By Jon Lansman, from Left Futures
Labour’s national executive committee meet next Tuesday to consider the Collins review of the party structure. Time has therefore run out to decide what is to be done to get Ed off the hook for the ill-thought through and ill-advised speech he made last summer after he’d had a pasting at PMQs and wanted to avoid getting another the next week. Falkirk is behind us now (though far from forgotten by Scottish trade unionists and workers at Grangemouth in particular). But for reasons unclear to me, Ed finds it necessary to be seen to be slashing non-existent union influence in the party rather than sack the advisers who got it so badly wrong.
It is impossible to understand what is being proposed from media reports about how alleged union influence will be replaced by a new category of associate member. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, deliberate obfuscation by the party’s media managers: What Ed promised can’t be delivered without bankrupting the party. Had Ed spoken up for collective action and trade unionism as he should have done, the according to Tory writer and journalist Andrew Gimson (who drafted a very good speech), “he would have gained credit for courage and honesty, and would have begun to sound like his own man“. As it is, whatever can be cobbled together has to be spun as a great leap forward.
The second reason is that the media simply does not understand how trade unions or the structures of the Labour Party are supposed to work. Labour correspondents have been extinct for decades. And under New Labour power was so concentrated at the centre, why would journalists bother to question the line the Leader’s spin doctors fed them? Patrick Wintour may, when a young reporter on the New Statesman, have accompanied Chris Mullin to the odd meeting of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, but that was over 30 years ago.
The BBC and the Guardian make out that the Collins review is all about the power union leaders allegedly wield in leadership elections, which is about to be curtailed. As Paul Kenny said on the Todayprogramme this morning:
the unions do not have a block vote in electing the leader – individual members of the union vote individually, and they have to declare they are supporters of the Labour party to cast the vote.
As I understand it, that won’t change. Union members might be asked to tick a box making that declaration that they are Labour supporters in advance of getting their ballot paper, but it will be essentially the same declaration that would put them into a category described as “associate membership”. And it will only confer the rights they already have. Nor would those who didn’t tick the box lose their right provided they were prepared to tick the box in the future as they would have had to in order vote in a future leadership election even if the rules weren’t changed.
Alan Johnson says at Progress that “asking voters to tick a box to say they support our objectives is not exactly a failsafe way to prevent outside interference” in these elections. Yet that is exactly what the “registered supporters” whose potential participation in such decisions Progress (and no-one else in the party) sought and were granted would do. And it is what voters would do in primaries which again Progress and no-one else in the party seek and yet Ray Collins may well recommend.
Dan Hodges, that great friend of Labour, who says at today’sTelegraph website that “Ed Miliband’s trade union reforms aren’t a loosening of control. They’re a power grab“, argues:
as we saw in the last Labour leadership election, in practice the unions retain huge influence over how their members cast their ballots. All the major unions officially endorsed Ed. They gave his campaign access to their membership lists, but denied them to his rivals. They sent out literature directly endorsing his candidature. And one union even sent out the ballot papers with a recommendation they be filled in Ed’s favour.
This is nonsense. Union leaderships (not just their general secretaries) do have some influence in leadership elections thorugh their ability to campaign, but not much. In 2010 the unions voted 60/40 in favour of Ed whilst the CLPs voted 54/46 in favour of David – a significant difference of 28%. But in 1994, when Tony Blair beat John Prescott of whom the union leaderships were almost as supportive as they were later of Ed Miliband, the unions voted 52/28 in favour of Blair whilst the CLPs voted 58/24 in favour of Blair – a very much less significant difference of 10%.
Even in 2010 some of that 10% difference will have been because trade union voters felt a far greater affinity with ex-seafarer Prescott than public schoolboy Blair. The reason the gap was so much bigger in 2010 was not because Tony Woodley and Paul Kenny had much more influence than Bill Morris and John Edmonds. It was because after 14 years of Tory rule trade union members felt Blair had a much better chance of winning, whereas after 13 years of New Labour hobnobbing with the rich and famous and showing no interest in trade union issues, they didn’t want another Blairite.
Right-wing unions like USDAW (64% for David in round 1) did vote differently from centre/left unions like Unite (50% for Ed in round 1) of the GMB (50% for Ed in round 1), but the politics of the union does, oddly enough, reflect the politics of the membership. The real reason David Miliband lost the election is that even where he had strong support, like in USDAW, he was so over-confident to the point of arrogance and made so little effort that in USDAW (only slightly smaller than the GMB and Unison in the electoral college) turnout was only 4.3%, the smallest of any union and less than half the 9% average. Every union has right-wing activists and officials at least at regional and local level who do have access to the membership – David Miliband simply didn’t bother to make enough use of them.
The Progress opposition to OMOV voting is pure hypocrisy and self-interest. It doesn’t want to lose MPs from the college because the parliamentary party is their power-base. But since OMOV elections of party members are how both other major parties elect their leaders — the Tories after a preliminary ballot by their parliamentary party and the Lib Dems from nominations made by their MPs, as Collins is to propose for Labour.
However, not everyone on the Left will welcome this move to OMOV voting. A senior CLP representative has told me that it means union members who pay £3 a year to the party would have greater weight than a party member who pays £45. Actually, though that may turn out to be a common perception, it isn’t true: if you aggregate the 122,806 valid CLP votes in the final ballot of the 2010 leadership election with the 199,671 in the trade union section, 38% were cast by individual members. However, many of these individual members are also members of at least one affiliated union and maybe one or more socialist societies. If one quarter of individual members cast one such vote each, after eliminating multiple voting (which everyone agrees shouldn’t happen), CLP members would account for 45% of all votes.
In practice, therefore, individual members would probably account for at least half the votes in a future leadership election on the basis it appears Collins is likely to propose, with turnout presumably down from the 2010 level as the electorate would presumably reduce in size.
Some of us would argue that the strength of the democracy in this process is not only – not even mainly – about the precise electoral structure, but more about the accountability provided by other aspects of the process. Such as the frequency and timings of elections, the nominations process, how easy it is to trigger an election against an incumbent and so on. Prior to 1981, when MPs alone had elected the leader, leadership elections were held every year when in opposition. When the electoral college was introduced, this was partially extended to periods in government – nominations were sought annually which served as useful feedback on the leader’s performance, though an election could only be triggered by a positive vote at conference where there was a challenger.
This continued until it was abolished by Tony Blair. Not after a public debate; not after a decision by party conference or any elected body. There was no discussion and no vote. They just suddenly stopped circulating ballot papers even though the rule book said they should. The rule book was finally brought into line with the practice — without any discussion or debate of course – by Ray Collins’ sleight of hand as part of Refounding Labour. Now reversing that would be a reform worth making. Not only would it enhance accountability, but it would replace the nonsensical and damaging potential for Progress to constantly undermine a leader they didn’t like by repeated ‘leadership challenges’ in t TV studios and off-the record briefings with a simple annual nomination process that would simply monitor genuine concern.
All of this may be very interesting to party members. It isn’t of much interest to the public and there is a cost of living crisis going on which needs our attention. Nor will it be the most important aspect of Collins’s report. That will consist of the recommendations on the future relationship between the unions and the party, and on primaries.
The first appears likely to consist of no change for now to the first but a review five years ahead which few of us wanted now and few of us will want just before the 2020 election. This is the greatest concern. The second is likely to be a recommendation to have primaries at least for the London mayor, which no-one apart fromProgress, no-one wants and no-one in London has been properly consulted about. This should be opposed. Of those, more anon.
The main thing about the hype and spin we’ve had so far is that it is, as Paul Kenny so delightfully put it, “a storm in a Westminster claret glass“. And those responsible for the hype and spin are the very people who got Miliband into the hole in the first place.
By Martin Thomas
The Labour Party will hold a special conference on 1 March at ExCeL in London. The Labour leadership will put proposals to carry through some version of Ed Miliband’s call, in July 2013, to change the relationship between trade unionists and the Labour Party.
Ray Collins, who is charged with drafting the detailed proposals, had suggested that he would present his conclusions before Christmas. Now it looks as if the detailed draft may be much more delayed, maybe even after the Labour Party National Executive meeting on 4 February.
This is good insofar as it reflects opposition from the trade unions to messing around with links on which the party’s strength, vitality, and claim to be a party of labour have depended ever since the Labour Party’s foundation in 1900.
It is bad insofar as it means that the conference is likely to face a take-it-or-leave-it vote on a package presented at the last minute.
The Defend The Link campaign met on 22 January and decided to produce and mail out to CLPs etc., as quickly as possible, a leaflet expounding and explaining the “red lines” on the issue of trade unionists’ relation to the Labour Party.
The representation of the unions as collectives within the Labour Party – 50% of the votes at conference, places on the Executive and the National Policy Forum, the right to send union branch delegates to local Labour Parties – must remain unabridged.
Unions must not have rule changes forced on them from outside. And especially not rule changes designed to reduce unions’ affiliation numbers and thus to prepare the ground for a future reduction in union voting-power within the Labour Party. Collins’s interim report, last autumn, hinted strongly at such reduction, and many Labour right-wingers openly campaign for reduction.
Defend The Link will also mount an electronic campaign when we know what the Collins proposals will be. It is encouraging Labour Party members to get visitor tickets for the special conference on 1 March (see http://www.labour.org.uk/specialconference: the deadline for applying for tickets is 7 February), and developing plans for a presence at the conference.
The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy executive is meeting on 23 January, and may supplement these plans with additional activity.
Ed Miliband’s call was initially motivated on claims of misdeeds by the Unite union in Falkirk constituency Labour Party. Since then both a police inquiry and a Labour Party inquiry have found that Unite has no case to answer. However, Ed Miliband, or some around him, seem intent on making change of some sort.
The Executive of the Unite union, meeting in December, voted to oppose any reduction of union representation within the Labour Party, and also to oppose plans mooted by Collins for “primaries” (ballots of the general public) to choose Labour candidates and for restricting unions’ right to select where they set up Constituency Development Plans to aid local Labour Parties.
The leaders of all the other big unions have said that they see no case for weakening union input into the Labour Party. Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union and chair of TULO, the consortium of Labour-affiliated unions, spoke on those lines at the regular Labour Party conference last autumn.
However, there seems to be a serious risk of a dangerous deal being done late in the day.
A formula of some sort is said to have been negotiated between Ray Collins and Paul Kenny. It hasn’t “stuck”. A number of the unions most vocal in defence of union input into the Labour Party are unhappy with it; so are some people in Ed Miliband’s office.
Details are scarce, and information is confusing. Some unions have been told that the formula implies no compulsion to change their union rules; others are angry because they see the formula as forcing them to change their rules. Ray Collins is said to have told Ed Miliband’s office that all the unions would accept the formula except Unite; the story inside Unison is that it was Unison which said no.
The best guess, and it is only a guess, is that the formula under discussion would not reduce union voting-power in the Labour Party immediately, but would be designed to reduce affiliation numbers.
It is said that unions will not have to question all existing political-levy payers and cancel their payments to Labour unless the individuals explicitly say they want to continue. But the formula is said to include some form of standard question on membership forms for new recruits asking whether they want part of their political levy to go to Labour.
Collins’s formula is said to have included a change on Labour leader elections: in future they would be one-person-one-vote in an electorate including individual Labour Party members and trade-unionists paying a political levy to Labour, on an equal basis, with no special extra vote for MPs and no electoral college.
That would be a positive change, but seems to have been designed as a “sweetener” for nastier content.
It would have been better if this whole exercise had been scrapped way back, and Labour were instead focused on campaigning against the Tories.
From where we are now, the priority is to alert labour-movement opinion so that some specious formula is not slipped through at the last minute with most activists having little information or chance to discuss.
Local labour movement activists are encouraged to set up local Defend The Link “working groups” which will busy themselves with distributing the Defend The Link leaflets and offering speakers to local Labour Parties and branches of affiliated trade unions.
By Jon Lansman. First appeared on Left Futures.
Sometimes, news stories simply distract the reader from what is really happening.
Yesterdays ‘news’ on the Collins review of the Labour Party — trade union link is that Ed Miliband’s reform plans are faltering: there’s a hiccup in the negotiations between Paul Kenny on behalf of the affiliated unions and the Leader’s office, but it’s about the way Labour elects its leader, not about the link at all. The Press Association story quotes a “union source close to the talks” as saying:
A major stumbling block is the refusal by the Labour leadership to change the electoral college voting system to one member one vote. The leadership is protecting the undemocratic position of MPs in that voting system.”
LabourList takes up the story, approving a change to OMOV, a system under which “every union affiliate opt-in member, ordinary party member, councillor, CLP Chair and MP would have one vote. Their votes would all count equally.”
The question of what exactly is or isn’t being proposed about a change to the way Labour elects its leader is one for another day. OMOV (with no greater weight for MPs than other party members) is no longer radical in the Labour Party, not least because that’s now what happens in the other two main parties. The point is that the issue has only arisen as a sweetener for the unions accepting something very unpalatable – a sweetener which Douglas Alexander and the Progress camp (for whom you can never kick the unions and the left hard enough) don’t like, want to retract and which has therefore become a stumbling block.
The main story is still whether Labour will make the most radical change in the structure of the party for almost 100 years, taking a terrible risk with the party’s finances, with the express purpose of slashing union influence in the party (as if they have any). The bottom line for Ray Collins and the leadership is that the changes must bring a significant reduction in the unions’ vote at conference and, eventually, its representation and voting strength throughout the party. The “principle” of opting-in was only ever a means to that end, and one which (whatever the press statements say) they all now realise isn’t workable and can’t be delivered.
The truth is that the leadership has not had any hope of putting together a majority for what it wanted to achieve since Unite’s executive adopted the clear stance it did: insisting that collective affiliation of the trade unions should continue and that there should be no diminution of trade union voting strength or representation within Labour party structures. And it is increasingly clear that constituency parties are no enthusiasts for such radical change either.
However, the trade unions, angry though they might be about the unnecessary distraction of this review, do want to reach a deal with the Leader they want to see win in 2015.
And so Ray Collins has to perform a conjuring exercise. And Ray Collins is an expert with smoke and mirrors.
A trade union bureaucrat his entire working life, he is an accomplished fixer. Under the cover of Refounding Labour, an exercise Ed Miliband had promised would end ‘command and control’, Ray Collins managed to introduce an entire new rule book which no-one had time to read before it was approved that extended command and control even further.
How does the scheme work? You put nothing on paper until the deal is done. You don’t produce the most important detail until it’s too late to change. You have a two hour ‘debate’ mainly consisting of long platform speeches, and a single vote. You don’t publish any of the responses to the consultation. If pressed, you publish a misleading ‘summary’.
And then there’s ‘divide and rule’. Collins has spent a great deal of time meeting with trade unions, one-by-one — he hasn’t spent much time drafting a report after all. When nothing is on paper, different trade unions can easily form different opinions about what is being offered. Some remain angry and are deeply pessimistic. Others are lulled into a false sense of security.
As a result of which, trade unions have almost agreed to an unwritten package. Whether it is because they simply see no alternative or because they have been lulled into a false sense of security, they have almost agreed to basing their affiliations (and their votes and representation levels) on a diminishing figure. And on a ‘principle’ which you can guarantee that the wing of the party funded by Lord Sainsbury will want to return to within a very short time if union votes are not slashed fast enough.
Fortunately, it seems that negotiations have broken down over the sweetener. The trade unions would be well advised to focus on the contents of the package – and not be too distracted by the wrapping.