by Peter Watt
Class is back on the agenda. Bashing the posh “Eton” Tories has become popular again for many in Labour’s ranks. Personally I think the “posh” attacks are pretty appalling. But the Tories don’t really help themselves and I guess you could argue that they invited it with the “we’re all in it together” nonsense. But it’s a long time since the Labour party was stuffed full of working class members or representatives.
Nope, Labour may not have quite the public school quotient of the Tories but our ranks are still drawn from a narrow pool. We are pretty much wholly middle class and there are an awful lot of teachers and lawyers at most party meetings! The same is true of our MP’s except that there are also a fair old number of political professionals from the ranks of trade unions and political advisors.
The party has though made some real strides over recent years in increasing the numbers of women. There’s a way to go, but the progress is clearly good news. And you’d think that the recent signals that the party was looking to diversify its ranks in Westminster further, by recruiting more working class MPs for instance, would be the start of further progress. But I fear that it is in fact just hollow words that will come to nothing.
Those who really know the Labour party know that real power is in the hands of those who control the organisation. And that means that you need to understand the rules and procedures. Better still, mould them to your own ends.
It is why the Organisation Sub-Committee (Org Sub) of the NEC is the committee that every member of the NEC wants to be on. And it’s why the Trade Unions fight so hard to make sure that they have plenty of reps on it and generally chair it. You see, the Org Sub controls selections, discipline, the rule book and internal elections. And the reality is, that it is the wording of the rules and regulations for the selection of Parliamentary candidates, approved by the Org Sub that determines whether fine words are translated into reality.
For instance, when push comes to shove, years of fighting for more women in parliament ultimately meant that Org Sub had to approve selections procedures that made it happen. And when I wrote those procedures back in the day, it was a painful process that involved every line and word being fought over. The reason? As well as looking at how to maximise the number of women elected, all of the stakeholders were also trying to make sure that their vested interest (trade union, socialist society and so on) was advantaged. It meant that we could increase the number of women selected for safe seats but also that those trade union officials and grandees who needed rewarding (or simply getting rid of) got their seat irrespective of their gender.
I say all this to make the point – the way that the procedures are drafted is a political choice with consequences. Which is why I can confidently assert that this round of selections, far from breaking the mould, will simply select more of the same. If anything it will result in even more political professionals and trade union officials becoming Labour MP’s. The words about the need to have a parliamentary party that better reflects society are fine sounding but are ultimately cosmetic.
In January the Org Sub approved some new procedures for selecting parliamentary candidates. It has of course always been difficult, rightly so, to get selected. You need to work hard, campaign with members and glad-hand for months. You probably need to have money yourself or support from a trade union. And you need to be able to give up work for a period to stand any chance. So if you are going to increase the numbers of political professionals being selected then you need to address this. So Org Sub, in their wisdom, decided to do something about it by making it even more skewed in favour of the political classes who are already being selected and elected.
How? Well, they have lengthened the time that you need to give up work to dedicate to getting selected to at least 9 weeks and increased the amount of spare cash that you need to stand any chance. You have to be at it full-time from the moment that the selection starts because they decided branch and trade union nominations are once again a key part of getting longlisted and shortlisted. So you need to campaign for those nominations from the get-go. Further, they have decided that membership lists are available to candidates from the start of the process. Previously they were available only after shortlisting. So if you’re not campaigning from the start then your opponents will be. And they have also increased the number of leaflets that you are allowed (in other words have to) produce from two to three so increasing the costs of campaigning.
So if you can’t afford to take a couple of months off work, pay for accommodation and travel, abandon your family and pay for your own materials you are screwed. In other words you need to be a political insider whose boss is supporting them; a trade union official or very rich. The speeches and interviews have talked of increasing diversity. The Org Sub had a choice to approve procedures that could have made this a reality. Instead they chose to reinforce the lack of diversity.
Working parent? Working class? Squeezed middle?
Don’t bother applying!
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party