The battle for the soul of the Labour Party (part 47 – the unions are sold a dummy)

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.

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