“Let’s overturn these tables
Disconnect these cables
This place don’t make sense to me no more
Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?”
Bob Dylan was probably not referring to the Labour Party’s ingrained culture of fixing in these lines. But his words do have a certain resonance at least for me when thinking about it. How cathartic it would be to smash everything up in a fit of rage and run for the hills, screaming, “To Hell with the lot of you”.
It would be wonderful and cathartic, yet utterly futile of course.
As Nick Cohen said of the Labour Party back in January 2010, in much worse times, “It may be a vehicle whose wheels are invariably falling off, whose passengers are invariably stabbing each other in the back and whose driver is invariably mad and heading at full speed in the wrong direction, but there you are, it’s all there is.”
Labour pretty much is the political Left in Britain. We must live with it and try to make it better.
LabourList’s editor Mark Ferguson has been admirably vociferous in challenging classic fixing practices, notably on candidates for election using access to Labour Party communications to promote themselves.
So what is this ‘fixing’ culture all about, and where does it come from?
The first thing to say is that for such a culture to arise and become ingrained in what is a relatively benign environment, it must have some justification. Generally, we are not talking about bad people doing bad things. Certainly from my own, limited, experience, Labour Party fixing is more about people doing what they think is right.
After all, if I deserve a position I am going for in the party apparatus, surely it is OK if I do everything I can to ensure that I get it?
That seems fair enough.
The problematic aspect comes with that “deserve” element. After all, are we judging our own assets here, like Enron executives did before its collapse and as American mortgage brokers did before the housing slump? Labour Party internal positions may not seem to be comparable compared to the multi-million dollar payouts on offer in these companies, but the basic principle is the same.
Just as Enron fat-cats and the mortgage sharks were ultimately accountable to ordinary people and their pensions (via pampered, rent-seeking fund managers), Labour Party representatives are accountable to members – and, hopefully, the wider public.
The weakening and dilution of those relationships can open a space for practices that might have been considered abuses to become common, accepted ways of behaving. This seems to have been what has happened in the Labour Party.
Elections are easy to manipulate when you have access to the means of controlling them and understand how the system works. Restricting visibility and transparency about rules, processes and events over time, and calling snap elections at short notice are just a couple of the practices that make ‘fixing’ a relatively simple exercise. Using Party communications for self-promotion is an optional extra.
A healthy democratic culture depends on free information, transparency of what positions are on offer, what they are about, who occupies them and who is seeking them, freedom for candidates to gather and organise, independent communications, and plenty of notice for candidates and electors alike – especially when applied to CLPs which depend on those elected from wards. This has been sadly lacking though in my experience, unless of course it has suited the interests of those doing the fixing.
There is another uncomfortable truth for us in the Labour Party though, in that this sort of fixing is not just accepted culturally, but is actually institutionalised into our structures.
Privileges and patronage are already wired into Labour Party internal processes. We have a plethora of policies surrounding internal governance that actively subvert any idea of democracy – union preferences, female preferences, ethnic minority preferences and preferences for various affiliates to name but a few.
Do our members deserve to be treated this way, as institutionally sexist, racist, anti-union and anti-pretty much anything that has won approval as deserving of preference?
There are genuine arguments to be had here of course on the detail. But, for myself, I find it difficult to happily accept the way that we are institutionally anti-democratic as a result of all this.
The culture of fixing within the party surely takes its cue from such practices: they foster a sense of entitlement that justifies the subversion of democratic processes. Fixing elections is not necessarily a controversial issue among many people because it is seen as the right thing to do, to secure the right result.
Our new General Secretary Iain McNicol responded to the controversy on using internal communications in an admirable fashion. It is unacceptable, end of story.
Stamping these sorts of practices out in the wider party will be a much bigger task though. Most importantly, we shall need a major cultural change, with a renewed respect for the basic principles of democracy.
As the former Labour MP and diarist Chris Mullin said in his last speech in Parliament, “The great thing about democracy is that, although harsh things are sometimes said, we are not actually trying to kill each other. Differences are ultimately resolved at the ballot box. One side wins, one side loses, and the loser lives to fight another day.”
In politics as in life, there will always be differences of opinion, passions and personality. Democracy is a gift for us to resolve these disputes which leaves us all free to fight another day. We should respect it, and treasure it.