Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Ed Miliband's Dog's Breakfast

The unseemly haste which has been the hallmark of the unnecessary interference with the Labour Party constitution initiated by the Leader’s July speech has been reasserted this weekend with the publication of Ed Miliband’s proposals, arising from the Collins Review, just days before Tuesday’s meeting of Labour’s National Executive Council (NEC).

It seems likely that the NEC, including its trade union members, may be about to allow themselves to be "bounced" by a Leader prepared to put his authority on the line in order to pursue his long term goal of greater state funding for political parties (under cover of an implausible claim to be seeking mass membership).

A lot of media attention is focused on the proposal to move from the current "electoral college" to one "member" one vote for the election of the Leader, with no separate voting by affiliated trade union members, nor by Members of Parliament. The apparent democracy of this move is undermined somewhat by the proposal to increase significantly the minimum number of MPs required to nominate a candidate before they can get on the ballot paper.

As Jon Lansman has pointed out this arrangement would have meant that many past Leaders (including Wilson and Callaghan) would not have been elected. As a Labour Party member I think an electoral system which is likely only ever to deliver two candidates to the members to vote for will not be good for the Party.

However, the proposed method for electing the Leader would still be more democratic than the position in the 1970s, when MPs alone elected the Leader – and that system coexisted with a firm link between Labour and trade unions (who at that time commanded the vast majority of all votes at Labour Party Conference, not the 50% share which Miliband is not threatening)(yet).

Raising the bar to leadership candidates would be bad for the Labour Party, as would the foolish and unwanted proposal for a primary for our Mayoral candidate in London which could, in the worst case scenario, lead to our standing a comedian with views safely within the neoliberal consensus against a comedian with views safely within the neoliberal consensus.

The real danger to the nature of the Labour Party as a Party linked to the organised working class is in the gradual shift in the nature of union affiliation to the Party over the next five years.

Miliband proposes a gradual shift from "opting-out" of paying the political levy to "opting-in" to a status as "affiliated member" (for payment of an additional fee). These "affiliated members" would become a second-tier of Labour Party member, invited to branch and member meetings but booted out when the meeting was to select a candidate.

Over time the level of a union’s collective affiliation will be adjusted (reduced) to the level of those members who have (individually) opted to be second-class individual Party members. It can reasonably be foreseen that this will mean that the representation of trade unions within the Party will be revisited by those (in "Progress", the Tory fifth column) who do not really believe in a political role for trade unions (other than as lobbyists like those who fund them).

The unions may find that all we have achieved is to have postponed the struggle to retain the link (to return to the issue in future from a position of greater weakness).

These proposals also offer the prospect of bankruptcy postponed for the Labour Party, clearly signifying (as I have argued elsewhere) that this exercise is part of a medium term plan to secure more, and more stable, state funding for political parties.

There is, of course, already far more state funding than a generation ago, though some of it is camouflaged. I heard a Labour Group Leader arguing that local Councillors needed a larger voice on the Party NEC because they contribute a lot of funds (!) These funds are provided from the virtual salaries now paid to local politicians and amount to surrogate state funding.

The "professionalisation" of politics, with Labour Groups increasingly dominated by small groups of middle class full-time career politicians is part of the problem of the alienation of much of the population from a "political class" increasingly isolated from the experiences of the rest of us. This alienation ought not to be answered by further insulating politicians from dependence upon civil society through the provision of greater state funding.

Socialists and trade unionists on the NEC face an unappealing choice. Either support a dog’s breakfast warmed up by Ray Collins for us, to be consumed over the next five years, or vote down a Leader we need to win the next General Election.

At the very least the brakes need somehow to be applied to give ordinary trade union and Labour Party members a chance to consider the exact composition of this dog’s breakfast.

How could each trade union actually deliver the Collins proposals within their own Rules? If Rule Amendments are required, what guarantee is there that Union Conferences will support them?

What data will unions be required to pass over to the Party about members who "opt-in"? How will that data be linked so that changes in membership information are communicated between the two organisations?

Given the work which we already face in order to comply with the provisions of Part Three of the Lobbying Bill trade unions don’t need to be saddled with further administrative burdens in connection with our membership data.

Are we seriously supposed to promote to fellow trade unionists an opportunity to enjoy second-class Labour Party membership? 

Certainly there is no good case for being bounced into backing Miliband at Tuesday’s NEC – and (if the Party’s decision making process is to have credibility) affiliates and Constituency Labour Parties should have the right to move amendments to the proposals.

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