By Barry Gray and Peter Willsman (CLPD)
In his Interim Report on Labour’s union link (‘Building a One Nation Labour Party’), Ray Collins makes it clear that once a new affiliation system is in place, ‘we would address consequences for other structures in the party, such as the Conference’.
At the moment the union and other affiliated organisations have 50 per cent of the vote at Conference and CLPs have the other 50 per cent. When this balance of voting was put in place a strong argument was accepted that it properly represented the two wings of the federation that makes up our Party. It means both the unions and CLPs have a decisive influence over any changes to the Rule Book and over all motions carried by Conference.
The unions’ role in Conference was resented by ‘New Labour’ during the last Labour government, because it is the key to their power in our Party. Both then, and continuing now, it is a ‘project’ on Labour’s right-wing to end the unions’ influence in our Party. The main internal obstacle to this ‘project’ is that with their 50 per cent share the unions’ votes are necessary to change the Rule Book.
So any reduction in the unions’ share of the Conference vote would be a huge step backwards. If the union vote went down to 33 per cent, one suggestion that has apparently been floated, trade union influence in politics would decline and the unions would loose the strength to stop future rule changes. The whole Party would suffer from the reduced engagement with working people.
A look at recent Party history emphasises the importance of the union vote at Conference. When Partnership in Power was introduced in 1997 the number of policy motion subjects at Conference was drastically reduced to only four, and it was further stipulated that these had to be ‘contemporary’. But Conference and the Party was assured that in future motions carried by Conference would be taken very seriously by the Parliamentary leadership.
Opinion polls at the time indicated CLP members and trade union members held broadly similar views, but this consensus was certainly not reflected in the votes at Conference. When moderate motions came forward seeking progressive policy change tense debates and votes took place on the conference floor. The whole party machine, including regional officials, was used to pressure CLP delegates to vote against these motions. CLP delegates were even taken out of the hall to meet government ministers, who implored them to oppose the motions. This had some influence on the CLP vote.
The difference between the way CLPs and unions cast their vote can be seen in the following table.
After such votes the press were often told the result somehow represented a ‘consumer’ v ‘producer’ split. The spin was of course entirely disingenuous, given that Conference’s decisions best defended the consumer’s interest in having cost effective, efficiently-run quality services.
When Gordon Brown took over as Leader he immediately proposed the replacement of ‘Contemporary Motions’ with ‘Contemporary Issues’. The latter would not be voted on by Conference and so contentious votes at the NEC and Conference would be avoided.
This arrangement was accepted for a few years, but proved unsatisfactory so ‘Contemporary Motions’ were bought back. But unlike in the past, there are no votes at the NEC and no card votes taking place at Conference. The motions are simply waved though unanimously.
In stark contrast with past practice, where policy carried by more than two thirds of the vote was considered for inclusion in the next manifesto, we often now get statements issued by shadow ministers pouring cold water on the significance of Conference’s vote.
Of course, when Labour is back in office Conference motions could well again become the focus of opposition if the government abandons the direction members and affiliates want it to follow. Then we would see heated debates at the NEC and card votes on the Conference floor.
The Party needs to address the issue of its staff interfering with CLP delegates voting, which still continues, as was seen in the CAC and NCC elections in Brighton this September.
The right-wing’s campaign to cut the unions’ share of Conference vote aims to reduce them to impotence and to remove the influence that Conference, the Party’s sovereign body, can exercise over a Labour government.
If the unions’ 50 per cent of Conference vote is given up, they will not be able to block future rule changes that attack the union link and they will loose the influence they have had in the Party since its Founding Conference in February 1900.