Mending or Ending: The Need for a Participative Labour Party

Mending or Ending: The Need for a Participative Labour Party

This short paper argues:

There is some possibility of transforming the Labour Party if:
• the Unions remain affiliated
• levy payers collectively decide union policy for the Labour Party
• the Party membership makes decisions about candidates
• membership is based on participation
• the electoral college elects the Leader and Depute Leader

If we cannot achieve this the left would need to review its assessment of the Labour Party as a potential vehicle for fundamental change.

The Democratic Deficit

I believe there is a serious crisis developing not just about democracy in the Labour Party but about the very nature of the Labour Party itself. If the individual is the only basis of membership of the party and federal affiliations were disallowed, then Labour would not have a different character to any other party; it would not be a party that institutionally engages with the organised working class and on that basis it should not enjoy automatic support by socialists.

We need to consider both the federal affiliations of unions and socialist societies, (though the unions are the most important politically and financially) and the individual.

In relation to the latter, there is already a problem with democratic engagement in the Labour Party through the introduction of policy forums, the ending of motions to conference, the emasculation of the National and Scottish Executives and so on.

The unions help redress this imbalance because generally because they give voice to concerns raised by their members and have also recently but certainly not historically, made common cause with the Left. It is worth emphasizing here that I am not saying that unions are, or ever have been, paragons of democratic virtue. I argue later that unions need to democratise their relationship by allowing levy payers to make political policy. Nevertheless ultimately unions have to articulate the voice of their members and that voice is the voice of the organised working class. Union activist need to work harder at ensuring vibrant democracies in their organisations.

If the trade union voice is reduced institutionally, which is the logical direction of travel following Miliband’s announcements, in policy forums, the Executive and conference then the left would lose the institutional influence that unions offer on key vehicles for changing the party’s neo-liberal ideas and policies.

The introduction of primaries would also vastly reduce not only the unions’ influence but left influence in selections. Ideas and attitudes are shaped by a range of forces in our society. Most of these are conservative in the sense that they support the social and economic status quo – the education system, churches (well most of them), and almost of all the media.

What a left political party can offer is a space where ideas different from mainstream support for individualism can be developed over time. It would be ridiculous to say Parties can inoculate members from the wider society, but it at least allows the possibility of hearing alternative ideas and engaging with these, although it has to said that this is only possible if membership requires some level of engagement with the community the party creates. This is hardly a revolutionary idea. Lave and Wenger in their study of apprenticeships argued that meaningful participation more than anything else, creates ‘communities of practice’.

Registered voters will not be part of this community and their ideas and political priorities will therefore not be shaped by participation in the political community that local parties create. It is true that the ideas of members in local Labour parties have changed and become more right wing and individualistic since the nineties, but such communities are not hermetically sealed and indeed the influx of new ideas and activity was being felt in Falkirk and may well have led to a significant change to the left. The introduction of primaries will for the most part make it much more difficult for the left to create communities seeking to redress inequality and its roots, since their sphere of influence will be much more limited than that of local and national media. The other probable consequence of this is to devalue party membership making it less not more attractive .

The Blair/Brown Project

Changing the nature of party membership and diluting the role of the activist are both long term objectives of the Blair project for the Labour Party. Blair saw Party activists as a problem precisely because they did not conform to mainstream ideas and as such were an electoral liability, hence the changes to limit activist influence, for example by ending the role of resolutions.

By the time of Brown’s period of office as Leader this agenda had gone much further. Influenced by Obama’s electoral success, a pamphlet which Brown endorsed questioned the need for traditional membership arguing instead for ‘networks’ supported by the new media.

On affiliations, It is worth remembering that during the contest for the Leadership of the Labour Party it was David Miliband, surprisingly, who gave the Financial Times a clear rejection of Hayden Phillips inquiry report that would have capped Union affiliations to the Labour Party at £50,000 “compensated for” by state funding. Ed Miliband by contrast talked about wanting to “make progress on party funding together with other parties”. A clear indication of how he saw affiliations. Perhaps the Unions should be reminded that they still supported Ed while John McDonnell could not get on the ballot paper.

The combined effect of loss of influence at national UK and Scottish and regional level in England on the executive and Policy Forums, at constituency level in selecting candidates, and what residual presence they have a conference, means that the Left and Trade Unions will have very limited visibility in the party and even less impact if the Blair/Brown project reaches the next stage – an attack on affiliate status and the introduction of primaries.

Of course Miliband’s proposals may not go this far. If they do, then there is no reason in principle for the left to support the Labour Party. There may be pragmatic reasons to do so. It may be the lesser of two or least of three, evils, but the prospects of transforming it would be bleak.

There are some indications that Miliband might pull back on the calamitous direction he is heading in. Tribune, based on an un-named source, reported in its July 26th issue that:
Talks aimed at finding a “sensible compromise” to avert a cataclysmic schism between Labour and the trade unions are underway ahead of an interim to the party’s Brighton conference on union funding.
The possible deal centres on acceptance of changes to the system of selections for party representatives, including the leader, while maintaining the collective voice of the unions in key policy-making bodies such as annual conference, the National Policy Forum and the National Executive Committee
This looks like we get primaries but keep a Union presence on some key bodies. As we have noted, unless there is a democratisation and re-empowering of those policy making bodies, this is another step on the path of Blair/Brown road away from a radical party and ironically delivering a system for electing leader likely based on one member one vote (or one supporter one vote) that would have given us David Miliband and not his brother had it been in operation at the last Labour Leadership election.

The Participative Party

We need to consider how best to resist these changes. Firstly we need to see what it is precisely that Miliband is offering. If, as we suspect, the proposals are designed to either limit union influence or devalue membership or both, we should oppose the changes at the Special Conference and argue an alternative.

Secondly if this fails we should argue that SLP need not adopt similar reforms. We would have to argue for more autonomy for the SLP; the logic of a separate parliament dictates the necessity of a Party that not only decides its own policies but its own structures because these too have to be democratic. The intervention of the London Party HQ in the Falkirk selection, even although it was within its rights, was politically disastrous. With no involvement of the SLP, not even the sharing of a report, the SNP were able to present the SLP as an adjunct to the British Labour Party and not a partner.

What is our alternative? The most effective way of ensuring democratic participation by the trade unionists in the Labour Party is by strengthening the democratic right of levy payers to influence Union policy in relation to the Party. This could be done by creating work based branches comprised of levy paying members to allow collective discussion and provide a conduit for shaping union policy in relation to the Labour Party.

If the arguments made by Union Leaders and other union representatives were an expression of the concerns and proposals for change by ordinary working class members, would not this provide the clearest articulation of working class voice?

In relation to selections, concerns about flooding meetings could be addressed not only by ‘cut off dates’ but also by participation criteria, that is to say you can only vote if you can demonstrate a history of participation in democratic debate in the Party. There are of course a range of reasons why this would exclude certain people and these would have to be exempted from the rule, but generally participation would provide opportunities for members to consider other perspectives than those offered by the mainstream media.

But this would need to be part of a democratic renewal that gives real power back to Party members and affiliates to shape Policy. The Unions could recruit several millions of individual members tot he Labour Party but if they cannot make policy and are allowed a peripherals role in selection of candidates, it would be a pointless effort.

It has to be said at this point in response to Len McCluskey’s observations about the failure of the unions to make progress under the existing rules; it was not the rules themselves or the influence they afforded that were the problems; it was the reluctance of Unions to use them to push Labour to repeal the anti trade union laws and stop embracing neo-liberalism.

Let us face it. There is no left electoral alternative to the Labour Party at least not one that has serious working class links through the trade union affiliations and a progressive agenda for change. But if we cannot mend the Labour Party then we may have to end our relationship with it and face the daunting task that our forebears embraced in the founding of the ILP. Perhaps we have too long looked to the period of the post war settlement which effectively ended in mid seventies and measured the distance we travelled from that. We are facing new realities in a post devolution Scotland and a culture heavily dominated by individualistic and neo-liberal ideas. We have to acknowledge that we are to all intents and purposes starting again.

Vince Mills
Chair CfS July 2013

Scottish Policy Forum

The Scottish Policy Forum (SPF) oversees and conducts consultation with Party members and outside organisations on all areas of devolved policy (e.g. health, education, local government, tackling crime etc) towards developing our Scottish Parliament manifesto. The aim of the Forum is to consult with a view to presenting draft policy documents to the Scottish Joint Policy Committee. The Scottish Joint Policy Committee then reviews these draft policy documents before passing them on for debate and voting at Scottish Conference which remains the sovereign policy making body of the Scottish Labour Party on devolved matters.

Who is on the Scottish Policy Forum?
The SPF has 104 elected members in total, representing all divisions of the Scottish Labour Party as follows:

• Division 1 – CLPs ​
43 members – Following a rule change at the 2008 Scottish Conference there is now 1 member for every 2 Scottish Parliament constituencies, with constituencies being grouped into four to ensure gender balance. Information about this process is provided below. In addition, 6 members from Young Labour are also elected by OMOV ballot.

• Division 2 – Trade Unions & Affiliates
31 members appointed by nationally affiliated trade unions and socialist societies:
– 25 from affiliated trade unions
– 3 from affiliated socialist societies
– 3 from the Scottish Co-operative Party.

• Division 3 – Elected representatives
30 members:
• 6 members of the Scottish Parliament Shadow Cabinet
• 6 others from the Scottish Parliament Labour Group
• Shadow Scottish Secretary of State
• 3 others from the Westminster Scottish Parliamentary Group
• 7 members of the Scottish Executive Committee
• 1 representative from the European Parliamentary Labour Group
• 6 representatives of Labour local government elected by a ballot amongst all Scottish members of the Association of Labour Councillors

How are local party representatives to the SPF elected?
Following a rule change at the 2008 Scottish Conference there is now one member for every two constituencies, with each constituency twinned with a neighbouring CLP, and grouped into four to ensure gender balance. Detailed information of this process can be found below. In addition to the election of these representatives, division one will allocate six members from Young Labour, all of whom are elected by OMOV ballot.

Nominations should be sent to the Scottish Labour Party by 12 noon on Friday 6th September 2013. Forms are available from your CLP Secretary.

Once nominations have closed on 6th September 2013, a ballot will take place of all party members and the first meeting of the newly elected SPF is currently scheduled to take place on 26th October.

Gender balance
As with previous years, there is a still a requirement to achieve a minimum 50% female representation from local parties on the SPF. The Scottish Executive Committee agreed that this would be achieved by ensuring that at least every second representative elected by CLPs to the SPF would be female.

The nominee from the four CLPs with the highest number of votes will be elected first. If the first candidate elected is male, then the female candidate with the highest number of votes would also be elected to represent those two constituencies.

How do I apply for nomination for the SPF?
To get nominated for the SPF to represent your local party, you should contact your CLP Secretary as all nominations require to agreed by the CLP.

Collins Review

“Let’s Build a better Labour Party, so we can build a better Britain” is the cumbersome title of a three-page brochure published by the Labour Party to drum up support for the party ‘reforms’ proposed by Ed Miliband in early July.

It begins with the boast by Miliband that “under my leadership, Labour has begun to change: opening up our party and policy-making to people outside.”

But there is nothing new about Labour policy-making being open to “people outside.” In fact, it’s a long-standing problem, with Labour leaders constantly following the wishes of bankers and big business instead of individual members and affiliates. 

Miliband promises a new way of “doing politics”: “One that takes the big money out and allows the people back in.” But his proposals would have the opposite effect. 

They have nothing to say about taking out the “big money” given by people like Lord Sainsbury to organisations such as Progress. But they would mean that “the people” – in the form of three millions affiliated union members – would have less of a say. 

After a lengthy paragraph highlighting the support which Tories get from rich people, Miliband draws the illogical conclusion: “That’s why we need historic change in Labour’s relationship with (affiliated trade union members).” 

The fact that rich people have always backed the Tories explains why the working class needs its own party. It does not provide a reason to suddenly change the relationship between the Labour Party and its affiliates. 

Hilariously, Miliband (or whoever wrote this nonsense in his name) goes on to say: 

“These three million people (i.e. affiliated union members) should be at the heart of everything Labour does. I want to hear their voices louder and clearer than ever before.”

But replacing ‘opting out’ by ‘opting in’ would have the opposite effect. The three million people would no longer be able to have their voices heard, however imperfectly, though collective affiliation by their union. Instead, probably less than 10% of them would still be affiliated to the Labour Party. 

“It is time Labour also heard each trade unionist’s own individual voice,” continues Miliband, as if collective affiliation by trade unions was in some way an obstacle to union members joining the Labour Party as individuals. 

In any case, when union members have joined the party in any numbers – as was the case in Falkirk – then the party leadership’s response is to suspend the local Labour Party. 

With unconscious irony Miliband concludes with the words:  

“All of our country’s history shows that change does not come just from a few people at the top … from Prime Ministers or party leaders. Change comes when individual people come together to demand it.” 

But “individual people” are not coming together to demand the proposed changes. The ‘reforms’ are very much coming “from a few people at the top” and then being foisted onto the party and its affiliates.

The timetable outlined in the brochure is: “interim consultation” led by Ray Collins; report by Collins to 2013 annual conference; a “major consultation exercise” after conference; a special conference in the spring. 

Submissions to the interim consultation should be sent in by 13th September. But the report on the “interim consultation” is to be presented to party conference just a week later. 

This would suggest that Collins will not be attaching any great weight to submissions which he receives local Labour Party and union branches.

 Even so, if branches were to agree to send in a submission to the “interim consultation”, it would be a useful way to promote discussion and lay a basis for future campaigning.  

Brochure, and information about proposals and sending in submissions, at:


Stan Crooke

Collins Review – model motion

Primaries model motion

The Labour Party is calling on its members to let its leaders know by Friday 13 September what they think about Ed Miliband’s proposals on “building a better Labour Party, so we can build a better Britain.”

Tell us how you’d build a better Labour Party – a party that is rooted in the hopes of the British people, that reaches out to every community in the country, that has members and candidates from every walk of life.

The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy has produced a draft motion which you may wish to use as a basis for a response by your constituency party, members branch or trade union branch on the introduction of primaries:

This (CLP/branch/trade union branch etc) notes that Ray Collins is reviewing the use of primaries in the selection of Labour’s candidate for London Mayor and for other elections.

This CLP notes from the experience of the US that primaries: drive up the cost of seeking selection; favour wealthy candidates; reduced the input of grassroots members; and strengthened the influence of right wing media in candidate selection.

We also note the Labour has a long standing membership structure that unites individual members with affiliated organisations in an effective party able to promote Labour candidates in elections at all levels of the democratic process.

We note this structure gives the Party a relationship with millions of trade unionists and helps to root Labour across widespread communities and workplaces. It is a relationship which has helped our party through its greatest crises and to our greatest triumphs.

We also note the party’s individual membership is another invaluable base within society – and the aim should be to build that into a mass membership. Should it become possible to have a say in Labour’s candidate selections without being a Labour Party member an important incentive for joining the Party will be removed. Recruiting members is facilitated by linking participation in Labour’s selections and internal elections with membership, as was successfully promoted during the 2010 Leadership election.

This CLP believes that primaries (in giving voting rights to non-members) would devalue party membership and therefore hinder the development of the committed activist base – essential to winning elections.

We believe that both the affiliates and individual members play a valuable role in our candidate selection processes, which should retained.

We also believe the method of selecting the London Mayoral candidate should be removed from the remit of the Collins review as it should be a devolved matter for the London Labour Party to determine.

We note there is no great demand from either the electorate or party membership for primaries.

We therefore oppose the introduction of a primary for the selection of Labour’s candidate for London Mayor or for any other election and call on Ray Collins to recommend that Labour’s selections processes continue to involve Labour’s membership (both affiliates and individuals) and to recommend they are not replaced with primaries.

We call upon Ray Collins and the NEC, in the current review, to reflect these concerns.

CLPs can forward their suggestions by 13 September if possible on the Collins review to the NEC and to the Better Politics Policy Commission (via the Your Britain website), to its dedicated website A Better Labour Party and by email. Please also copy them to NEC member Ann Black and to Ed Miliband