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