By Jon Lansman
When I read the email from Ed Miliband to all party members yesterday afternoon, I thought Left Futures should run a competition with a prize for the first person who could identify ‘Paul’, the possibly mythical figure who it is said has joined the Labour Party because of the ‘reforms’ now backed by Labour’s national executive:
I have been asked many times why these changes are necessary. One of our newest members puts it better than I ever could. Take a moment to read Paul’s story:
‘I joined Labour because of the announcement today on party reform. I have been a trade union member and voted Labour for over 30 years, but until now the party never felt democratic. It never felt like one I could join.‘
Paul is right. Labour must be a more open, inclusive and democratic party. I hope these reforms will spur many more people like Paul to come and get involved with us.”
I decided against. No one in their right mind could claim that this whole exercise is actually going to attract anyone to vote for or join the Labour Party, or so I thought. In the (unlikely) event that there is a real ‘Paul” and he is of sound mind. he is in for a terrible let down about Labour’s internal democracy. No Labour Party members, in practice, have any say on anything that goes on in their party, and you can be absolutely certain that neither will “affiliated supporters” or “registered supporters“. They may occasionally be allowed to vote in a leadership election, but that’s where it will stop.
In 2010 (when there would have been just two candidates with the 15% threshold agreed yesterday, both called Miliband), I voted for the Miliband that carefully positioned himself at some distance fromNew Labour. What I got was this week described by a leading Blairite as ”more Blairite than Blair on party reform“.
The changes agreed yesterday are designed to do two things:
- Dig the Leader out of a hole of his own making. On the basis of a report about Falkirk which, as of yesterday, we can finally read ourselves, and which his advisers either lied to him about or didn’t read as closely as they should have and the Guardian now has, he made a bunch of foolish promises which could still bankrupt the party.
- Ensure that the trade unions never regain any influence in party decision making. Today’s proposals will, within five years, if all goes according to plan, tie union affiliation levels to the very much smaller numbers of those who will now have to jump through not one but two new hoops: first to “make a positive individual choice over the payment of affiliation fees to the Labour Party“, and then to “choose to formally support the party on a direct personal basis“. Only then will they become “affiliated supporters” but the two tier hurdle will ensure that affiliation levels plummet, and unions current votes and representation levels will become unsustainable.
It has been a slick operation by the leader’s office fixers managing this exercise – they have shown they are just as adept at machine politics as New Labour. Within an hour of the national executive meeting, invites went out to constituency delegates inviting them to meet with shadow cabinet members in the run up to the special conference. However, some of the worst aspects of the Collins report of which I wrote on Monday have been at least partially solved:
- “Registered supporters” of the party will be put on a more sound basis, paying a fee, of about £3 (though it is unclear whether this is annual or a one-off sum), they too will have to make a declaration of interest/loyalty and be on the electoral register. Anyone previously registered in what Peter Hain once described as a “huge opportunity” for the party will simply be deleted from the records if they do not register afresh.
- The threshold for valid nominations of leadership candidates is reduced to only 15%. The parliamentary party succumbed to pleas based on the claim that “every union had signed up to the package” – we shall see how true that is on 1st March.
- Spending limits for “third parties” in parliamentary selections will be reviewed. The real problem here is with enforcement, especially in relation to party-within-a-party Progress bankrolled by Lord Sainsbury. Andy Kerr of the communication workers union took great exception to affiliated trade unions being described as “third parties”. After all the TUC had resolved in 1899 to found what became the Labour Party “with a view to securing a better representation of the interests of Labour in the House of Commons“.
- The only primary will be in London, not much consolation for Londoners, but reassuring for those who might otherwise have faced a primary for other mayoral elections or for parliamentary candidates. the effect will be that, because it will only be “registered affiliates” who can vote, not all union levy-payers, the union share of the voting will plummet from 50% of the electoral college to a fraction of that.
- The administrative problems have not been solved and financial ruin is still a distinct possibility for the party, but at least there will be a “continuous, permanent review” of implementation and the effect on revenue by the party’s business board.
Ed Miliband has delivered on his misguided promise. He has clambered out of the political hole he dug, but Labour still faces possible financial disaster just before the 2020 general election.
And what of the democratic gains? Some may see theoretical benefits in positive choices being made. An alternative view is that millions of trade union members will continue to pay a levy of perhaps £7 a year on average, almost all of which will either be paid to the Labour party or used for its benefit. In the past they received a ballot paper in leadership elections and, if they were Londoners, in selections of the London mayoral candidate. Now most of them won’t.
It’s called One Member One Vote. And the member’s name is Miliband.
This article is reproduced from Left Futures.