Monday, 3 January 2011

The strange case of Party democracy

The last few days have seen two major Labour news stories: the clashing between the pro- and anti- camps for the Additional Vote (AV) referendum; and the controversy over supposed changes to Labour’s funding and voting model with respect to trade unions, which may or may not ever happen. What is not, perhaps, immediately obvious is that the two are strangely connected. I’ll try to explain what I mean.

Personally I'm genuinely surprised that people in the Labour Party can get so exercised over AV, when there are so many other policy areas – things that the public deeply cares about – where we should be staking out our position, in order to engage them. But that’s not the debate here. What is most difficult to understand is not that people get worked up about AV – fair play to them – but how inconsistent our thinking is.

That is, when we talk about parliamentary democracy, we are ready to defend it – and rightly – to the death. Furthermore, many of us take it to another, more subjective level with the AV/PR debate: we also agonise over how we can make it adequately representative and fair. Ironic, when you consider that these are two words which, if we apply them to our own internal Party elections, fail palpably to ring true.

Take parliamentary selections, for example: representative and fair? Our process is Byzantine to start with (pp76-86 here if you’re interested) but, in addition, there are the distorting special cases which have multiplied over the years, like so many rabbits. If you are from an ethnic minority, you’re a special case and can leapfrog some part of the process. A woman? Special case. Disabled, or from a manual or clerical background? Special case, at least in theory. On a union’s national parliamentary list? Special case. Backed by a local affiliate? Special case. Whoa, there. Now, there are good historical reasons for many of these special cases, some of which are still current – but the reality is that, together, they now have so much weight in the process that almost every winning candidate is – you could have knocked me down with a feather – a special case of some kind. Everyone becomes a special case; the only truly special cases are those which are not special. It is democracy a la Monty Python. We believe our rulebook to be a beacon of progressive values which protects those vulnerable to prejudice, when it is not. It is the opposite. We have tinkered with the system to its near-destruction.

We also tend to decide our candidates in a near-vacuum. As Peter Watt put it a couple of days ago, “we actively exclude the public in a systematic way from being involved in…choosing the candidates that want to become their elected public servants”. But I believe it’s worse than that. Not just the public: we partially exclude even the membership as well, by distorting access for the candidates that get to appear on the shortlist.

In other words, it is not an open-access group of candidates which we present them with, but one which has already excluded, or made it harder for, a variety of activists who might just have made excellent MPs. Non-trade-unionists. Non-women. Non-ethnic-minorities. (Jim Murphy MP recently asked why we have less members of the Armed Forces as candidates than other parties. Well, it’s a demographic which contains proportionally less trade unionists, women, and ethnic minorities – mystery solved.) That’s the reality, and let’s not forget how it alienates many of our own supporters, as we saw when the local party imploded in Blaenau Gwent. And if you have no union list approval, well, good luck. We subcontract out a substantial part of the selection process to a small group of senior union officials without a word. Nothing against the people in question: I merely point out that their interests are not necessarily identical to the Party’s interests. And this is just parliamentary selections, let alone choosing a leader.

So then we have our leadership and other important elections, mostly some kind of messy electoral college. As democrats, it’s the elephant in the room we happily ignore. We work ourselves up about the importance of being fair and representative, while ignoring our own house entirely. Or worse, we jump to defend the status quo in our Party democracy for fear that any change at all is a ruse to “break the union link”, “centralise power”, or some other such paranoia: the thin end of the wedge. But change is necessary. For a start, how do you think this whole process looks to people outside the Party? “We think it’s very important that elections are representative and fair. Just not in our own Party, thank you very much.”

Finally, the current systems have an exquisite, inbuilt locking mechanism for change prevention. Because, if you have just been selected or elected under them, you are poorly-placed to be able to criticise them later (besides, you may have just been elected to high office and have other concerns to occupy your mind). And, if you have failed to be selected, your criticism may very reasonably be interpreted as sour grapes. And if you’ve never been closely involved in the process, it’s probably too impenetrable for you to understand, or even care about. So, although many people realise the system is broken, no-one wants to stick their head above the parapet. This elegant and circular logic neatly locks in all the tinkering, perpetuating the existing system indefinitely.

One thing, though, is for sure. If we seriously want to make our Party democracy fit for purpose for the new century, we have a short window now to do it. Why? Because in office we will never get round to it (even the wildly reforming New Labour leadership did little about the Party rulebook after 1997. Things got busy).

So, the lesson is: do it now. While we are not distracted by government and while the Party rank and file might see the need for change. There are a bunch of ways we could come up with to reform the system, of which primaries are just one. But what’s clear is that the current system of Party democracy, as well as its funding, is crying out for reform.

This post (edited version) also at Labour Uncut and quoted in The Independent (online). New Statesman top 5 post 3 Dec 2010.
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