by Peter Watt
There has been a lot of retrospective going on recently. Obviously the death of Baroness Thatcher has meant that we have all been reflecting on the politics of the 1970’s and 1980’s. And politics has changed a fait bit since then and Labour politics in particular; long gone are the days when Labour ripped itself apart with splits and division.
Beaten time after time by the Tories, Labour finally realised that it needed to change if it was to win. First Neil Kinnock, then John Smith and finally Tony Blair and Gordon Brown gradually enforced a degree of central control and discipline within the party. There was an understanding that controlling process meant controlling the party. Conferences, policy making and of course selections were all ruthlessly managed.
On the whole the party welcomed it, even if reluctantly at first. There was a significant minority who always complained of course, but most were prepared to overlook what they didn’t like as we kept winning.
Working for the party throughout this period, we were loyal to the Leadership and we worked hard to keep control. Centralisation was the name of the day. But the world moved on and the time for command and control was over.
But at the centre we were slow on the uptake and so the culture of control was hung onto longer than it should’ve been. As the rest of society was opening up and more open sources of information were becoming the norm in business, online and in the media, the Labour party stubbornly refused to change the way that it ran itself. Keeping control meant keeping order.
But then we lost a general election and rightly our new Leader demanded a new approach to our politics. There was talk of reaching out beyond our closed ranks: of allowing creativity and innovation and welcoming the possibilities that there may well be differences in tone and approach in different parts of the country.
As an old school control freak you would expect me to be sceptical. But no; I am hugely supportive of an approach that begins to break down the barriers to our politics. I can see just how remote and closed our politics actually is and how unattractive it is to most voters. I wholeheartedly agree with Ed when he says:
“It’s not just about winning elections… It’s about constructing a real political movement. It’s a change from machine politics to grassroots politics.”
So I welcome the opening up of the party; except that is not what is happening. The words are all well and good but the reality is that nothing has changed. Actually that isn’t true. If anything it is getting worse.
Just take the debacle of the European selections currently concluding. It may not be the most exciting thing going on politically right now but it is instructive.
A quick lesson in case you aren’t a selection anorak. MEPs are elected regionally from a list of party candidates. Sitting MEP’s are in effect automatically re-selected at the top of the list.
The selection system for new candidates is that they are chosen regionally by a panel of the regional board (bear with me here) consisting of three reps from the trade unions and three from the local parties plus a representative of the NEC.
The panel undertakes a long listing process by CV and then interviews potential candidates before choosing candidates. The total list of potential candidates, sitting MEP’s plus new candidates, can be the same as the number of candidates to be elected as MEPs or there can be up to two more so that those ranked in the bottom two become reserves.
The choice is the regional panel’s to make. There is also a gender quota applied to ensure that there is a balance in the gender of elected MEPs.
The result is a list of sitting MEPs and a separate list of new candidates that are offered to members to rank in order of preference in a ballot of all members in the region. The end product is a gender balanced and ranked list of euro candidates that has sitting MEPs at the top of the list.
Now it is always a bit of a clunky process but this time around there have been cries of foul! People have claimed that there were no NEC reps on the panels and that the NEC hadn’t even seen the full list of candidates before they were released.
There are complaints that panels chose to only select the same number of candidates as there were MEPs in the region and not have reserves thereby limiting the choice for members in the ballot.
In the East Midlands it has been claimed that one of the selection panel has actually ended up being selected!
But most of all there have been fierce complaints that there has been a good old fashioned political stitch-up in the operation to deliberately exclude certain candidates and include others.
Take Anne Fairweather in London. She was a Labour euro candidate in London last time and in fact topped the member’s ballot, coming within a whisker of becoming an MEP at the poll.
She applied to the regional panel this time around and wasn’t even long listed – not even interviewed. The feeling is that as she has a pro-business background she was blocked by the trade unions. I am not sure what her local MP Chukka Umunna will make of that following his recent calls for more pro-business Labour MPs.
Another potential candidate in the north west visited over 30 local parties to drum up support and has ended up on a reserve list. In the south west another blocked candidate has established a Facebook page to focus anger.
And twitter is full of stories of the “I can’t believe that x isn’t on the list” ilk.
At the same time one particular faction appears to have got a lot of their favoured candidates selected. Apart from anything else, all of this concern about the process is a shame for the many excellent members who have made it to the lists of candidates.
So how has this happened? How come in the age of Ed’s new politics have we had such a clumsy and potentially biased selection? The answer is actually quite simple. It really is a stitch up.
I should know one when I see one after all! The regional panels are supposed to be balanced between local parties and trade unions but in reality many of the local party reps are really trade union place men and women. So, many of the panels are pretty much controlled by the trade unions.
And of course, “trade union” generally means Unite, GMB and Unison. The trade unions have then used their power to select who they want and block those that they do not. So if you are pro-business for instance – sod off! Easy really.
We shouldn’t be surprised; it is what the trade unions have been saying that they would do. Unite have a political strategy that explicitly says that they will operate on this basis; get onto local committees, selection panels and regional boards and then wield power to get sympathisers selected.
If you really are going to build a new politics then you can’t just say that you are and then sit back assuming that it will happen. You can have all the community organising you like but if the party is still operating a closed shop then the community will notice.
The sad truth is that the warm words from the leader are naïve. It may seem counter-intuitive but if you want new-politics then you need to understand where power lies in the old.
You then need to be prepared to do something about it. And Ed and his office need to wise up to this fast because right about now the trade unions are quietly running rings around them and soon will control much of the party.
At some point, it will be more than just favoured sons and daughters on euro candidate lists that they are securing.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party