Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Now, win the peace?

When Ray Collins agreed to lead the party reform process, he was, your insider is reliably told, the third person to be offered the job. The first two grandees declined, hinting that their skills were inadequate to the challenge of peacefully changing Labour’s structures. Quietly, they were avoiding a job that looked like it could end in Labour civil war.

With the reforms certain to be approved by a North Korean margin at this month’s special conference, Collins and Ed Miliband’s office can feel a sense of real pride at proving the grandees wrong.

Partly this is because the union leaders recognised they could not stop the reform process without crushing Miliband’s electoral credibility, while the leadership knew they would not get any reforms without the tacit consent of the big three union leaders. As this column has said before, a deal was always going to be offered.

But all union leaders know willingness to negotiate does not settle matters. Do the wrong thing, and you are back in the trenches lobbing hand grenades. But that did not happen, and it is peace with honour across the Labour movement.

If a peace prize goes to Collins, mentions in dispatches go to the often-criticised political team in the leader’s office. It has secured a far-reaching reform to the party in a controversial area, and done it without warfare breaking out anywhere. That is some pay-off for the effort that has been put into making union leaders feel they have a voice in the party.

Now focus shifts from the achievement of the deal to its content. There are real changes in the proposals. There is a primary for Labour’s candidate for the mayor of London. Registered supporters will get a say in the choice of the next leader. Crucially, there is the guarantee that only those union members who opt in can vote, and they will be contacted equally by all candidates.

One big change is the denuding of members of parliament. The parliamentary Labour party is the big loser, but, when even Tory members get to choose their leader, Labour MPs find it hard to argue openly for their special privilege (though that has not stopped many quietly complaining).

Some details, though, are diplomatically blurred. For example, each union must give their members an ‘active choice’ in affiliating to the party, but the details will be left to each union, which could leave a lot of room for managing how many members are collectively affiliated. For example, a union could ask members, get 50 per cent saying yes on a 20 per cent turnout. Should they affiliate half, or a tenth, of their members? It is left opaque.

Then there are the dictates of practical politics. Donations from union political funds will still be accepted, even if those who have paid into the fund are not affiliated. This is less ideological retreat than realpolitik. Spurning this money would leave the party financially crippled at the next election. In the long run, the reform puts Labour in a strong place to cap all donations, and deliver some form of state funding, but the long run is a way off yet.

Finally, some bits of the party are off limits entirely. The union role in the National Executive Committee, policymaking, selections nominations and conference are left untouched. Considering what started this debate in the first place, that is interesting. Union voice in party structures will remain the same.

If your insider was a union political officer with a selection coming then recruiting local affiliates to full membership would be my top priority. Further, the biggest last-minute concession was to leave vague what donation caps would apply to selection contests, a change that allows well-funded selection campaigns a big advantage in this selection cycle.

All of this means this deal is a careful truce, not a total settlement. For now, the predominant mood is relief. What could have been a messy civil war has concluded peacefully and usefully. For that Collins might well be remembered as Labour’s peacemaker. Of course, the next question is who will win the peace.

Arnie: I’ll be back

Labour’s headquarters has seen some bitter tensions over the revelation that Arnie Graf, the community organising guru, does not have a visa permitting him to work in the UK. While campaign sources are clear that Labour did seek the advice of the Home Office, and that there is no problem with him helping the party’s campaign, there is deep dismay that these revelations found their way into the press in the first place.

Whether the leak was designed to undermine Graf, or those in charge of his appointment, the finger of suspicion has been pointing in various directions, and it is unlikely that the leaker will ever be definitely identified.

Friends of Graf know who they blame, though, and, while they are keeping their counsel, not wanting to further disrupt the election campaign and believing that Graf will return to help it, they are getting some pretty hard lessons in how politics works once you go beyond community organising.

But Labour’s campaign team is concerned that the leaking of confidential information is becoming a bit too regular. Just before Christmas the election planning meetings found their way into the papers. In the last month, we have had the full Falkirk report leaked and a draft of the Collins report. This last was likely an ‘authorised’ leak, but there is a definite sense that Labour’s campaign is becoming sieve-like. The problem with these things is that if you suspect your less brilliant moments will find their way into the press, it becomes tempting to get your retaliation in first. You end up with less a leak, more a flood, and we know the troubles floods cause.


Cartoon: Adrian Teal


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