Ray Collins did two things last week which politicians don’t usually do. First, he expressed an unfashionable view to a difficult audience because he thought it needed saying. Then – once he realised that he’d overdone it – he apologised even though he didn’t have to.
He might reply that he is not a politician. That he is foremost a trade unionist, and that as Labour’s General Secretary he is merely an appointed official; the servant of the party.
In fact, he is a skilfull politician who has wielded an influence as general secretary not seen since Tony Blair wrested it from Larry Whitty and never gave it back.
Collins’ offence was committed during the packed and tumultuous meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) last Tuesday.
MPs were squashed into the Grand Committee Room (where Westminster Hall debates usually take place), rather than the usual venue, committee room 14, which is much larger, but still not big enough for the whole PLP.
A crammed and intoxicated PLP is the closest thing you will find in British politics to an old fashioned political meeting. Several hundred highly political individuals, many of whom have come to make a point in a forum in which they think it might make a difference. And when all the speakers say the same thing in no uncertain terms, as on some high-octane occasions they do, then it does.
(It should be noted that such occasions are rare. They are not even annual. Most of the time, PLP meetings are like over-sized, under-thoughtful constituency committees in which self-promotion competes to set the tone with self-congratulation and whingeing.)
Last Tuesday, though, the subject was the process and timing of the leadership election. These are matters of high import to Labour MPs, each of whom has a vote that is effectively worth 1,000 ordinary members’ votes, and which is not secret.
Several men – Dr Denis MacShane notable among them – argued passionately that Labour must have a woman in its final leadership ballot. He was right about this, though probably wasn’t thinking of Diane Abbott. (Let us say again in passing that Gisela Stuart should be persuaded to stand).
Several others denounced the short timetable for nominations that would have seen them opened and closed in three days this week. These contributions, well received in the room, formed part of the pressure that saw the party’s procedures committee reverse its decision two days later and extend the deadline till June.
It was in replying to this discussion that Ray Collins’ terrible transgression occurred. He reminded MPs that they are under no obligation to vote for the same candidate that they nominate. He exhorted them collectively to use this flexibility to nominate as wide a range of candidates as possible. He said that in their own constituency parties, MPs should adopt a leadership role at this important time.
All good so far. But then he over-stepped the line in his call to urgent action. In telling MPs to stop fussing about the timetable, to just get on with it, to take a decision, nominate widely and move forward, he told them: ‘don’t consult your members’. There was a shudder in the room. The General Secretary is not supposed to say “don’t consult your members”.
Even as Collins was hurrying back to the NEC meeting that he had left to address the PLP, the outraged mutterings were beginning to build into a wail of indignation.
By the time he emailed the PLP on Thursday with letters on the procedure and newly revised timetable, Collins was abasing himself:
“Finally, at last Tuesday’s PLP meeting colleagues expressed legitimate concerns about the draft timetable under consideration by the NEC and I completely accept that the tone and nature of my response was inappropriate and wrong, for which I am sorry. Whilst it is no excuse I am afraid attempting to be in two places at the same time got the better of me.”
Two cheers for Ray Collins. He may not be putting member participation very high up his priority list at the nomination stage. But at least he’s not paying lip service to it. Nobody but MPs has a real say in nominations. Most of those who bother to consult their members will merely report that they had a good discussion revealing a wide range of views in the CLP; then nominate the person they were always going to nominate anyway. And most MPs won’t bother consulting at all.
There is a very good argument that this is a ridiculous, archaic system which should change. But the General Secretary’s job is to deal with the rules as they are.
Failing to pay lip service, though, is a serious crime in politics. It is one for which there is no excuse. Ray Collins quickly recognised this, and that is why he apologised.