“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

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.

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