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…