Thursday, June 22, 2017

Individual responsibility and collective irresponsibility

I mentioned a little while ago this morning’s meeting of the National Executive Council (NEC) (the second to last such meeting in my fourteen years on this august body). Towards the end of the meeting we descended into pantomime as an NEC member spoke by means of asking questions which he clearly considered to be rhetorical, but then objected when I yelled out answers!

One such question was about collective responsibility of NEC members, a vexed question about which regular readers of this blog will have become quite bored over the years.

Sitting on this top table at the Brighton Conference Centre I recollect when, twenty years ago, my friend and former NEC colleague Roger Bannister led a minority of NEC members off the platform and then proceeded to speak, against the NEC majority, in support of a motion censuring the NEC over its conduct in relation to the Hillingdon hospital dispute.

So those of my NEC colleagues who believe that we have “always” had the approach to the collective responsibility of NEC members which we have now are quite wrong. It will be for the incoming NEC (and future NECs beyond that) to decide how to proceed in future.

(As you can tell by the fact that I am obviously sat on the top table writing irritating little blog posts with which many NEC members might disagree) I am inclined to a fairly liberal approach to collective responsibility within our Union.

It is a complete misconception to apply the principles that apply to collective trade union discipline in our relations with the wider world to our internal affairs. When we negotiate with employers or go into dispute with them it is essential that, having agreed our position, we act as one. This is a correct application of the principle of collective responsibility.

However, when we debate within our trade union then – until we have made our policy decision – we should allow the fullest freedom of expression. From my point of view, a Conference decision is not taken until it is taken and I have never accepted that, as an NEC member, I should hide my own opinion from the members I represent just because it differs from that of the majority of NEC members.

However, the majority of NEC members believe that, once the NEC has agreed its policy then all NEC members should support that policy in internal debates within our trade union. I disagree with that view because I don’t think that the relationship between the NEC and Conference floor should be the same as the relationship between the employer and the trade union – but I can just about follow the logic of the other point of view.

Within the NEC however, the incremental extension of the interpretation of collective responsibility has scaled heights of absurdity as it is now applied to the Committees to which NEC members are appointed. As a member of the Development and Organisation Committee of the NEC I have, for a number of years, been prohibited from speaking or voting at a full NEC meeting against a recommendation from that Committee.

You don’t need much grasp of maths to realise that such an approach to collective responsibility could easily lead to a majority vote of the whole NEC which reflected the views of a minority, rather than a majority of the members of the whole body. (If a Committee with 25 members votes by 13 votes to 12 for a policy which all 25 must then support and is subsequently passed by 34 votes to 33 at the full NEC then the policy of the NEC would reflect the views of 24 out of the 67 members).

I hope that my friends and comrades on the new NEC will manage to bring a little more reason to their future deliberations and will, at least, dispense with the nonsense of “collective responsibility of Committee members on the NEC”. It may take a while longer to get back to the grown-up position of recognising that our NEC is not a monolith.

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