Seven reasons to be wary of the Collins proposals

By Jon Lansman, from Left Futures

The so-called debate on Ed Miliband’s proposals for party reform are at an end, it seems. The Collins report has been circulated toLabour’s national executive whose members have, on the whole, had no influence whatever on its content just in time for their endorsement tomorrow. The report makes no attempt to summarise party members’ opinions on the matter, since no-one intended to pay them any attention in any case. We are now at the stage of exhortations to back our leader.

If you follow LabourList, you will have seen in recent days arguments from front-benchers on right and left who are privately unhappy about key aspects of the Collins proposals as to why you should nevertheless back them. Be not persuaded by the arguments ritually presented by those who depend on the patronage of the leader! This is not free expression! This is merely a requirement of their position.

Fortunately, party members do still have time to make up their own minds and to mandate their delegates accordingly (though meetings have been arranged in every region to “brief” delegates in advance and ensure they are on-side. Trade unions too have a level of internal democracy which the Labour Party  has not. Here are seven reasons why party members and trade unionists alike should treat the Collins report’s recommendations with utmost caution:

  1. The opt-in scheme proposed for levy-payers, though it may not involve changes in legislation or possibly even trade union rulebooks, will result when union affiliations become tied in five years time to the numbers opting-in, in a drastic cut in party funding and in trade union votes and representation in party structures.
  2. It is totally unrealistic to think that more than ten percent (if that) of levy payers will choose to become “affiliated supporters” when the only right they are being offered is one they have already – a vote in the leadership election. In fact, what will happen is that millions of levy payers whom the report admits “may be keen for their union to be affiliated to the Labour Party“, who may well will have over their lifetimes contributed as much to the Labour party as most individual members (who are much more likely to stop contributing after just a few years), will be denied a vote they have previously had. People want the right to vote even if they choose not to exercise it. What they’re not being offered is a vote in parliamentary selections which, if they were, might make the offer rather more attractive.
  3. “Registered supporters” of the party, however, who have up to now paid nothing, whose involvement no-one apart fromProgress support,  and who were supposed not to be involved in leadership elections until 50,000 were recruited, are to be given votes in both leadership elections and primaries with immediate effect.
  4. Although a shift to OMOV would be welcomed by many, myself included, a threshold of 20% of MPs would mean fewer candidates in leadership elections from which to choose and, worse still, far more uncontested elections. Tony Blair, John Smith and possibly Neil Kinnock as well as Gordon Brown would all have been elected unopposed. A better voting mechanism is not worth having if you rarely have elections. Better to have a preliminary ballot of MPs and MEPs (why have they been excluded – could it be that it is because party members chose too may on the centre-left of the party?) – and forward the top 3 to the OMOV ballot.
  5. A democratic change which Collins fails to recommend is the restoration of a proper annual nominations process for leader and deputy, even where there is no vacancy. Nomination papers used to be sent out every year, which was a harmless indication of support, but that stopped – without any discussion under Tony Blair’s leadership. A contest could then be triggered, as in the past, only if there was a challenger with 20% of MPs’ nominations and an affirmative vote by conference, or (since MPs lose their vote in an electoral college, an affirmative majority vote by the parliamentary Labour party.
  6. No-one other than Progress want a primary for London mayor, even on an experimental basis. Ray Collins recognises there is  little support for it, and not only does it break the promise not to involve “registered supporters” until their numbers amount to 50,000, but trade union levy payers who have been allowed to vote before would be effectively excluded since vbery few would have been recruited by a few months after the general election when it is proposed to hold such a primary.
  7. Finally, the administrative problems associated with the Collins proposals are a nightmare. There will be four categories of some level of Labour Party membership or semi-membership:  (1) individual members (many of whom are members of affiliated unions); (2) trade unionists who are “affiliated Labour supporters”; (3) trade unionists who wish to be “affiliated Labour supporters” but whose correct addresses have either not been passed onto the party or they are not on the electoral roll at the address that has (either of which could be for understandable reasons) (4) “registered Labour supporters” who pay an “administration fee” (who might still be members of affiliated unions). Getting the right information to the right place across all the organisations involved, and maintaining their accuracy when people move and change employment will be nigh on impossible.

I hope there is enough time for these mistakes to be corrected.

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