Sunday, February 02, 2014

Two days to save the Labour Party and ten things Ed Miliband needs to know before then.

 Ed Miliband

 Mark Ferguson on the web-site "Labour List" has produced a list of "10 things you need to know about Ed Miliband's party reforms." See here.

My replies to his ten points are too long to be placed in his comment box. So I present each of his points below,  followed by my critical comments.

1. There’s definitely an opt-in process for trade union members: ... trade union supporters of Labour will effectively be subject to a double opt-in process if they’re going to get a vote in the leadership election. They’ll be asked to confirm they want their union affiliation fees to help support Labour – and if they do, they’ll be invited to become Affiliate Members. If they choose to do both, they’ll get a leadership election vote. However, there will be a five year “transition period” for opt-in – but if there’s a leadership election before then, only affiliates who have opted-in will get a vote.

 My Comment :  Given that the Electoral Commission estimate that six and a half million people have failed to register to vote and a Hansard Society survey estimates that only 41% say that they are certain to vote in the next General Election; then its seems unlikely that many trade unionists will agree to both (a) their political levy being paid into the Labour Party and (b) to then become affiliated members of the Labour Party for what is said to be a £3 annual fee.

2. OMOV is in: The electoral college is dead – there will be “One Member One Vote” for the leadership contest, open to current full members, and new Affiliated Members and Registered Supporters. Some Labour members might feel this dilutes their vote in the leadership election, but because the MPs section has been removed (see point 4) in reality most “full members” votes will count more proportionately than they did before.

My Comment : When they can, individual members of the Labour Party are expected to be members of trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party. Although individual members are often retired people these days, many retain their trade union membership as retired members. Numbers of these may decide that they can now just stop paying high individual membership fees, whilst instead becoming affiliated members. This would still gives then OMOV. Currently many individual members have an understanding as to why (a) Labour's elected representatives, (b) non-opted out members affiliated to bodies such as Trade Unions and (c) individual members should all operate OMOV via their respective organisations. What they will take less kindly to is the idea of affiliated members and registered supporters have an equal status to themselves. What is to prevent members of rival political parties signing up as pretend Labour registered supporters, just to intervene in internal Labour Elections. It is like me signing up as a registered Conservative voter, in an attempt to see that we don't get another Maggie Thatcher. 

3. MPs (and MEPs) lose their bloc vote – but have a crucial role in shortlisting the candidates:  ... its seems that candidates will need the backing of 20% of MPs. This may remove some potential candidates from the running, but in reality it means only candidates who have a base of support in the PLP will stand a chance of being party leader. As being Labour leader also involves leading the PLP, that seems a sensible compromise.

My Comments : We can disagree over who should qualify for OMOV; but if this is an important principle, why does it then disappear when it comes to the question of nominations for the leadership? If nominations are to be in the hands of MPs and MEPs, then can't we at least have a much lower threshold. Otherwise we seem to only have OMOV after a stitch up has taken place.

4. There will be a London Primary: This has been one of the points of contention with some in the unions, but there will be a London Primary. It won’t be an “open” primary in which everyone in London can vote – but instead it’ll be a closed OMOV vote with Members, Affiliated Supporters and Registered Supporters all being given an equal vote in the contest. That means London Labour will be particularly keen to sign people up to these new forms of membership to get more Londoners in the Labour corner come primary time. The primary will be held post General Election – and will be completed by conference 2015.

My Comments : If the scheme is successful, then far more registered supporters will be signed up in London, than anywhere else. This will have a knock-on effect when it comes to a Labour Party leadership election. This runs contrary to another trend in the politics of the United Kingdom, where there has been a move to devolved powers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some in the Labour Movement would like to see similar devolution taking place in the Regions in England. Due to parliament being situated in London, many outsiders feel that their interests get squeezed out. This is not something that the Labour Party should seek to build upon. It shouldn't act in ways that are counter-productive.

5. Selections remain for full members – but with spending limits and a donation cap: Many in the unions are keen for Affiliated Members to have a say in selections, but these reforms will keep selecting candidates for parliament and councils, standing for election and sending delegates to conference as delegates. However, there will now be a limit on what candidates can spend in pursuit of selection and a cap on donations to a selection campaign. The draft Collins report sets out some figures for that, but they aren’t set in stone and will need some work before special conference. Anything that cuts the cost of selections is welcomed – they’re too expensive – what’s needed is a process that includes, rather than excludes good candidates, regardless of background.

My Comments : So affiliated membership is to be pushed when it comes to OMOV for the leadership and for voting for the Labour nominees for Mayor of London; but then it is dropped when it comes to other selection procedures. I am not for the whole procedure in the first place. But even in its own terms it lacks an internal logic. When trade unionists realise they are being sold a pup, they will become even less keen to become affiliated members. Spending limits on candidates may have a marginal impact on stopping candidates being foisted upon parliamentary constituencies, by manipulative devices. But much stronger provisions need to be added to these financial restraints. Labour Parliamentary candidates should be drawn either from the constituencies concerned in the selection, or from a neighbouring constituency. They should appear on electoral registers in such areas for at least a full two years and have a clear record of Labour Party membership and activity for the previous five year period. That is the key way to stop carpetbaggers.

6. There’s still a role for collectivism in the Labour Party: Many in the trade unions were concerned during this process that the “opt-in” method would mean a death knell for collectivism in the Labour Party – but collectivism lives on, as the unions and other affiliated organisations retain vote shares at conference and the NEC. However, after the five year period for transitioning to “opt-in” is over, the proportionate share of union votes at conference (within the 50% union vote) and on the NEC will be proportionate to the number of trade unionists from each union who have opted in.

My Comments :  This is obviously seen as an incentive to get trade unions to recruit their members for "opting in" purposes. It would, of course, turn out to be embarrassing if few trade union members responded to the opting in process, or there was a serious imbalance between the percentage of responses in different trade unions. The argument that collectivism works via the Labour Party Conference and the NEC is also, however, highly dubious. Democratic practices inside the Labour Party have almost disappeared. Yet collectivism requires democratic controls, if it is not to be overtaken by the anti-democratic forces of centralism. Clarity is essential to democratic practices. Yet who runs what and how, is incomprehensible to people inside the Labour Party.  

7. Labour won’t “unilaterally disarm” on party funding: A real concern – with only just over a year until election day, was that Labour would immediately lose financial support from the unions and be unable to compete with the Tory war chest. Instead, union donations look set to be lowered over the course of the five year transition period. The Tories will likely claim that these donations still give power to the unions, but Miliband is holding firm. He says he wants to cut donations for parties to a £5000 maximum – but he won’t “unilaterally disarm”. As long as the Tories are still getting support from millionaires, Labour won’t be penning themselves in on funding.

My Comments : The argument is that the reforms will bring no serious financial problems for the Labour Party at the 2015 General Election. For they will only fully effect the Party's financial position in time for a likely 2020 General Election. And by 2020, a £5,000 maximum donation level is expected to be in place. This will stop the Conservatives from getting excessive financial support from millionaires, so financially we will see a much more level playing field. But this argument rests upon the requirement that Labour wins the 2015 General Election and will thus enact the necessary legislation. But where is the guarantee that Labour will win the next election?  Do we place Labour's financial future upon a gamble? 

8. Registered supporters will get a voice – and a vote – too: As well as the new affiliate members, there’s a new category of membership – registered supporters. Those who want to be part of the party but not full members will be able to take part in the leadership election – and work with their local party – as long as they pay a small fee to the party. That’s not dissimilar to the closed primary system used by the French Socialists to select Hollande as their Presidential candidate, and should see more people involved in the leadership election. Of course, that means leadership election votes for people who contribute far less than full members – but (point 6) full members still have more rights than these new members.

My Comments : It is rather important to know just what rights registered supporters (and affiliated members) will enjoy inside the Labour Party, apart for votes in the election of a Labour Party leader and the selection of Labour's candidate for London Mayor (and perhaps equivalents elsewhere). Apart from the right to canvass (which they can do in any case without signing up). If they can attend all-members meetings and have a say (and vote) and attend and speak at Constituency Labour Party meetings and yet not vote; then what is the difference between an individual Labour Party member who is not a delegate and a registered supporter/affiliated member? For instance, I am Political Education Officer from my Local Labour Party Branch and run Discussion Meetings. Will I be able to do the same if I drop out of being an individual Labour Party member and opt for the position of, say an affiliate member. That might suit my needs and cut my fees. 

9. All candidates will be able to contact all of the electorate: One complaint in previous leadership elections has been that candidates couldn’t contact all of those who could vote due to the rules in place for the affiliate section. Now, because the party will be sending out all ballot papers, and the only people who can vote will have a direct relationship with the party – every candidate will be able to contact all for the possible voters in the OMOV leadership ballot. In addition, Affiliated Members and Registered Supporters will be linked into their local party.

My Comment : that is an extra reason for dropping out of being an individual member of the Labour Party and taking up affiliated membership or registered supporter role instead. 

10. This won’t build a mass movement party – but it gives Labour a chance to do so: No reform of a party’s rules can deliver a mass membership party – that’s not how politics works and it’s not how people work. But these changes should allow Labour to have a direct relationship with hundreds of thousands more people – and bring more people into the party than are currently involved. The Labour Party – and party politics in general – can feel pretty moribund at times. By lowering the barrier for entry and engagement, this provides an opportunity. But that’s all it is. Only if combined with a strong offer to potential supporters and members, and alongside the kind of community organising and engagement that Arnie Graf has been leading on, can these reforms have a profound impact on the party. And on our politics. This isn’t the end of the process. I’m afraid it’s only the start…  

My Comment : I have argued that this whole approach is to put the cart before the horse (see here).  We can't hope to build a reasonably sized and reasonably active Labour Party membership until we have policies which are seen to be relevant to people's needs. It is when people are enthused by Labour that they will join.  At the last general election, turnout in constituencies which elected a Conservative MP were 7.2% higher than those which returned a Labour MP.  Overall over the last three general elections, the turnout has been the lowest in the 18-24 age group, rising gradually by each age cohort until it reaches its highest amongst the 65 plus age group. As time moves on the higher voting age groups will die out. Already, over the last three general elections,we have had effective turnouts (taking into account those not on electoral registers) that have been below the 60% mark.  We are heading for much lower levels. There are varying reasons for the collapse in voting - disillusion, annoyance, apathy and despair. So why don't we seek to respond and overcome these factors, as far as Labour is concerned?  In particular, masses of people need (a) access to full and worthwhile employment, with decent pay and conditions, (b) the protection of our environment, so that our futures will not be destroyed, (c) access to continuing forms of education which will help us to expand our horizons throughout  our lives, (d) decent homes and communal facilities that will aid our quality of life, (d) a future world that is free from mass poverty and its associated  social tensions and (e) at home and abroad, an end to military, political, ideological and economic exploitation. We can't deliver these via manifesto commitments in a 2015 election, but we can show what we should be striving for, with some practical first steps being on offer. If we are seen to be trying to further people's needs and advance their best aspirations, then our membership will grow by attracting the best people. It will then be the time to review our structure to see if it meets our collective needs. What is on offer at the moment is entirely counter-productive. 
On the above matters,  Labour's National Executive Committee will meet on 4th February to decide just which proposals it will put to the special Labour Party Conference on March 1st.  So we have still have two chances to save the Labour Party.  One in two days time and the other in a month's time.

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