26 February 2014

(Almost) All Good: thoughts on The Collins Review into Labour Party Reform

My relationship with the Labour Party isn’t a loving, happy one. I sometimes say, half-jokingly, that joining the party (or rather rejoining, in 2010) has nearly made me into a Tory.

It hasn’t, and won’t. But nevertheless it’s been true for me that while from the outside I could see that all is perhaps not well, from the inside the picture that more intelligent Tories and others paint of Labour sometimes seems painfully accurate. The centralism; the pointless, nit-picking bureaucracy; the lack of feeling for individual responsibility; the reflex instinct to control people rather than let them be free: all are largely true about Labour’s culture and organisation.

When you find yourself agreeing more with what some opponents say than what your own lot do, you’re in a bit of trouble.

Into that personal context has come The Collins Review into Labour Party Reform, a report prepared by the former Labour General Secretary (Lord) Ray Collins following consultations after the Falkirk affair (in which the union Unite recruited new members to the local constituency party in order to get one of its candidates selected, and was accused of rule-breaking).

Since I’ve been lucky enough to get selected as a constituency party delegate for the Special Conference which will decide on Collins’ recommendations (in London this Saturday, 1st March), I’ve gone and read through this 42-page document word for word. And, what’s more, I really like it...for the most part anyway.

The context: Falkirk and beyond

Collins cleverly starts off the detail of his report with a short history of the Labour Party in order to set the scene and context for these reforms.

Collins writes:

The internal party structures established at the end of the First World War proved more enduring than its architects had expected or intended. Although Labour had increased its vote and membership [the latter to a million people by 1950], the make-up and methods of constituency parties remained largely unchanged. Reports suggested that branches were often moribund and controlled by a small number of overworked enthusiasts. In some parts of the country, individuals applying for membership were told that the party was “full up”. Processes tended to be bureaucratic and based around meetings and minutes. Most members were far removed from centres of decision making. A review of Labour organisation at this time concluded that the party resembled a “penny farthing machine in the jet age”."

Needless to say, that passage could easily be written about Labour today. Indeed, in some ways it makes more sense now than then, with membership now down to less than 200,000, compared a million in 1950, 274,000 in 1982 and 400,000 when Tony Blair’s government got elected in 1997. Some political commentators talk authoritatively about the end of the political parties as membership organisations, but even with a more consumerist, less tribal public nowadays, as Collins recognises, there is nothing inevitable about decline. We just need to do better, and it is good to see us trying to do just that.

Probably the most important changes proposed concern Labour’s relationship to its affiliated trade unions like Unite, UNISON and the GMB – but these changes will have an impact across the party if passed (and it seems they will be).

Indeed, reading through the Collins report, it is clear this isn’t just a panic-driven attempt to ‘lance the boil’ of Falkirk, but a genuine, considered attempt to address long-term systemic problems within the party organisation. In a way, it is an attempt to ‘refound’ Peter Hain’s ‘Refounding Labour’ process to reinvigorate the party, but this time forced through in a ‘take it or leave it’ fashion via a Special Conference, rather than letting proposals get ground down and diluted in obscure committees.

The changes

On the crucial link between Labour and the unions, Collins has decided to distinguish between collective affiliation and individual affiliation.  He says: “Put simply, trade unionists need to be able to express one view on the financial contribution that underpins their union’s collective affiliation to the party, and another on whether they wish to be affiliated to the party individually.”

This means that union members will have to make a clear choice to pay an affiliation fee from their union to Labour. They will be offered a second choice about whether to affiliate themselves individually to Labour, which will entail involvement in party activities and voting in leadership elections, but without the full rights that come with full membership.

This will make a union’s collective affiliation to Labour much more transparent – according to the number of members who have consciously chosen to commit fees to the party rather than according to a block of people who haven’t ticked a box not to affiliate. It will also mean that Labour will have a direct relationship to trade unionists who participate in party affairs by voting in leadership elections, unlike today.

These are all good moves. With just 234,000 of 2.7 million ballot papers returned by affiliated trade unionists in 2010, and 15% of these spoilt by not affirming support for Labour values, the current relationship is clearly unsatisfactory.

Collins says: 

This reform of the leadership election process will invert the current position whereby ballots are sent to every member of an affiliated organisation before they have been asked to confirm their support for the party. In future it should operate the other way around.”

These changes will contribute to the end of Labour’s Electoral College, in which members, trade unionists and other affiliates, and MPs (and MEPs), are divided up into blocs in leadership elections. From now on it will be One Member, One Vote (OMOV), so no more multiple voting for members of multiple groupings.

Also, unlike many members, I like the closed primary for choosing Labour’s London Mayoral candidates, in which any member of the public can sign up to ‘Labour values’ (of which more later) and get an equal vote along with party members and affiliated members. Letting the public participate in party processes is a good way of building up affiliation and a feeling of commitment from non-members. Labour needs to open up and respond better to people rather than just address them as voters who need to be secured, but who otherwise need to be kept at an arm’s length.

The section on Fair and Transparent Selections is a mixed one though. On one hand there will be welcome moves to create ‘a more level playing field’ for candidates with lesser resources (for example, no union backing). There will also be a clearer code of conduct for candidates that can be more easily enforced. This goes a little way to what I proposed in my short submission to the Collins consultation, though in my view it is party officials as much as candidates that need to be signing codes of conduct – those that run processes as well as those running in them.

But on the other hand, while the rest of Collins’ report is devoted to opening the Labour Party up, this section bears witness to the enduring popularity of central control and micro-management, and also the liberal-lefty love of identity politics. This gets manifested through a specific version of ‘representation’ in which women get represented by women, black and brown people get represented by black and brown people, gay people get represented by gay people, etc.

The Collins Review says: “There is much more to do in terms of making the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] more socially representative, but in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexuality there are solid moves to increase proportions.” This is for me the worst aspect of Labour Party culture and practice: the idea that good representation comes not from free and equal people voting for whoever they want, but from abstractions that have nothing to do with someone’s political beliefs and what Martin Luther King called “the content of their character”.

Maajid Nawaz, the former Islamist, now Liberal Democrat candidate and staunch critic of the ‘regressive left’, has written for example of “ethnic communalism, where only a brown person is assumed able to represent brown people and so on”. He sees this as a form of ‘Orientalism’, whereby different groups require ‘native-chiefs’ to speak on their behalf.

This is a sort of representation – very different to democratic representation – that the Labour Party embraces. Its most obvious example is the All Women’s Shortlist for parliamentary representation, but quotas for women’s representation are universal at all levels of the party, alongside some limited positive discrimination for non-white people, gay people and others. Nowadays, even micro-local branches have to have a minimum of 50 per cent women in their executives and delegations.

This is command and control, not democracy. Going down this route I think in 50 years time we may have finally managed to be perfectly ‘representative’, but representing nobody. It is the sort of thing which makes me think I really do not belong in this party - in contrast to the rest of the report.

This brings us on to values. There is a lot of talk in the Collins report of affiliated and registered supporters signing up to ‘Labour values’, something I have addressed before, in a plea for privileging ethics/behaviour rather than vague platitudes. Look up what Labour’s values are on the party website and you will find this:

“The values Labour stands for today are those which have guided it throughout its existence.

• social justice
• strong community and strong values
• reward for hard work
• decency
• rights matched by responsibilities”.

As you will see, one of our ‘values’ is ‘strong values’.

Another is ‘social justice’, which doesn’t mean anything in and of itself, but I assume refers to a sort of state of justice in society in which everything is as it should be. This is where Labour’s obsession with statistical targets and quotas normally ends up, but according to your political view, it could mean anything from a bit of redistribution to a full-on totalitarian state. ‘Decency’ is something that we can all understand (being nice to each other), but when compared to the opposite, ‘indecency’, doesn’t really tell us much.

These values also they don’t really commit us to that much. That may be helpful in not deterring potential members and supporters, but values do matter. They create a commitment, and set a standard by which we ourselves and others can judge what we do. In the dull and denuded politics of today (something of which Labour is definitely guilty), this would be no bad thing. 

Perhaps the most important criticism of the Collins Report however is what it misses out. Most prominent here is Labour's day-to-day ruling body the National Executive Committee (NEC), which the unions have a dominant place on and which engages in all the micro-management in the party. This will remain unchanged.

That is a shame. But when it comes to reform, you've got to start somewhere, and these reforms are as decent a start as could be expected.

16 February 2014

Why the Green Party will never break through

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett’s appearance on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 this morning told us all we need to know about why the Greens will never break through as a major force in British politics.

Taking that valued seat on the Marr show sofa after a torrid few months of weather that have brought climate change to the centre of the political agenda, what did she choose to talk about?

Presented with the morning’s papers, with its acres of weather- and climate-related coverage, the first story she chose to focus on was about...Congolese migrants getting tortured on return to their country and the implications for British immigration policy. A decent issue in and of itself – but, with apologies to the migrants themselves, not Issue Number One, Two or Three for the Great British Public.

So, second opportunity... What was issue number two that was exercising her this morning? Answer: the ‘Bedroom Tax’, in which council tenants are being charged for any spare bedrooms in their homes. Again, a decent issue in itself, but not one that will make many people run over to the Greens’ cause.

If there is any political strategy being applied here, it would seem to be one of positioning the Green Party as the high spending, high debt, and high immigration alternative to Labour.

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett
Given that the Greens almost by definition wish to make significant interventions to protect the environment and nature (conservation, you might say – not a world away from ‘conservatism’), prioritising a load more interventionist stuff that voters don’t like– debt, welfare spending, high taxes, more immigration – doesn’t seem like a particularly sensible idea to me.

It also seems to contradict what should surely be their core priorities on nature, land and the environment.

For what does a high spending state require? Answer: economic growth.   

And what does economic growth entail? Answer: consumption of fossil fuels and other natural resources (at least for the foreseeable future).

What does consumption of fossil fuels and other natural resources mean? Answer: carbon dioxide emissions, air pollution and environmental blight.

And what does higher immigration mean? Answer: extra pressure on limited land resources due to demand for more housing and infrastructure, and therefore loss of natural environment.

All this has me asking, are the Greens really serious?

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has around a million members – more than double all the British political parties put together. There is a political constituency out there waiting for them.

Alas, they seem a lot more interested in being the new Loony Left. This is not good for them politically. But it also doesn’t do much for what should be their primary concern – the future of life on this Earth.

14 February 2014

On identity and oppression

The word identity entails a mathematical formula of one thing being identical to another, as in x = y.

Jump over to the conception of human identity and you have something different though. In describing our ‘personal identity’, we might come up with any number of things that define ourselves: from our basic physical characteristics to social identifiers like the religious and political groups we belong to, class (middle class/working class?), ethnicity, maybe profession...

Hence I may say I ‘am’ a middle class, white, male, agnostic journalist, a member of the Labour Party, with a critical view of mainstream liberal-left politics. This probably does about as good a job at describing me as you can do in a sentence, but of course it misses out so much that it is nowhere near reaching ‘identity’ with me. That sentence and me are nowhere near that x and y relationship which an actual identity would entail. But then I could go on for years detailing different aspects of myself without reaching identity.

So, you may say, that’s all very well, but what’s the point?

There are a few points. First is the one that, taken literally, personal ‘identity’ is an illusion, because we cannot possibly put up an identity that is complete. Secondly, because we can’t put up a complete identity, we might see that identity is a basically a free space - infinitely malleable and flexible, with which we can do pretty much what we want.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we may be able to see that a strong personal identity, for example with one’s skin colour, gender or religious grouping, is a choice. That identity may be enforced socially in quite a strong way, but we can break out of it. Identity can sometimes be a prison, but it’s one that requires us to maintain the walls and keep the roof on.

This argument is opposed to those theories which claim that such things as skin colour, gender and religious grouping are fundamental categories, set in relationships of oppression and privilege (or perpetrator and victim) within society. These theories depend on identities being intrinsic to people – that skin colour, gender or religious group forms a literal identity, and a fundamental identity, that is universal and universally acknowledged.

In such a way we can see that these theories of oppression are pretty oppressive themselves. They lock people up in their identities and won’t let them out until the ‘system’ has been destroyed or overthrown – even though nobody has an idea how to demarcate what is the system and what isn’t, let alone how to overthrow it.

These categories to which the ideologues attach fundamental importance are forms, or phenomena. In themselves, stripped of the meanings that we give to them, they have little meaning. My skin colour and gender are what they are. I didn’t choose them. There is no possible moral judgement to be made on them, or on me for having them.

It is only when we identify them with other things, about which we make judgements of good and bad for example, that they take on significant meaning. But that meaning isn’t inevitable. We have the power to form and shape it, or indeed not to.

7 February 2014

Labour, Gender and PMQs

Ed Miliband made quite a scene at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, goading David Cameron for the lack of women in his Shadow Cabinet and among Conservatives in the House of Commons

Cutting abruptly from a few cursory questions about the dreadful flooding in south western England, Miliband gleefully laid into Cameron for his all-male Government front bench, which was lacking Theresa May and other female Cabinet members – in contrast to his own front bench, which had been filled up with women.

He said: “I do have to say a picture tells a thousand words... look at the all male front bench laid before us.

“You said you want to represent the whole country. I guess they didn't let women into the Bullingdon Club either, so there we go....

“Do you think it is your fault the Conservative Party has a problem with women?”

As ‘Yah-Boo’ Westminster politics go, it was pretty effective. But it was also important for what it said about the Labour Party’s evolving politics and values.

I say ‘values’ not in terms of ethics but in terms of valuing certain forms over others – attributing the equivalent of monetary ‘value’ to different forms of existence. One version of this would be to value the public sector above or below the private sector; it would give value to an external form in the world, rather than to human behaviour and the ethical background to that behaviour.

In PMQs this week, Miliband was imposing a pretty simple value system of ‘man’ = bad and ‘woman’ = good. If you are a woman, then you get a plus point, and if you are a man you get a minus. It may seem strange for a man like Miliband to be doing this, but this is common practice within Labour and the wider liberal-left, with phrases like ‘male, pale and stale’ and “straight white men” used widely in a derogatory fashion by men as well as women.

This brings us back to the politics of identity, whereby such things as skin colour, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and religion are elevated to fundamental political categories through which to favour and disfavour people.

Ultimately though, jumping on this particular bandwagon cannot save you. The category can and will be turned back on you, as the leftist feminist writer Ellie Mae O’Hagan did in a tweet during PMQs, saying, “I cannot tell you how unedifying it is to see these men using women's issues to take cheap shots at each other. It's disgusting.” There we have it again: Men = bad. It’s a simple and straightforward value system.

O’Hagan is right about the cheap shots though. The PMQs debate did not shed much light on the relative lack of women in politics and in Westminster. It was more about the political knockabout and scoring points – something Miliband seems to have done rather well to judge from the follow-up coverage he has generated.

Democracy might be said to be a form of identity politics too, but is different in privileging the identity between a person and their geographical location – their home and community or nation – rather than their isolated status as an individual with certain external attributes like gender and skin colour.  Democracy privileges that community of shared space and location, while identity politics proper politicises those external categories and attempts to create and maintain separate political communities through them.

Strangely, this is what Labour is doing; despite (and, I would say, in spite of) attempts to define itself as ‘One Nation Labour’.

As an example, you need go now further than: “it’s Labour which is the political wing of the women’s movement” - deputy leader Harriet Harman's words to the Labour Women’s Conference last year.

Now I have written about the ‘part-capture of the Labour Party’ by the feminist movement here before, but never have I seen it expressed so openly and explicitly before. The message is clear: Labour is the ‘political wing’ of something outside it, the tool of something else. This is about gender not just as a category deserving of attention and political action for itself (which is perfectly reasonable), but as the fundamental category subordinating others. It's an ideology of the left, maybe not new, but certainly new for a mainstream political party seeking to govern the whole country.

The power of the ‘women’s movement’ within Labour and its associated institutions could also be seen at Labour Conference (the one for everyone), with the Labour Women’s Network practising a sort of blackmail by collaring prominent Labour men and demanding they have their photo taken holding up a card pledging them never to appear on an speaking panel with only men on it (something not great, but not exactly crime of the century). In the case of Sadiq Khan, who declined, he was named and shamed on Labour’s own house news site LabourList.

In my view, both men and women inside and outside Labour should be concerned about the way we are going with this. The rhetoric and behaviour seems to be becoming increasingly extreme, at a time when society is becoming more accepting of women’s equality, and despite the feminists having achieved female favouritism in virtually every corner of party activity, from micro-local Labour branch elections to numerous women-only party events and All-Women's Shortlists (AWS) for Parliamentary candidate selection.

The feminists claim that all this stuff attracts women voters, something which seems to be unproven at best. Indeed the pollster Peter Kellner suggests the relatively small advantage for Labour amongst women compared to men is largely down to predominantly female public sector workers opposing public sector cuts.

But the message all this favouritism sends to members like myself goes back to those double standards, or ‘values’, I talked of earlier. It says if you are a woman, you are welcome and valued, while if you are a man (especially a white-skinned, heterosexual man) the party would rather you were not there – especially if you’re doing well, in which case you should be a woman.

Labour’s women’s lobby wants to apply this agenda of centrally-administered female favouritism from the Labour Party to the whole of society when in government, through quotas and other positive action.

Turning groups against each other isn't a great idea generally and, personally, I can't see this ending well, neither for relations between sexes nor between Labour and the electorate.