Jon Trickett’s appointment to run party reform tells us a lot about the leadership’s thinking

by Atul Hatwal

The fate of the triumvirate of demoted Blairites – Jim Murphy, Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg – has dominated reporting of Labour’s reshuffle. This is understandable.

It’s no coincidence that the cadre of senior shadow cabinet ministers most associated with Tony Blair were demoted while Brownite contemporaries from the same parliamentary generation remained untouched.

Despite the party spin about this being no cull of Blairites, bringing in some bright young things from the 2010 parliamentary intake who might once have danced to, “Things can only get better,” at a Labour students’ conference disco, sometime in the late nineties, hardly constitutes a like for like exchange.

It’s clear why the media would focus on these changes, if less explicable why each of the victims would accept such treatment rather than retain their political dignity on the backbenches.

But for all the columns of words expended considering these changes, they only obscure the most politically significant appointment: Jon Trickett as deputy chair to lead on party reform.

For Ed Miliband, the early part of next year will be defined by his efforts to reform Labour’s relationship with the unions. The first special conference in nearly twenty years will be the culmination of months of lobbying, campaigning and media briefing.

When Ed Miliband announced the Collins review, four MPs were highlighted as having roles in the process. Harriet Harman and Phil Wilson to lead the campaign in the country and Rachel Reeves and Jon Trickett to look at the potential for wider reforms.

Now Jon Trickett, a man steeped in the union movement and close to several of the leaders, has been appointed deputy party chair with lead responsibility for party reform, the dynamic has changed – and it reveals much of the leadership’s thinking.

At Labour conference, one of the persistent topics for discussion was whether Ed Miliband would be able to get his reforms through. There was a lot of shaking of heads at the prospect of the package passing the NEC, let alone even 10% of union members joining the party, given the majority of trade union leaders are so hostile.

The Trickett appointment sends a message that the Labour leadership are worried. This is not going to be a campaign where Ed Miliband appeals over the heads of union leaders to the rank and file membership of the Labour movement. Jon Trickett as deputy party chair tells us that Ed Miliband wants to do a deal with the union bosses.

At the extreme this would involve folding on the centre-piece of the reforms, and abandoning the requirement for trade union levy payers to opt-in to paying some of their political levy towards Labour.

This would be a catastrophic personal defeat for Ed Miliband, but already scenarios are being discussed that map out how he could retreat without sustaining politically fatal injuries.

More probable is that the reform pill for the unions will be sweetened in exchange for their active support.

First and foremost, this will involve firmly ruling out any changes to Labour’s institutional structures. The union block vote at conference will remain, the unions will retain a separate electoral college in the leadership election and the union reservation of 12 places out of 33 on the NEC (compared to 6 places reserved for CLP members) will stay.

This all flies in the face of what Labour supporters, and most importantly, union members want. Polling by YouGov for Uncut last month revealed that 61% of affiliated trade unionists want the unions’ conference block vote scrapped with 29% opposed, 51% want the separate union electoral college for leadership elections abolished with 22% opposed and 63% want the union reservation of NEC places scrapped with 23% opposed.

But given the current positioning of the Labour leadership, the opinion of rank and file trade unionists does not seem to be a priority.

More radical measures are also in prospect that will give the unions’ greater institutional influence in the operation of Labour at a constituency level. The quid pro quo quietly discussed on the sidelines of Labour conference entailed unions backing the reforms and encouraging sufficient numbers of their members to opt-in, in return for enhanced collective rights in CLP decision-making.

In practical terms it would mean an extension and entrenchment of the electoral college at CLP level.

Although the details remain sketchy, the key to any compromise deal would be to retain the distinction in status of trade unionists in the Labour party, from ordinary party members. This would be the basis for parallel management and voting structures, would justify the retention of the conference block vote, the electoral college in leadership elections and the NEC reservation and would enable union leaders to retain greater control over their members’ role in the Labour party.

Needless to say, the political fall-out from any potential deal along these lines would be toxic.

If the number of union members opting in to the party drops as expected, then Labour will be faced with a situation where there has been potentially a 90%+ fall in union member affiliation but with the unions still in control 50% of the votes at conference, a third of the votes in leadership elections and over a third of the seats on the NEC.

Proportionately, trade union influence within Labour would have grown, yet trade union funding for the party would have collapsed. Quite a deal.

With the shadow of Falkirk still cast over the wider party (and let’s not forget Falkirk West CLP is still in special measures because of what happened in the selection debacle), a reform process that actually increased the role of the unions, not just in Labour’s national governance but also at a local CLP level in parliamentary selections’ would precipitate a media meltdown.

The Tories would be triumphant, the right-wing press excoriating. Pleas from the Labour leader that his central reform of levy payers’ opting into the party, had passed, would be lost as the defining image in the public’s view would be a Labour party that was now even more in thrall to the unions.

The future, as the phrase goes, is not written. But Jon Trickett’s appointment to deputy chair suggests it is currently being penciled in.

And it doesn’t read well for anyone who supports self-determination for trade unionists within the Labour movement or wants the political debate in this country to be about the failings of the government rather than the compromises of Labour’s leadership.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Labour Uncut

8 Responses to “Jon Trickett’s appointment to run party reform tells us a lot about the leadership’s thinking”

  1. paul barker says:

    It looks like you are finally starting to realise that all those “Former” Revolutionaries running The Major Unions are actually still trying to build a Revolutionary Party & The Milliband Reforms play right into their hands. They can build & Finance an Alternative Left Party while trying to take over Labour without having to choose one or the other.
    You might say that The Far Left have “nothing to lose & a world to gain.” Moderates in Labour have no power to stop your Party slipping away, you are left wringing your hands.

  2. Matthew Blott (@MatthewBlott) says:

    I agree with some of the points here apart from the one about the right-wing press. Whatever the Labour Party does between now and the general election won’t make any difference to the 80 per cent print media that currently supports the Tories – given the modest proposals at conference had them interpreting social democracy as Soviet communism. I don’t think they are irrelevant as too many on the left wishfully believe but I don’t think they can be appeased and see little point trying to.

  3. Danny says:

    The second best thing about this reshuffle, after the fact that it has made our Shadow Cabinet more talented, able and representative, is the reaction of the right of the party.

    Incidentally, following the recent overuse of this Labour Uncut instructed polling that YouGov carried out, I’ve been asking a few questions of my own. I’m in a trade union, my sister is a shop steward and delegate for Unison and a handful of my extended family are affiliated to Unions. I have been unable to locate a single person who took part in, knows someone who took part in or has even heard of someone who took part in this poll that Labour Uncut writers are grasping too with whitened fingers as a means of pushing forward their own agenda on party reform.

    I’d be very intrigued as to what the whispered-in-the-ear instructions that Uncut gave to YouGov.

  4. Simon says:

    Not sure ‘the unions’ will be that bothered about Comrade Trickett. Despite being Andrew Murray’s buddy he’s got a reputation for talking big but delivering little. Can anyone name anything he’s actually done? Anyone? His response to the trade union bill currently going through parliament was cringe makingly bad. Recommensed viewing.

  5. swatantra says:

    Basically its a no win situation for Labour. But if Labour takes the moral high ground and goes ahead with OMOV and only Labour members taking part in Labour democratic decisions, it will be doing the right thing. Leave the Unions behind to sort out their own mess, and you might get Union Members asking what eexactly are the Unions doing for them. It’ll be a start of Union Reform but this time forced on the unions by their own members. The public will respect Labour the more by not relying on Union Funding and severing the disproportionate influence Unions have on Labour Party policies and decisions.

  6. Robert says:

    I really hope that there is a compromise on this issue and no further damage is done to the Labour Party. To be honest, I have no view on this issue apart from wanting it to go away!

  7. steve says:

    As an ordinary union member I’d like to thank Atul for looking out for my interests. Once the unions are removed from the political process and the voices of our democratically elected leaders are no longer heard in high places things are going to be great.

    There’ll be so much to look forward to if Atul succeeds with his campaign – just imagine it: the influence of trade unions will be diminished and the priorities of union members sidelined. Brilliant, what’s not to like?!

    Go for it, Atul!

  8. Les Abbey says:

    I wonder if Atul in support of party reform would be willing to trade the position of the PLP in the electoral college against the power of the unions?

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