Collins: a slippery report

The “interim report” from Ray Collins, presented to Labour Party conference on 22 September, emphasises the role played by trade unions in founding the Labour Party.

It says that the federal structure of the Labour Party “should remain”. It promises an ongoing “collective engagement” and “collective relationship” between affiliated unions and the party.

It says that if the Labour-union link did not exist, then it would be necessary to invent it.

It suggests that the scheme to have trade unionists “opt in”, floated by Ed Miliband on 9 July, should mean individuals opting to gain “additional rights”, or even an effort “to convert as many as possible of the levy-payers of affiliated unions into individual membership of our party”.

It states that “this individual relationship with trade union members” should not “damage the collective relationship and the institutional links between the party and the union organisations”.

Those who want to wreck Labour’s union link are not confident. Serious damage to the link – considered by many Labour leftists in July to be a near-certainty, something they disliked but couldn’t stop – can be prevented if the new Defend The Link campaign does its work well.

But the report is slippery. Without a strong campaign, serious damage is still likely.

Collins’s language is pointedly vague. He refers to the Labour Party as “an alliance of individuals and organisations”, using the vague word “alliance” instead of “federation”. He writes about “collective engagement”, but not specifically affiliation.

The style of the report is bizarre.

“Ed wants to … Ed’s intention is … because Ed has said … that is why Ed has said … Ed has now said … Ed wants … Ed has underlined … Ed has proposed … Ed has asked for … Ed has stressed … I want to hear your views on how we meet Ed’s objective “.

It is as if Ed Miliband is a god. His wishes cannot be questioned. Common mortals can have “views on how we meet Ed’s objective”, but not objectives of our own.

Collins’s report was supposedly based on responses by party members and affiliated organisations.

In fact, the report gives no information about the feedback received. This is particularly ironic in the light of the report’s opening page:

“We must go further in letting ordinary people back into our politics …”

This contrast between the promise of a greater say for “ordinary people” and an exclusive focus on what the party leader has to say reflects a more fundamental contradiction in the report.

Any literal requirement for trade unionists explicitly to “opt in” in order to be affiliated suggests that the “default” status for all trade unionists is to be “opted out”, and thus cuts at the principle of collective decision-making (and collective affiliation) by trade unions.

If Miliband or Collins were proposing solid measures to encourage trade unionists to join as individuals – a clear Labour policy against cuts, or to compel bosses to pay a living wage, for example – then that would be good. If they were even proposing reduced membership fees to encourage new members, that would be positive.

But the report’s support for primaries to select Labour candidates cuts across both collective input by trade unions and the rights of individual party members.

Primaries would mean non-party-members having a greater say in the selection of candidates than affiliated organisations and individual members.

The report is full of praise for collective involvement by trade unions in the Labour Party. But on the other hand it slyly suggests specific plans which would undermine that collective involvement – and presents those plans, not as items for discussion, but as unquestionable since they are “What Ed Wants”.

The ‘interim consultation’ was meant to usher in a ‘major consultation exercise’. But the report simply rubber-stamps Miliband’s idea and invites further submissions about how it should be implemented, as opposed to whether it should be implemented.

The most revealing sentence in the report reads:

“The changes will be put to a special conference this spring because Ed has said he wants them agreed well before the General Election. They will then take time to implement as we manage the organisational and financial implications.”

Worrying for the future is the report’s hint that “we need to consider the consequences for other party structures including conference and the rules for electing leaders” after the category of opted-in affiliated member has been created.

Many Labour right-wingers want a drastic reduction in the trade unions’ share of the vote at party conference and in leadership elections.

If they can point to a number of “opted-in” trade unionists much smaller than the three million “not-opted-out” at present, then their demands will gather weight.

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