by Rob Marchant
And so it was that, last Thursday, we learned that John McDonnell MP wanted to abolish Labour’s Compliance Unit (£), which deals with constitutional and disciplinary issues.
“The NEC of the Labour Party are looking at the whole exercise — how we can move away from this regime that expels people, prevents people joining.”
Not exactly front-page news, of course. Dull, internal workings of the party machine.
But it turns out it is rather important. And it is only the most recent in a number of such events.
The basic point is this: McDonnell wants to make it harder to expel people from the party and, by extension, easier for others – and clearly here he means previously expelled or suspended people –to re-enter.
Now why, one wonders, might anyone want to do that? Is it because the Compliance Unit is a group of over-zealous thought police, imposing a rigid discipline and barring entry to all but the most blind followers of the faith?
If only it were resourced up to be even close to that. It is a handful of people who try to keep the party in roughly sensible shape, by dealing with those whose presence is actually harmful to its body politic. Those who actually belong to another party, for example, or campaign for one. The actual number of cases dealt with is small and expulsions are pretty rare occurrences.
No, like most functions in party HQ, it is a minimalist service that all political parties require in order to function. And you can see from the scandals of recent years in newer parties like UKIP or Respect, or those which have previously been used to a lower level of scrutiny, like the Lib Dems until 2010, this is a vital service for a mainstream party.
In fact, its removal would seem to be a firm indicator of a party bent on leaving the mainstream and reducing its influence. Which, under its current management, it is.
No, there is only one possible reason for making it harder to expel people. And that is because your own people are the very ones whose behaviour puts them at risk of expulsion. In particular, it is to allow all manner of entryists from far-left fringe parties – for example, a number of members of the “grassroots organisation” Momentum, often also members of one of these other organisations – to enter the party without difficulty.
It is the equivalent of a country with a threatening neighbour suddenly finding it has porous borders, and we need not look much further than recent events in eastern Ukraine to see how that generally turns out.
This is not some nutty, off-the-wall local councillor. This is the Shadow Chancellor, effectively the Number Two full-time politician in the party. This man thinks that all the major parties which have basic controls in their membership recruitment – essentially all parties, all over the democratic world – are wrong and he is right.
On what planet do we not need to exclude people who campaign for other parties? Or are racists? Or, as in the most recent case highlighted by John Woodcock MP, paedophiles?
It is quite probable that the Times story is right, and the NEC will not in the end take this path. But it is the fact we are even discussing it which is deeply worrying.
As the piece also notes, we also recently had the attempt to create an NEC-led staffing unit, with the inevitable impact of politically-inspired appointments, instead of the best person for the job.
Not to mention the attempts to scrap the National Policy Forum (NPF) and create policy through the NEC as well. And that this is being done disingenuously in the name of party democracy is hugely ironic: it is not as if the party’s grassroots can easily channel its views democratically through the NEC, any more than union activists manage to channel theirs through similar committees to their own, usually quite unrepresentative leaderships (and if you don’t agree with that, Uncut invites you to inspect the abysmal turnout in most big unions’ General Secretary ballots).
This is not increased democracy in deciding policy, such that this is even possible within the limited resources available to a British political party (and much less one which is broke).
It is a mirage; convenient smoke and mirrors. The NPF is not perfect, but it was at least conceived as a decent attempt at giving activists a say in party policy, including some necessary filters to save us all from the madder ideas which might come out.
Try policy-by-committee and you are back to the party’s insane 1983 manifesto. A hotch-potch of mostly unworkable ideas with no common theme. What is a camel, the old joke goes? A horse designed by committee.
But this is a minor thing compared with the damage that could be done by tinkering with the party’s ability to protect itself: not just from entryists, but from the downright bad people who can easily bring the party into disrepute if not dealt with effectively.
All this together adds up to something: if it was not clear before, now we can certainly see the endgame: it is one of slowly dismantling the party’s current apparatus for managing itself.
In short, to take away the very controls which helped Labour repel Militant, an earlier existential threat.
We can sit there, make excuses for why this is all perfectly reasonable, and let it continue. Or we can choose to do something about it.
The upcoming NEC elections this summer would be a very good time to start. If that will not already be too late.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left