Sunday 7 July 2013

Labour Link: Turn Crisis into Opportunity

As the nation sweltered in front of its TV sets, there's a game of political tennis taking place far away from Centre Court. The Blairites thought they'd scored an ace when dodgy doings were uncovered in Falkirk. Unite's Len McCluskey returned the ball with a few, sharp volleys but his stroke was hamstrung by his line that Unite was "within the rules". As a result, they have mostly gone wide. With their work done, Ed Miliband has started a game of his own and fanned by hysterical headlines both Blairites and far left alike look forward to it being game, set, and match for the Labour/trade union link.

Okay, that was a pained metaphor. But it's not half as excruciating as watching Blairites patting themselves on the back when they themselves are up to their armpits in selection-fixing. The difference between 2013 and 1997 is that they and their kind - at least those who are openly so - no longer benefit from back room deals and stitch-ups. But their long-term game plan remains the same as their forerunners from 30 years ago: a SDP mark II. But instead of flouncing off to create their own simon pure triangulating machine, they want the brand - Labour - but not the substantive content it represents.

They can coco, as far as I'm concerned. And I'm sure most readers think the same too.

But whatever the rights and wrongs of Unite in Falkirk, the selection process in the Labour Party as it stands can be a pretty shabby business. Indeed, I had a ringside seat to these shenanigans barely two months after I joined. There's nothing quite like the brusque education of rude experience. So the dear leader is right to announce an overhaul of how Labour picks its candidates. And what he appears to have in mind could actually enhance the influence of working people. There are two suggestions that were heavily trailed in today's Observer, indicating at least they've been tipped off by someone in the know.

The first is spending limits on selections. Getting the endorsement of a trade union is more than just a badge of honour for aspiring candidates, coming with it is serious financial support. For example, here in the West Midlands union endorsement for 'the favourites' in the European list ballot - Sion Simon and Linda Walthow - has meant they've been able to twice direct mail every member's household. With about 15,000 members on the regional books that is serious money. If you are not so endorsed and don't have bottomless pockets you are instantly at a massive disadvantage. In addition to a spending limit, all candidates should get at least one party-funded mail shot apart from the rather perfunctory document circulated to members with ballots.

The second is signing affiliate members in the unions up as standard members and, presumably, doing away with that membership category. Quite how the mechanics of how it will work is difficult to say. I only observe the party bureaucracy after all, I don't engineer it. Now, it could be read as an attempt to water down union influence. Money provided through political funds is related to the number of trade unionists who pay the political levy. Transforming this could make less funds available if affiliate members have to make a yes/no choice about upgrading to full party membership. But it will also change what is an essentially bureaucratic relationship. Instead, for unions to retain the clout they have in Labour, they will each have to formulate better engagement strategies that actively promotes Labour membership to its own members and provides more support to those union members it already has in the party. I don't know about you, but having dozens more trade unionists turning up to constituency meetings isn't exactly the kind of re-modified Labour link most Blairites would like to see. But it might get more working class, union-friendly candidates into Parliament and go someway to taking Labour out of the comfort zone of Westminster Bubble/Media Land.

Apparently, more is to be revealed this coming Tuesday. I would be very surprised if reform stops at the areas above. However, this needs to be said.

Without the link, quite simply, the labour movement will have to invent its political representation all over again. In the immediate term Labour would be torn in two, basically giving the Tories a free pass for up to a generation. I'm sure there are plenty who think this would be a price well worth paying for a new party. But on planet Earth, the task of the day is not to cut the link. The wheel doesn't need reinventing. The relationship our party has with working people must be defended, and the best way of doing that is by improving it. If this episode becomes an opportunity to do just that, then our "unnamed former cabinet members", the leakers and the whisperers, and the shadowy friends of the lobby hacks will rue the day they hypocritically attacked the Falkirk selection process.

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