Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Thinking further about the Labour Party Democracy Review

Having fallen victim to “’flu’-like symptoms” I find myself laid up and that I therefore have time to think further a bit about the first phase of the Labour Party Democracy Review (about which I blogged a few days ago).

Perhaps the most entertaining feature of what could otherwise be quite a dry topic is the plaintive whining of those who used to call the shots in the Labour Party and who, without any hint of irony, complain about factionalism.

Whereas Progress have nothing constructive to say about the review, the faction about which they complain offers detailed suggestions about what to say concerning Young Labour and Women’s Conference.

For those who want to do more than cut and paste Socialist Resistance have published something of a historical perspective on Labour Women’s Conference and New Socialist gave some perspective on Young Labour (about which the NEC appears in any case to have taken some pre-emptive action anyway).

Whilst the BAME Labour site has nothing to say on the topic at present, Jewish Voice for Labour has published an interesting piece – which also highlights existing shortcomings.

Those who have lived their lives in factional struggle within the Labour Party (whether on the left or the right) will see the Democracy Review as being about control of the Party apparatus, as if that were an end in itself (because there are those for whom politics is about position).

However, the question of power within the workers’ movement is not irrelevant – it’s just that the answer to the question is never an end in itself but a means to the end of social transformation.

Therefore the Democracy Review offers those of us trying to build the Labour Party at a local level the opportunity to engage our mass membership in debate both about the nature of the movement we are trying to build and the transformation which we hope to achieve. 

Update on 4 January


I am indebted to a friend and comrade for pointing out to me that the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy have circulated some suggestions to CLP Secretaries to inform debate on the first phase of the Democracy Review.
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Sunday, December 31, 2017

The first thing for Labour Party members in the New Year

The first phase of the Labour Party’s Democracy Review is very much upon us. The deadline for submissions on the organisational aspects of Young Labour, BAME Labour and Women’s Conference is 12 January 2018. The questions which are specifically asked in the first phase are

How should Young Labour be organised nationally, regionally and locally?

How should Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority members and organisations be represented in the Party?

What role should Women's Conference have?

Ann Black’s report from the NEC Committee meetings of 31 October assured us that “there is no pre-set agenda and no documents which pre-empt the conclusions, and deadlines are fluid, with further thoughts accepted after the stated dates.” That’s just as well, as Labour Party bodies have had precious little time to consider these questions.

It may well be that it will take more than the length of time from Conference 2017 to Conference 2018 to formulate and implement proposals to democratise our Party. Indeed there is no compelling reason why Party democracy ought not to be under continual review and reconsideration.

That said, we need to do our best to engage with the timetable which has been set for this review if we are to maximise the democratic influence of ordinary Party members. Clearly these first questions are of particular interest to young members, Black, Asian and ethnic minority members and women members.

However, all members should be engaged in the struggles against the oppressions experienced by these groups of members and ought therefore also to be engaged in the discussion which the Party is seeking to have about how these groups of Labour Party members should organise themselves within our Party.

Indeed, since the reason why groups of members experiencing oppression need to organise themselves is because of that oppression and the need to fight it (rather than simply in order to express diverse identities), the question of how to organise is as much about the end of resisting oppression as about the means of (what we in UNISON refer to as) self-organisation.

Since each form of oppression has its particular characteristics, so the answers to the questions which arise from the struggle against each oppression may be as different as may the questions themselves. For example, whereas there are few who deny the legitimacy of a youth organisation, we would be foolish to believe that everyone (even every Labour Party member) understands the daily reality of racism in today’s Britain, and hence the need for self-organisation of the members who are on the receiving end of that racism.

Our fight for democracy within the Labour Party is not separate from our struggle to transform society. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

A message for UNISON members at Christmas

Although I have stood down in the past year from all my elected positions within my trade union, UNISON, of which I am now simply a member like any other, I have not lost my interest in what UNISON, its activists and officials, are doing. Indeed, at Christmas, I am very keen to know if my income could be increased (!)

As I am no longer a Branch Secretary, and no longer an NEC member, I no longer have to maintain a pretence that UNISON has strength, that it can defend the living standards of its members when it plainly cannot.

(Though looking back at this blog you would have had to be particularly dense to think that I was maintaining such a pretence up to now).

Whilst inflation is at 3% the local government employers (negotiating the pay of the largest group of UNISON members) have offered 2%. One can understand the factors constraining their ability to offer more without thinking it reasonable that we local government workers should face a further reduction in our standard of living.

UNISON must reject this offer – and must organise to resist through strike action. However, the Union is greatly weakened in this vital struggle by the misleadership from which it has suffered in the recent past.

Six years ago, the leadership of UNISON played a key role in the capitulation by the public service trade unions to the pension reform plans of the Coalition Government. These plans could have been defeated, even by the weakened trade union movement of 2011/12 – they were not because our leaders chose not to take that path. (UNISON’s leadership played a central role but the leadership of the GMB and UNITE were equally implicated). The union leaderships led our members into the biggest strike since 1926 and then marched back down the hill with nothing to show for the action that hadn’t been offered earlier – this capitulation was central to the survival of the Coalition Government.

Two years ago, that same leadership circled their moth-eaten wagons to defend the misbehaviour which was proven to have happened in the ramshackle campaign to secure the precarious re-election of the lame-duck General Secretary. The Assistant Certification Officer has put in the public domain the fact that your blogger was threatened with legal action as part of that sorry episode (and I repeat and reiterate my apology to Dave Prentis and that he was not personally culpable for misconduct in the election) – the only reason there has not been a more serious reckoning within the Union is because of an ill-advised appeal. (Not of course the only such ill-judged appeal). This is the last term of office of UNISON’s current General Secretary and the machine that secured his election previously is now leaderless and broken.

The worst enemies of our trade union movement would not describe us as a meritocracy – and they would not be wrong in that. Our trade unions desperately need better leadership, because the quality of our leadership is generally (in the largest trade unions) very poor.

The democracy of our movement offers us the opportunity to improve the quality of that leadership by replacing it. UNISON’s rank and file activists need finally to unite behind a single challenger if our members are ever to get the leadership they deserve.

I am part of a generation of activists who failed to achieve that unity and our only contribution to the future can be to acknowledge that we were all wrong in failing to achieve that unity – and that someone else could now be right. The only people who are more wrong are those who have continued to support the failing leadership in spite of their inability to defend our members’ interests. 

This Christmas is a good time to fight racism

As regular readers of this blog might expect, I got into something of a row in a pub in the run up to Christmas about whether or not black workers experience systematic racial disadvantage in the workplace. I know what I know from the evidence of my own eyes and my own intelligence over the past thirty years of working life, but I thought it worth setting out the evidence here.

in the last 3 months of 2016, the average hourly pay for White employees was £13.75, while the average hourly pay for employees from other ethnic groups was £13.18 (so on average white employees are earning 4.3% more than non-white employees). This single figure doesn’t quite capture the stark inequality in workplaces with significant black workforces where the senior management are overwhelmingly white, but it speaks to racial inequality in the world of work. 11% of white employees are in managerial positions (of any seniority) compared to 5% of black employees.

Access to the world of work itself is also subject to racial inequality however. White people are considerably more likely to be in paid employment since in 2016, the economic inactivity rate – the number of people who are economically inactive as a percentage of the total working age population – was 21% for White British people and 30% for people from all Other ethnic groups, a difference of nine percentage points.

Racial inequality in employment is a manifestation of the racism embedded structurally and institutionally within British (and Western) capitalism, and is therefore reflected also in the world outside work – for example in the criminal justice system.

Although in 2015/16, a higher proportion of the Mixed, Asian and Black adult populations were victims of crime than the White adult population, it was Black people who were over 3 times more likely to be arrested than White people  and ethnic minority groups in general who were over one and a half times more likely to be arrested than White people. (Perhaps because people from an ethnic minority background are 3 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the Police than White people and Black people are over 6 times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people).

The state disproportionately polices the Black population, even though that population is disproportionately in need of protection.

All these statistics are drawn from official sources and published by the Government. They are hardly likely to exaggerate this stain upon our society – and yet many people (including workers who work in organisations where this evidence is manifest around them) are capable of denying them.

Racism is resurgent. The Presidency of the United States is in the hands of reaction, a far-right Party is in Government in Austria and this country is careering wildly on a path set by a referendum result dictated by anti-immigrant prejudice (never forget that a Labour MP was murdered by a racist during the referendum campaign and that the result was that sought by the assailant and not the victim).

The obvious failure of the contemporary capitalist system to offer decent lives to the majority of the population does offer hope that a socialist leadership of the Labour Party could give us a socialist Government – but the lessons of the 1930s surely teach us that times such as these also offer the possibility of far worse outcomes.

Socialists here and now need to be the most determined anti-racists – and we need to assert the truth of the fact of institutional racism in the face of the denial of our fellow citizens and fellow workers.

For long years I fought this fight as a union activist  - now, as a Labour Party representative I know how important it is that we ensure that we select black and ethnic minority candidates for public office – and that every candidate we select is committed to the fight against racism. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Farewell John and Carl

As the year in which I ceased to be a full-time local trade union representative after quarter of a century draws to a close, I am sorry to hear of the passing of two other former UNISON Branch Secretaries in London local government.

John Mulrenan, from the neighbouring borough of Southwark, served our movement not only as a Branch Secretary (more than once), but subsequently as a union trainer (in which capacity he was greatly appreciated in Lambeth).

John was a diamond, a socialist rank and file activist who neither gave up nor fell victim to either sectarianism or careerism. He was generous with his experience and therefore leaves a legacy in the activism of many people whose lives he touched.

Carl Millin, retired Branch Secretary from Bexley, was not perhaps in the same political space as John (or your blogger). He was though a long serving trade unionist committed to a union run by elected, rather than paid, officials. His wry comments as an observer of our Conferences were welcome and appreciated.

In John and Carl our movement has lost two stalwarts from among the ranks of those who are the lifeblood of trade unionism.


A life of service to the movement which can liberate humanity is a life well lived.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Who should elect the Leader of the Labour Group?

Comrade Lloyd Russell-Moyle, the recently elected MP for Brighton Kemptown, has written an interesting article proposing that Labour Group Leaders should be elected by the Party membership, rather than simply by Labour Group Members.

Lloyd argues persuasively that this would be consistent with the approach to electing the Party Leader, a decision which was wrested from sole control of the Parliamentary Labour Party in the 1980s and has never been taken back.

This is also, of course, the approach we take to choosing candidates for directly elected Mayors – and it is that comparison which gives me pause for thought. Lloyd sees the positives asking readers to “imagine the genuine local engagement and policy development that would be gained from leadership contests between those vying to lead our cities and counties. Leaders who would go on to foster the values of their membership while governing creating a ‘mass movement to transform society’”.

This process, Lloyd argues “has delivered successful mayors and national leaders and it would do the same for council group leaders.” I think this needs a little more thought however. At the moment Labour Group Leaders (even when they are Council Leaders) have the authority given them by their fellow Councillors (and only that). They do not have, and cannot (or ought not to) claim authority in relation to the wider Party (which elects its own officers) nor can they claim a mandate – within the Party – which competes with that of the Party Leader.

The remnants of the careerist clique whose hold over the Party was shaken in 2015 particularly like to focus on the mandate of any elected “leader” who may advocate more “moderate” and “responsible” policies than the Party Leader. That is not – of itself – an argument against direct election by Party members of Group Leaders, but it does highlight one of the potential consequences of what would be a deliberate fracturing and further federalising of power and authority within the Party.

From a parochial point of view I can see both the benefits and risks of our membership electing a local Labour Group Leader. Certainly this could mean that such a Leader would have the support and direction of the Party’s mass membership, giving them both courage and confidence to act in accordance with the radical policies of the Party.

However, we might thereby concentrate power and authority in the hands of an individual (having also created yet another role to which the ambitious might aspire) – and that might not be the way to devolve and decentralise power (nor, which is always most important, to hold power to account).

We certainly need checks and balances to restrain and control all those to whom we give power, whether in the Party or through elected office. Direct election (and – to be controversial – mandatory reselection) are both worthwhile examples of such checks and balances – and the current system of Labour Council Leaders dominating self-referential (and frequently self-obsessed) and isolated Labour Groups is not a working system in many cases.

Lloyd’s proposals demonstrate thought and imagination about our future and are worthy of consideration, although it is perfectly acceptable to remain (like your blogger) unconvinced and therefore undecided.

Certainly, Lloyd’s ideas would require amendment to the Rules of our Party if they were to be given mandatory effect – and therefore there needs to be a debate in the Party about whether or not to propose such amendments. However, we could discuss locally whether or not to experiment with Lloyd’s preferred approach.

Clause Nine of Chapter 13 of the Rule Book provides that “the selection of nominations for civic offices, council leadership, chair and vice-chair of any committees and allocation of members to committees shall be made in accordance with the group standing orders, and in a manner that ensures equality of opportunity and encourages underrepresented groups to come forward. The Party expects Labour cabinets to reflect the diversity of the area represented by the local authority as far as possible, and to discuss any failure to do so with the RD(GS). Where a vote for a nomination is necessary it shall be by secret ballot. The appropriate Local Campaign Forum of the Party shall have the right and opportunity to submit names for consideration, but formal nomination and selection shall be as specified in the group standing orders.” (I have added relevant emphasis).

So, under our current rules, it is quite open to the Local Campaign Forum (perhaps following a process of democratic consultation with members like, for example, a ballot) to submit a name to the Labour Group with a recommendation that they should be the Leader of the Council (albeit the Group should then have a secret ballot in accordance with their own standing orders).

We could use such a democratic process to – in effect – pilot Lloyd’s idea following any election which leads to a Labour Leader of a local authority within our current Rules, whilst we consider whether or not to amend them.

This is a discussion which, having been started, should now be taken forward.