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)

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Deciding who - and how - to nominate in the Labour leadership election

I was very pleased earlier today to chair a meeting of Brighton Pavilion Constituency Labour Party (CLP) General Committee (GC) at which we agreed that we would endeavour to organise a meeting for all our 3,000 members to decide which candidate we would nominate in the forthcoming election for Leader of the Labour Party.

We took this decision in spite of the fact that the cost of hiring a suitable venue (if we can find one that is available within the specified timetable) will massively deplete our limited funds. We did this because we are proud of our CLP, we think it matters which candidate gains the nomination of Brighton Pavilion, and we want to ensure that the members of our local Party are the people who make that decision.

The procedural guidelines to CLPs require that any nomination must be made at an All Member Meeting (AMM) even for those CLPs, like ours, which choose to have a delegate-based structure. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this requirement, it is imposed upon us by the Party and – if we are to give our members their democratic right to participate in the nomination process – we have to comply with this.

Delegates at Labour Party Conference 2019 may remember that Brighton Pavilion CLP is in the vanguard of the fight for democracy within our Party, and is prepared to make trouble and to offend and annoy friend or foe alike in this cause. Our GC is very proud of our Conference delegation for the work they did for Party democracy – and now we are aiming to put our (limited) money where our (less limited) mouth is in order to ensure the democratic rights of our own members.

What a shame that Momentum can’t quite manage the same degree of democratic engagement among its own membership – having agreed to ballot its members not on whom to support, but upon whether or not to endorse a decision already taken by its National Committee. Wanting a referendum (in which Momentum members can vote “yes” or “no” to a predetermined decision) rather than an election (in which Momentum members could vote for any candidate) may be a little ironic, but it isn’t at all funny, and it epitomises why your humble blogger (a lifelong Labour leftist) is so pleased never to have joined Momentum.

Momentum are, however, a model of good democratic practice compared with the trade union as part of which I was proud to spend most of my working life as an activist. UNISON – which made a point of consulting our members before the Labour LinkCommittee decided to back Jeremy Corbyn in 2016has decided to support Keir Starmer on the basis of a split vote between 16 members of that Committee, without bothering to undertake any wider consultation with the membership.

Those who are wasting energy being outraged by this disgraceful parody of democracy within UNISON are only those who have no knowledge of UNISON, or of trade union bureaucracy generally. One of the many great weaknesses of the Labour Left over the years has always been its failure to engage in the struggle for democracy within the trade unions, preferring to rely upon the temporary support of “left” union bureaucrats when that is possible and generally respecting the “division of labour” between the industrial and political wings of the movement which is at the heart of Labourism (the Morning Star’s infatuation with those union leaders they consider left-wing is an extreme expression of this weakness, whilst Momentum are but the latest carriers of the virus).

UNISON’s Labour Link Committee, consisting of almost equal numbers of NEC members (elected by and from those members of the NEC who pay into the Affiliated Political Fund) and members elected from each British region of the Union, has never been a bastion of lay control within the Union, based as it is upon a structure dictated by the negotiators from the officer-controlled trade unions, NUPE and COHSE, when UNISON was created. The decision to nominate Starmer is, however, a high watermark for officer control of lay activists in UNISON.

UNISON officialdom was never caught up with the enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn exhibited by our active members, on the contrary, whilst smiling at Jeremy in public many officials wished they could have engineered the support for his challenger in 2016 which the GMB officials (whose control over “their” union is more complete) managed to deliver.

There are those – even at senior levels - in UNISON who are personally committed to the project of a socialist-led Labour Party, but they are not currently calling the shots in the Union, and the Labour Link Committee did (as could generally be expected) the bidding of those who are by expressing support for the candidate best placed to lead the Party away from a place where it poses a serious challenge to the wealthy and powerful (whilst ensuring that the pesky membership wouldn’t get a chance to express their - possibly contradictory - views).

Whilst the decision of the majority of the UNISON Labour Link Committee to please those in charge of the Union may help to ensure that Keir Starmer is on the ballot paper in the leadership election, any UNISON member who pays attention to the affairs of their trade union will not be influenced to cast their vote in accordance with this undemocratic stitch up. It shames UNISON that the union could not manage the basic level of democracy that will be required of any CLP that wants to make a nomination.

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