Rumours of a growing divide between activists and union bosses are overstated. But there are issues to be worked out—and they cut to the heart of party democracyby Richard Seymour / September 27, 2018 / Leave a comment
At one point, it seemed the big news from Labour conference was going to be that the constituency activists and unions differ significantly on priorities.
Admittedly, this isn’t really news at all. The Momentum leadership unwisely staked a bid for the national secretary post on this very difference.
The schism, though, worried Len McCluskey, who declared himself “slightly shocked” by the size of the division. The report of the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC), which determines what will be on the agenda, split conference down the middle.
Over 90 per cent of constituency activists voted it down, while a similar share of union delegates backed it. Eventually, the report was passed by 54 per cent of delegates, apparently leading a few disappointed CLP activists to chant “shame on you” at those backing it.
Why? The issue this year is less Labour’s political agenda than who decides it and how. Members want to be sovereign.
The priorities ballot certainly showed differences of emphasis. For example, union delegates put Brexit at the top of the agenda, whereas for constituency members it came fifth. Activists gave issues like climate change, racism, Palestine and tenants’ rights far more importance than unions, who prioritised issues like the economy, working poverty, and government contracts.
This reflects an historic division of Labour: unions emphasise so-called ‘bread and butter’ issues; activists prioritise political struggles. It doesn’t mean that what matters to one section doesn’t matter at all to the other.
If constituency activists see that unions are committed to an issue, guaranteeing that it will be discussed, that frees them to focus on other matters. Even the contentious area of Brexit seems to have been neutralised in a deal that makes a second referendum offering ‘Remain’ very unlikely.
What angered activists was the handling of the Democracy Review. This is a Corbynite flagship.
Corbyn’s leadership campaign in 2015 was based on two key ideas. Labour had to move to the Left to start winning again and, amid a crisis of the old party management, it had to empower the grassroots.
The Democracy Review consulted ten thousand members and produced a report increasing the rights of the members on a series of issues—for example, they proposed significantly reducing the current PLP veto on leadership selection, and piloting elections for council leaders.
What it left wide open, however, was the most controversial issue: reselections. After three solid years of breath-taking disloyalty and contempt from parts of the backbenches, members want MPs to be accountable to the party.
With votes of no confidence passed in MPs such as Kate Hoey and Joan Ryan, anger has passed a critical threshold. Even Momentum, belatedly, has called for open selections.
Members were ready to bring this argument to conference. The outgoing NEC acted to block this, by rushing through proposed constitutional amendments to present to conference. These proposals, inevitably, dominated the deliberations on party democracy at conference.
On leadership selections, they accepted that candidates should require the support of ten percent of MPs, but added that they would also need the support of five per cent of members or affiliates. On the selection of parliamentary candidates, they proposed a fudge.
Currently, in battles over deselection, all of the branches in a constituency—which include party branches, local trade unions, socialist societies and other affiliated organisations—have one vote each. For a deselection to happen, fifty percent or more of all branches must vote against the sitting MP.
Most of the time, union branches outnumber party branches, and will tend to support the incumbent unless something has gone drastically wrong.
The new rules are an improvement. They reduce the threshold to 33 per cent. They also divide the vote into two sections—membership and affiliate—and in only one of these need the threshold be crossed. It would now be easier, but not that much easier, to trigger a deselection.
Constituency activists who spoke against the compromise at conference argued that relying on trigger ballots meant that campaigning for an alternative candidate had to be negative. It would leave such votes susceptible to challenges, such as over whether the meeting that voted was quorate (had a turnout of 25 per cent or more of local members), when few branch meetings are quorate.
This was the reason for controversy at conference. If the NEC’s last-minute proposals were voted through, open selection motions submitted months before would not even be debated. Members voted to reject the CAC report because they didn’t want open selection to be kept off the agenda.
In the end, the CAC report was narrowly accepted. Momentum, despite supporting open selection, went along with the NEC’s compromise. All eight planks of the NEC’s response to the Democracy Review were voted through, this one by 65 per cent of all members and affiliates. But the split between members and union affiliates was glaringly obvious.
In a way, this row illustrates just how far the debate has moved on in the Labour Party. It now appears to be between two wings of Corbynism.
For example, the Corbyn-loyalist blog Skwawkbox, which tends to support whatever Unite the Union supports, argues that the NEC’s proposals are “just as democratic” as open selection, and simply require members to show sufficient interest in a contest. They point out that Labour First, a faction on the party’s right, opposes the NEC’s compromise.
But Labour First is a toxic brand for most Labour members. One delegate estimates that they have the support of less than per cent of conference. Unnoticed by the media, which have generally given attention to MPs on Corbyn’s right, the debate in the party is now about the meaning of Corbynism’s hegemony for the party.
McCluskey is right to worry. The union bureaucracies, none more than Unite, have consolidated power since Corbyn’s election. They represent millions of workers, have considerable clout and capital at their disposal, and have mainly been loyal to Corbyn.
Members aren’t going to forget that. Their political authority, for the time being, derives from Corbyn’s.
But at conference, in effect, they acted as a shield protecting MPs. They absorbed the anger. It isn’t clear why.
It is understandable, if disappointing, that they differ with the constituency left on Trident, Heathrow and the IHRA definition of antisemitism. But why impede changes that empower members? It gives the impression that they want to limit the activists’ clout. And perhaps, having benefited from Corbyn’s leadership, they would prefer the balance of power rested somewhere to his right.
After three years, what could be more calculated to frustrate and enrage constituency delegates? Unions should learn from the eclipse of the arrogant Labour Right, and listen to the membership.