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Labour’s Special Conference Report

4th March 2014

Labour’s Special Conference

Round One to the anti-union forces, but a lot to fight for

Pete Firmin, Political Secretary, LRC

As expected, the Labour leadership easily got its “reforms” through the special conference on 1st March. The Party machine had done the groundwork to ensure there were no surprises, and there weren’t. The union vote had been sewn up through negotiation with General Secretaries, and the fact that a higher than expected proportion of Constituency Party delegates (roughly a quarter) opposed hardly rocked the boat.

While the conference itself had a semblance of democracy, with the chair even explicitly calling for speakers against the proposals (though not, perhaps significantly, calling either of the 2 unions opposed to the proposals), the context was most definitely not democratic.

Several union leaders – even while supporting the proposals – voiced their frustration at the “distraction” of the whole exercise, saying it should never have happened.

Indeed, Ed Miliband launched the idea of “reforming” Labour’s links with the unions in the wake of the – unfounded – allegations of Unite breaking the rules in the Falkirk parliamentary selection and the attacks of the Tories and right-wing media. Instead of counter-attacking over the Tories financing by hedge funds and undemocratic corporations, Miliband announced last July that “there would be” changes in the relationship. He then appointed Ray Collins to come up with proposals. At last year’s regular Labour conference there was effectively no discussion of this issue, despite the fact that Collins had produced an interim report. Instead, we were told “there would be” a recall conference.

Collins was then supposed to consult until Christmas. Yet despite the fact that individuals, CLPs, unions etc. sent in their views, no summary of the results of this consultation have ever been released. Indeed, NEC member Ann Black went to the trouble of seeking out the responses and reported there was no great desire from any quarter for change.

Collins’ final report and proposals, which were accepted at the conference, was only released in time for the NEC to discuss it on 4th February, and to others afterwards. In fact, the Bakers’ Union only ever got a copy courtesy of the LRC! That left less than a month before the Special Conference for all parts of the Party to discuss and take a stance on the proposals, clearly an impossibility.

Of course, that was the intention. The proposals had been discussed in advance with the General Secretaries of the largest unions, lining them up in support. The last thing that was wanted was for there to be full discussion throughout the movement. This fact sits rather uncomfortably with the claim that the object of the exercise was that union participation in the Party should no longer be filtered through the union leaderships!

Given the timescales, there was, in fact, more opportunity for open discussion in some CLPs than elsewhere in the movement, which may account for the relatively high vote against.

Democracy also suffered from the fact that the whole conference lasted all of 2 hours from opening to vote – hardly adequate for what we were told was the most far-reaching changes in the organisation ever. And, on top of the proposals on the union-Party link, the report also contained a proposal for the selection of the Party’s candidate for London mayor to be through a form of primary – something no section of the Party had pushed for and the Greater London Labour Party Executive (“Board” in the new lingo) had explicitly opposed. So rule changes relating to completely distinct issues were taken as one vote, against all normal practice. No-one could tell us where such a decision had been made. Delegates were told at “briefing” meetings that the NEC had taken the decision – it hadn’t. Neither had the Conference Arrangements Committee, since it hadn’t met since the report was issued.  Another stitch-up, and emergency resolutions calling for separate votes were simply binned.

Pretty much all the arguments against the proposals were made on Saturday, from the financial implications, the threshold of 15% for nominations for leader (among MPs only), the contradiction between an “opt in” system for trade union supporters and the collective organisation of unions, the throwing in of the proposal for a London primary etc. etc. The claim that the proposals are a great leap forward for democracy was challenged by several delegates pointing out that if there is a failure in Party democracy it is that motions can be passed at Party conference for the renationalisation of Royal Mail and the railways and immediately rejected by the leadership. Answers came there none. The only response seemed to be to repeat the fact that under the electoral college system some members had multiple votes in leadership elections and MPs votes counted much more than members. All true, but no justification for most of the changes being pushed through.

Instead, many of those arguing for the changes seemed to believe in magic (or wanted the rest of us to believe in it). They claimed that passing the changes would massively increase the numbers of workers taking up membership, allowing the Party to represent their interests better, and the changes would produce more MPs reflective of the population at large.

In a section of his speech which got a standing ovation from a large part of the hall – including this writer – Len McCluskey said this was precisely what Unite was doing in Falkirk, for which they were attacked by the Party leadership and which the investigation showed they had functioned completely within the Party rules. He also called for solidarity with those union representatives sacked in the fallout from the Falkirk selection.

What didn’t get addressed was why union participation in the Party has dropped off so drastically in the last 20 years or so. Those pushing for these changes would not want to admit that this is because of the policies which the Party has pursued (assisted by union leaders); instead this is implicitly attributed to organisational factors.

Several union leaders voiced their frustration at the whole discussion, but said they supported the proposals. Clearly their support also led to pressure on CLPs to support.

So, having previously voiced their opposition to changes in the union-party relationship, why did most unions (or, at least, their General Secretaries) swing round to support? They certainly claimed, as McCluskey said, that they would not be edged out.

There are 2 essential reasons. Firstly, it is true that the most fundamental changes will not take immediate effect, but over 5 years, with an ongoing review process. Secondly, and this was always going to happen, they were told that opposing the changes would make them responsible for Labour losing the next general election in the face of Tory and right-wing media claims that trade unions “run” the Party.

But the union leaders are deluding themselves (or attempting to hoodwink the rest of us) when they say that these proposals will not lead to the abandonment of the union-Party link. They all acknowledge that very few union members will take up the kind offer to pay for the rights they already have in the Party. How many trades unionists will “trade up” to being full Party members when it costs £45? For that matter, how many current Party members will be tempted to trade down to affiliated/registered supporter status when they realise they will save £42? Do they seriously believe that there will be no challenge to the fact that the unions (and affiliated societies) have 50% of the votes at conference when it becomes obvious how few trade unionists have signed up as “affiliated supporters”?
In fact, these changes will put even more power in the hands of union leaders than the current situation. Instead of union monies going to the Party as affiliation fees, they will be retained by the unions to do with as they see fit. Union leaders can then turn to the Party leadership and say “well, if you promise to do this, we’ll give you several million for the election”. This is the worst of all possible worlds and playing up to the media and Tory claims of how the relationship works.

Unions which affiliate as a whole (i.e. all except Unison) are actually likely to lose substantial elements of accountability. Currently their conferences can discuss whether to continue the affiliation and how it should function and what policies to pursue through it. In future we could be told that such decisions should only be made by those who are affiliated supporters.

Much was made of the argument that this whole exercise is a distraction from fighting the Tories – over the NHS, cost of living etc. But for those pushing the changes it is not a distraction at all, but rather the fulfilment of a long-standing aim to push the unions out of the Party, and out of politics altogether. The unfortunate fact is that they want to be free to pursue right-wing policies without the possibility of the unions holding them back. Nothing has prevented them challenging the government over its benefit changes, pay freezes, NHS privatisation, the Immigration Bill other than their own unwillingness. The commitment to repeal the bedroom tax is the one small positive aspect of their response to the government; on everything else they seem to roll over. A leadership which supported PFI and refused to build council housing when in government was not distracted by pushing through these changes.

A much better assessment of what Saturday’s result means for the future of the Party can be gained from the responses of such as Blair and David Owen welcoming it, or Milliband’s statement in his closing speech that “the fight to change our Party has been won.”

Some who opposed the Collins proposals have said we should “move on”. But that would imply agreement with those who say these changes alter nothing. The proposals open the door for fundamental change, and there is a need for those opposed to discuss seriously how we proceed and organise to minimise or even prevent them. The Special Conference at least helped to clarify who are our allies in that fight.

The author was a delegate to the Special Conference from Hampstead & Kilburn CLP

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