Unions push for (a little) Labour democracy

Submitted by Matthew on 29 June, 2011 - 10:29

In their submission to the Labour Party’s review of structure (24 June), the affiliated trade unions have proposed:

* “To remove the ‘contemporary’ criteria”, so that Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) can put motions to Labour Party conference without having to prove that they are “contemporary” (i.e. based on events in August) and running a large risk of almost any motion being ruled out of order.

* “To enforce the original proposal for 4 + 4”, that is to allow CLPs to put four issues on Labour Party conference agenda. (At present, if the CLPs choose an issue which is also chosen by the trade unions, then the CLP choice simply falls, and conference debates fewer issues).

* To “make it explicit that [resolutions] passed should be incorporated within our policy documents”. At present, as the submission notes, resolutions passed at Labour Party conference are published nowhere permanent, only in the Conference Arrangements Committee reports circulated daily within the conference.

* To reject the fashionable idea that the Labour Party should create a new “category” of supporters beyond its membership (i.e. create an ultra-passive “electorate” for certain issues, easily manipulated by the leadership to bypass the regular structures of the party). The submission notes that there is already an easy mechanism for “socialist societies” and other campaign groups to affiliate to the Labour Party.

• To propose that Labour leadership elections be simplified to one member, one vote, across the whole CLP and affiliated (union) membership, with no special weighted vote for MPs. Voters who are simultaneously CLP and affiliated-union members would be asked to certify that they were only using one vote.

• To “rebalance” Labour’s National Executive Committee, with 9 CLP reps, a rep each from Scotland and Wales, 11 trade union reps, and only 11 representatives from MPs, etc.

• To defend what remains of Labour’s local democracy, including the participation of union delegates in CLPs.

All these are better than Ed Miliband’s direction, with his 27 June abolition of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s right to elect the Shadow Cabinet.

The report is scathing about the regime since the Blair coup: “Great iniquities... of centralised command and control”; “wilful dismissal of party option”; “apparent deafness of former Party leaders to union issues... [most obviously] the commitment to retain the majority of legislation that restricted trade unions”; “the determination of previous leaderships to micro-manage Conference, and when that fails to greet its decision with outright hostility”; “the policy process... increasingly obscure... treated as a toolbox to use when keeping out unwanted voices”.

The report is wordy and diffuse. It shows the signs of being a fudged compromise between different views (in the submission, as in Labour Party affairs generally, the unions almost always act as a bloc, “averaging out” between the more leftish unions and the more conservative ones).

Union activists — probably, even union Executive members — were allowed no input to it. All those factors make it doubtful that the union general secretaries will fight for the positive proposals without strong pressure from their unions’ members.

Some vital changes which in the past have had trade-union support — allowing Conference to amend National Policy Forum reports, easing bureaucratic obstacles to Constituency Labour Parties proposing rule changes — are not included.

Worst, the submission “can see no value in a return to a resolution-based process that operates around Conference” (i.e. the relatively simple structure, based on resolutions to conference from CLPs and unions, which existed from the start up to Tony Blair’s changes in 1997).

Instead, it pitches its proposals as bringing the Labour Party today back to what was outlined on paper, in 1997, but never really operated.

The reason why the National Policy Forum, the Policy Commissions, the Joint Policy Committee, and so on, have all become shams is, however, that their purpose was precisely “a toolbox to keep out unwanted voices”. Once they had done that, no-one was very interested in them. The decisive improvement needed (even if it goes alongside, for example, a residual NPF) is to restore real life to Labour Party conference.

Part of the unions’ timidity is a feeling of weakness. Giving precise figures to a trend which I haven’t seen enumerated as precisely before, the submission reports “the loss of 65% of union stewards since 1980, compared to a loss of 50% of members”.

Union activists need to press the union leaders to stick to their positive proposals, and fight for a more democratic structure within the unions themselves on political issues.

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