of process. Collins was handed an unenviable task last July and he has conducted it with scrupulous fairness. Nonetheless, a more open process would have sent a powerful signal that Labour is truly changing the way it runs its affairs. Why, for instance, were calls for an all-member ballot on the final set of proposals, the cost of which could have been minimised by coordinating it with this year’s election to the National Executive Committee, dismissed?

What of the proposals themselves? On the positive side of the ledger, Miliband was unequivocal last July that he did not ‘want any individual to be paying money to the Labour party in affiliation fees unless they have deliberately chosen to do so’. The words may sound bland and technical but that should not disguise their import: Labour should have a relationship with trade unionists, not simply trade unions. On this count, Miliband is delivering exactly what he promised: within five years, nobody will be paying affiliation fees to the Labour party who has not ‘positively consented’ to do so. That is a big step forward for ending machine politics.

Miliband made no mention last July of how the Labour party elects its leader, but it has inevitably become the centrepiece of his reforms. Like the election of the party leaders solely by members of parliament which preceded it, the electoral college has become something of an anachronism. What replaces it is a hybrid: not One Member, One Vote (trade unionists who become affiliated supporters of the party and supporters of the party who pay £3 will be able to vote) but not a pure primary such as that adopted by the French Socialists in 2011 or that planned by Spain’s Socialist party to pick their prime ministerial candidate in the autumn. Nonetheless, the new system does fulfil one of the basic tenets of democracy – that voters and candidates can communicate with one another – which did not apply in the trade union section in 2010. Again, a strike against machine politics.

Beyond this, however, the proponents of reform appear to have met their match. From the outset, some of the unions set their face against any reform to their 50 per cent share of the vote on conference floor and domination of the National Executive Committee (where they effectively hold 13 seats to the six elected by party members). Instead, after five years, there will, on the basis of the number of people who have opted in, merely be a reallocation of the share of the votes and seats that each individual union holds. There will be no increase in the number of seats elected by members. This is a massive missed opportunity: by increasing the constituency representative seats it would have been possible to ensure fairer representation between regions.

Just as disappointingly, there is to be no progress on boosting the number of local councillors – those who actually have experience of governing in a time of austerity – on the NEC from their current risible two seats. Through the levy on their allowances, councillors are now the party’s biggest single donor. Having been overlooked, they need to rethink how they wield this considerable financial clout.

But this is not just the case of a missed opportunity. The NEC is Labour’s governing body, enjoying real power over the timetabling of selections, which seats become all-women shortlists, and how the party spends its resources. In 2010, it was the NEC which took the decision to lengthen the leadership contest (which left Labour off the playing field for four critical months) and overturned Collins’ decision as general secretary to stop unions from sending ballot papers for the leadership election in envelopes with their endorsements. Leaving the NEC effectively unreformed will seriously undermine the confidence of many in the other changes which Miliband is proposing.

Finally, let’s remember where this all began. Last July, Miliband provided a very concrete solution to what had happened in Falkirk. Where a Labour MP was standing down and the local party had ‘dwindled’, he argued, primaries involving Labour supporters ‘could make for a more properly representative selection process’. The case for such primaries was dismissed by Collins in one sentence.

Although it was no remedy for the problems of Falkirk, Collins did, however, manage to preserve Miliband’s plans for a primary for London’s mayoral selection. This has been a key demand of party reformers, and Progress, for many years. It will provide an opportunity to assuage the fears of opponents and realise the claims of proponents. But be warned: the NEC has a reserve power to cancel the primary which is scheduled to take place after the general election. This may turn out to be an early test of whether an unreformed NEC can really preside over an end to machine politics.


Robert Philpot is director of Progress

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

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