Tuesday, 9 August 2011

In the hands of the many, not the few

So, we are having a debate about the role of unions in the Party. Perhaps Ed, as my Uncut colleague Peter Watt suggests, is on a hiding to nothing: he is paddling against a strong current of realpolitik that dictates that this cannot change, at least whilst the party is taking ninety per cent of its donations from unions.

But, this aside, perhaps we should examine something more important: rather than whether Ed will win, we should look at whether or not Ed is right.

Firstly let’s frame the debate: every time we try to have a debate about the right level of involvement for unions in party decision-making, the familiar refrain comes out from all corners of the labour movement: “man the barricades, someone is trying to Break The Link!” The siren goes up, we all rush to the defence of The Link, the devilish intruders are repulsed, and the debate stops again.

But breaking 
the link is essentially a straw man: no serious, contemporary party figure (nor especially – God forbid – any sitting politician, a very large proportion of whom are union-backed) is suggesting that we should do such a thing. Most of us are members of, and support, unions, even if we don’t always agree with everything they do. And how would we survive, let alone campaign? It is natural that, in part-funding the party and being linked to its decision-making mechanisms, unions should have a say.

However, the more nuanced debate that needs to be had is: how much of a say? Because, on the other hand, the current system does beg a question. The question of whether or not it is right that three leaders, whose interests are naturally sometimes directly aligned with those of the party, and sometimes not, control a very sizeable block vote.

So, are we comfortable with that? Because perhaps we shouldn’t be, and it’s quite possible that the upcoming, wholly independent study into party funding may not be, either. Why?

First, let’s just return to the totemic Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution: “power…in the hands of the many, not the few.” Let’s face facts: it has always been union leaders, rather than union members, who in reality control the votes. And one important change which exacerbates this effect is the sizeable consolidation that the union movement has undergone in recent years. Now surely, even if the current deal were accepted as right and just, a change in the environment should warrant a corresponding change in the system. Current state of play: three leaders of three super-unions control 40% of conference votes, against 50% for party members. Hardly “the many, not the few”.

Second, the paradox of money and influence: it is not good for money to be seen to buy influence, even if it does. Odd, isn’t it? The world at large has a convenient doublethink when it comes to political parties. It doesn’t want to pay for political parties one hundred per cent. But it doesn’t like to think that money buys influence, either, and that’s not really realistic, is it? Unions, admittedly, do not get to formulate much of party policy. But where they do get a say is in the small-yet-important, more party-oriented things: candidate selections, rulebook changes. Union figures predominate in many of the committees which run the party and where these things are decided.

Third, we may have to change anyway. It is quite possible that the Committee on Standards in Public Life will criticise the current setup and call for changes, as this Guardian editorial points out, and it could be rather embarrassing to find ourselves publicly censured on the matter. Much better, surely, to anticipate and be seen to embrace change, than be dragged kicking and screaming towards it.

Fourth, transparency. The whole party organisational system is cloaked in unnecessary secrecy. The party does not even provide a copy of the rulebook containing the voting rules (although you can usually get hold of one), or the  makeup of the NEC’s committees, on its website. No wonder people outside the party think the worst. It’s surely preferable to be open and upfront about what unions influence, and what they don’t, than leave it to people’s feverish imaginations. The influence needs to be transparent, through appointment of people and through votes, and it needs to be demonstrated that it is emphatically not a transactional influence, where deals are done in return for money.

In short, influence needs to be seen to be visible and above board, whatever the final settlement is. And, on that settlement, the answer to the question: “who governs Labour?” needs not to be – or be seen to be – “Ed and these three other blokes”. Because that is how it looks from the outside.

Once in a generation, an opportunity comes around to change these things, the last having been around 1994. In that moment, we voted for “power…in the hands of the many, not the few”. If we don’t want that statement to have turned out to be ironic, we need to grasp now that opportunity for our own generation.

This post first published at Labour Uncut, and appeared in The Week Uncut, the week's best read pieces. Listed in the daily Progress newsletter What We're Reading list and a response posted by Jon Lansman at Left Futures

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