Party reform: In the hands of the many, not the few

by Rob Marchant

So, we are having a debate about the role of unions in the Party. Perhaps Ed, as my Uncut colleague Peter Watt suggests, is on a hiding to nothing: he is paddling against a strong current of realpolitik that dictates that this cannot change, at least whilst the party is taking ninety per cent of its donations from unions.

But, this aside, perhaps we should examine something more important: rather than whether Ed will win, we should look at whether or not Ed is right.

Firstly let’s frame the debate: every time we try to have a debate about the right level of involvement for unions in party decision-making, the familiar refrain comes out from all corners of the labour movement: “man the barricades, someone is trying to break the link!” The siren goes up, we all rush to the defence of the link, the devilish intruders are repulsed, and the debate stops again.

But breaking the link is essentially a straw man: no serious, contemporary party figure is suggesting that we should do such a thing. Most of us are members of, and support, unions, even if we don’t always agree with everything they do. And how would we survive, let alone campaign? It is natural that, in part-funding the party and being linked to its decision-making mechanisms, unions should have a say.

However, the more nuanced debate that needs to be had is: how much of a say? Because, on the other hand, the current system does beg the question of whether or not it is right that three leaders, whose interests are naturally sometimes directly aligned with those of the party, and sometimes not, control a very sizeable block vote.

So, are we comfortable with that? Because perhaps we shouldn’t be, and it’s quite possible that the upcoming, wholly independent study into party funding may not be, either. Why?First, let’s just return to the totemic Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution: “power…in the hands of the many, not the few.” Let’s face facts: it has always been union leaders, rather than union members, who in reality control the votes. And one important change which exacerbates this effect is the sizeable consolidation that the union movement has undergone in recent years. Now surely, even if the current deal were accepted as right and just, a change in the environment should warrant a corresponding change in the system. Current state of play: three leaders of three super-unions control 40% of conference votes, against 50% for party members. Hardly “the many, not the few”.

Second, the paradox of money and influence: it is not good for money to be seen to be linked to influence, even if it is. Odd, isn’t it? The world at large has a convenient doublethink when it comes to political parties. It doesn’t want to pay for political parties one hundred per cent. But it doesn’t like to think that money buys influence, either, and that’s not really realistic, is it? Unions, admittedly, do not get to formulate much of party policy. But where they do get a say is in the small-yet-important, more party-oriented things: candidate selections, rulebook changes. Union figures predominate in many of the committees which run the party and where these things are decided.

Third, we may have to change anyway. It is quite possible that the Committee on Standards in Public Life will criticise the current setup and call for changes, as this Guardian editorial points out, and it could be rather embarrassing to find ourselves publicly censured on the matter. Much better, surely, to anticipate and be seen to embrace change, than be dragged kicking and screaming towards it.

Fourthly, transparency. The whole party organisational system is cloaked in unnecessary secrecy. The party does not even provide a copy of the rulebook containing the voting rules (although you can usually get hold of one), or the  makeup of the NEC’s committees, on its website. No wonder people outside the party think the worst. It’s surely preferable to be open and upfront about what unions influence, and what they don’t, than leave it to people’s feverish imaginations. The influence needs to be transparent, through appointment of people and through votes, and it needs to be demonstrated that it is emphatically not a transactional influence.

In short, influence needs to be seen to be visible and above board, whatever the final settlement is. And, on that settlement, the answer to the question: “who governs Labour?” needs not to be – or be seen to be – “Ed and these three other blokes”. Because that is how it looks from the outside.

Once in a generation, an opportunity comes around to change these things, the last having been around 1994. In that moment, we voted for “power…in the hands of the many, not the few”. If we don’t want that statement to have turned out to be ironic, we need to grasp now that opportunity for our own generation.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs here.

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7 Responses to “Party reform: In the hands of the many, not the few”

  1. Mick Williams says:

    Pity that Rob Marchant focuses on the nebulous concept of ‘power in the hands of the many not the few’ thereby bypassing the first sentence of the ‘New Labour’ Clause IV. For the avoidance of doubt this reads: “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist Party”.

    Some time ago Tony Benn posed five questions about power and the exercise of it:
    1. What power do you have ?
    2. Where did you get it from ?
    3. On whose behalf do you exercise it ?
    4. To whom are you accountable ? and,
    5. How do we get rid of you ?

    I am not as perceptive or clever as Tony Benn (very few are) but tend to reduce my own enquiry to two simple questions based on the ‘New Labour’ Clause IV, these being:
    1. Is what you have done, or are proposing to do, democratic ? and,
    2. Is what you have done, or are proposing to do, socialist ?

    If the answer to either of these is in the negative for the holder and/or user of power they should immediately clear of out of the party and let proper democratic socialists run things.

    In reviewing my own recent dealings and contact with the Party I can categorically show that these have been neither democratic or socialist. Sadly, Ed will never hear from the likes of me and the considerable number who think like me – he is surrounded by a buffer of ‘suits’ who are working to a totally different agenda than people like us.

    Evidence exists to show that former Gen Sec Ray Collins, Senior Constitutional Officer Eric “we don’t do minutes” Wilson and Midlands Regional Director Ian Reilly are all of this ilk and there are also many others (including faceless ones like ‘queen bee’ HP). They quite happily invoke the authority of the NEC when making ther ‘devolved’ decisions but on enquiry it is almost always found that most of the NEC are ignorant of what has been done.

    The Party will never prosper, and people like me will never return, until ALL the rotten apples are cleared out of the barrel.

    But, from ‘former Party Manager’ Rob perhaps I should expect little else.

    Mick Williams.
    (46 years membership, 28 years councillor, National Merit Award 2008)

    This is not to excuse

  2. Rob Marchant says:

    Oh dear, Mick. It looks like you are still fighting the 1994 battles of Clause Four. I am not sure why we should be holding our breath waiting for you to return to the party.

  3. Richard says:

    Some sensible points made in this piece, Rob. And to be fair, Mick too does make some valuable points about other aspects of the democratic system within the party. Let’s take elections to the NEC and NPF. My CLP and many neighbouring ones never make candidate nominations for these, and the majority of us don’t vote in the elections simply because we know very little about the candidates apart from the bit of blurb they send us. Never are there any hustings or opportunities to meet and question them. Consequently they are elected by a minority of members to make decisions for the whole party. Now that too is power in the hands of the few, not the many.

  4. Rob Marchant says:

    @Richard: A very fair point about elections to the NEC/NPF. A sensible move might be to try some kind of hustings, if only on a regional basis. The NEC, in the context of the above, is a prime candidate for reform and its accountability to members is very modest indeed. The trade union section is particularly so.

  5. Mick Williams says:

    Rob – I do not fight battles about semantics, preferring to reserve my energy for the real enemy. Many so-called socialists use the term ‘democracy’ but to them it is only a word whereas for my comrades and myself it is a way of life.

    That is why, for the last nine years I have been Convenor of ‘democracy4stoke’ – which was founded mainly by Party members to campaign against the concept of elected mayors, seeing the inherent danger of concentrating power in too few hands.

    When I am (very occasionally these days) asked to speak at local meetings I take a ‘prop’ with me which I red-tack to the wall. This is an A1 size poster of the cover of ‘Labour Weekly’ of June 22nd 1984 and depicts a mounted policeman wielding a baton over the head of a young woman photographer (battle of Orgreave).

    The point I make is that for all its shortcomings this publication made possible the dissemination of that information in which Party members were interested. Beside this it carried lots of news of local happenings – so that we at CLP level could compare our experiences with others hroughout the country. And, for good measure, the details of any forthcoming vacancies for elected office and how to apply.

    Although not naive enough to think that it wasn’t without its own particular bias it was a damned sight better than any of its glossy, glitzy successors whose titles (‘Inside Labour’ for instance) never told of the anodyne nature of their contents. Indeed, we in Stoke started a ‘North Staffs Labour Briefing’ in common with other areas to address the shortcomings of information about the Party, by the Party, to enable us to take an informed part in the debate. Sadly this was often negated by the Regional Office who often ‘overruled’ our resolutions in Stoke Central, claiming that there was ‘no role’ for members regarding policy issues.

    And a recent article by Christine Shawcross in Labour Briefing referred to the fact that 55% of Labour MPs had a ‘professional’ background (law, media, PR or politics) whereas a mere 9% were from a manual occupation. (She cheekily suggests that those with an agricultural background could do well – probably for ‘novelty value’.) Clearly I am most suspect, having done 30 years ‘on the tools’ (apart from 2 years being shot at for four bob a day in the Far East) before becoming an ‘academic’.

    One of my favourite quotes:

    “The working class contains within itself all the material for its own emancipation and the place of any other sections of the population is a subordinate one. To place anyone not of our class in a position of leadership is an admission of the inferiority of our class and a constant source of danger”

    James Connolly, March 1908.

    I am irresistably reminded of this when I recall the events of 1994 and the infamous Blair/Brown ‘deal’ on the leadership – which no re-writing of Clause IV could ever justify. And when I was asked who I was voting for at the leadership election of last year I invariably replied ‘Harry Perkins’.

    So yes, Rob, given your own background I do not expect you to hold your breath whilst waiting for the majority that I belong to return to Party membership – but strangely, the current campaign is to win back the ‘missing millions’.

    Mick Williams,
    Convenor (R&D)

    This comment has been edited.

  6. Gary Elsby says:

    I heard that Mick Wiliams left the Stoke Labour Party when elections were found to be rigged and nothing to do with 1994.

    In 2008 Mick won the National Merit award in the same year that he organised a referendum on the issue of whether Stoke wanted an elected Mayor.

    Stoke agreed with Mick that we do not require one and the position was made redundant forthwith.

    100,000 people left the party holding the same views as Mick.

  7. Rob Marchant says:

    @Gary: Well, that may well be, but perhaps Mick could stay on the subject matter, the role of unions in the party. And if Mick would like a grown-up debate and his opinion respected, he could start by treating his co-debaters with a little more manners than he did in his first post.

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