A lot of people, including even labour movement activists, are mystified and/or simply bored by the arcane details of the Labour Party’s relationship with the unions, and Miliband’s proposals (contained in the Collins report) to “reform” that relationship. This is, though, a vitally important issue for anyone concerned about working class representation in British politics today.
As a service to the movement, we publish below, two articles on the Collins report, one broadly supportive and the other opposing it. The first article appeared in the Morning Star and while factually accurate, is clearly written by a supporter of the proposed changes; the second is by Martin Thomas of the Defend the Link campaign.
The new rules, and how it will all happen
Every individual member of an affiliated trade union will be given a straight Yes or No choice about whether they want to pay a small sum to ensure their union’s voice is heard within the party.
Trade unions will continue to affiliate collectively to Labour but, for the first time, the payment of affiliation fees will become a wholly transparent process based on individual positive consent.
These reforms will be introduced in 2014 and will apply to new members of affiliated organisations first. They will be fully implemented for existing members of such organisations within five years. During this period, affiliated organisations will be encouraged to help the party maximise the number of people who agree to pay an affiliation fee.
At the end of this period, the affiliation of each organisation will be determined by the number of members who have consented to the payment of affiliation fees. Only those who have chosen to pay will be counted.
Around 20,000 existing registered supporters who do not wish to join the Labour Party will be asked if they wish to pay a fee to have a bigger say in the party.
Those who do will also be asked if they wish – at no extra cost – to become an affiliated supporter who has a direct relationship with the party as an individual.
For the first time, the party would then be able to contact affiliated people directly.
They would be invited to take part in local campaigns, policy discussions and fund-raising.
Also, affiliated supporters would be attached as an individual to their constituency party – but with no rights over local or parliamentary selections.
The party leader and deputy leader will in future be elected according to one member, one vote. The existing electoral college will be abolished.
In addition to being given a choice over the payment of fees, members of trade unions and other affiliated organisations will be asked if they want to have an individual voice within it.
Those who wish to become an affiliated supporter will have a single vote in the leadership election, along with MPs, individual party members and registered supporters from all walks of life who have paid a small fee.
Under the new rules, all the ballot papers will be issued by the Labour Party centrally which would hold the personal contact details of affiliated supporters.
Unions and other affiliated organisations will no longer issue their own ballot papers.
Over the five-year transition, only those members of affiliated trade unions who have separately signed up to become affiliated supporters and consented to pay an affiliation fee will be given a vote in any leadership contest.
Currently, candidates for leader and deputy leader must secure the nominations of 12.5 per cent of MPs before being allowed to enter the contest.
The role of MPs in the nomination process would be strengthened so that only those who secured 20 per cent of nominations from MPs will be allowed to contest.
Labour wants to significantly increase the present number of 20,000 registered supporters who participate in campaigns and work with constituency parties.
These registered supporters will have similar rights to affiliated supporters, and in return for a registration fee, will be given an equal vote in leadership elections.
Full individual members of the party will remain the only people who can select parliamentary candidates, become constituency delegates to party conference or stand for election as Labour councillors or representatives.
A primary election will be held to choose Labour’s candidate for mayor of London. Currently this selection is not reserved solely for individual party members, but is conducted through another electoral college in which unions and other affiliated organisations have 50 per cent of the vote.
It is proposed that this selection is also conducted on one member, one vote principles, with members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters all equal.
New rules governing selection of parliamentary candidates will involve standardised and regulated constituency agreements “so that no-one can allege individuals are being put under pressure at local level.”
A strengthened code of conduct for selections will involve a swift timetable and guarantees that local members have proper interaction with their candidates.
A limit will be imposed on spending by potential candidates in pursuit of selection, with a cap on campaign donations.
Labour: reject the Collins report!
Ray Collins’s proposals for the Labour Party special conference on 1 March seem to, or even do, change little immediately. But they contain a time-bomb designed to change things radically, and for the worse, in five years’ time.
Delegates on 1 March should vote against unless they are sure about the changes and have had time to discuss them properly, rather than voting for unless they are totally sure they understand the case against.
In fact there is no chance of proper time to discuss the changes. As we write, Collins’s text has still not been published, less than four weeks before the conference. The platform will not allow amendments, or voting in parts. The conference is only two hours, and much of that assigned to setpiece platform speeches. So there will be little debate, and even that probably unbalanced.
Over the last seven months, since Ed Miliband declared his plan to make trade unionists’ Labour Party affiliation “opt-in” rather than “opt-out”, most union leaders have opposed the idea. The danger now is that they will soften their opposition and back Collins in the name of “unity”.
Collins’s time bomb says that from 2019 the Labour Party should accept affiliation fees from unions only in proportion to the number of members for whom those unions have sent details to the Labour Party as have ticked a box saying that they want part of their political levy to go to Labour.
Probably that will reduce the union-affiliation numbers considerably below the current 2.7 million. Collins expects so. He and others clearly want that, so that after 2019 they can reduce the unions’ voting power within the party. That is what it is all about.
The requirement for members to tick a box – i.e., that all who fail or forget to express a choice should be counted as “opting out”, rather than those who want to “opt out” of the union’s collective decision to affiliate having to say so – is presented as democratic.
But what would we think, in unions, if members had to tick a box to say they want to vote in union elections, and only got a ballot paper if they had previously ticked a box?
Or if members had to tick a box to say that they, individually, wanted to support the union’s political campaigns on the NHS or the Living Wage, and political fund money could be spent on those campaigns only if it could be attributed to individuals who had ticked a box?
Or if members had to tick a box to say that they, individually, wanted to take part in union ballots on strikes, and could be balloted and strike only if they had previously ticked that box?
Box-tickers will pay no extra in union dues. But the incentive to tick the box will be small even for solid Labour supporters. The only gain of substance for the individual from ticking the box is that she or he will not lose their current right to vote in Labour leadership elections. But the next Labour leadership poll could be ten years away.
And if no candidate can stand for Labour leader unless nominated by 20% of Labour MPs – which Collins is also reported to propose – then the leadership poll is likely to be small contest anyway. The sweetener of removing the MPs’ overweighted votes in leadership polls is a small thing by comparison.
It is not yet clear when the substantive rule changes will be put. The best information as of now is that on 1 March rule changes will be put only on primaries and on leadership elections, not on affiliation procedures. So a later rule change will be necessary on affiliation procedures.
Even if Collins wins on 1 March, unions and CLPs should oppose that rule change when it comes forward. We should combat any resurgence of the mood of defeatism which prevailed in July 2013 – “the Labour-union link is going to be broken, there’s no way of stopping it, it’s really not even worth campaigning on the issue”.
Collins’s complicated proposals, which will create great administrative difficulties and damage to Labour finances, are designed only to create a lever for reducing the union vote in the Labour Party. Talk of the proposals increasing the involvement of individual trade unionists is hypocritical. The proposals will allow some individual trade unionists to keep the right they have now, of voting for Labour leader; remove that right from others; and remove from all trade unionists the right to have their basic representative organisations, the unions, exercising control in a party which claims to be “Labour”.
The unions do not always vote left-wing. Far from it: in long tracts of Labour’s history, the union block vote was a prop for the old Labour right wing. But the union vote in the Labour Party institutionalises openings, in times of working-class political ferment, for workers to use their basic organisations to sway Labour, through a range of channels from Labour annual conference to trade-union delegacies to local Labour Parties.
That is why the new Labour right wing wants to curtail the union vote. That is why we should oppose the Collins report; and, if it is passed, fight each inch of way over the next five years to stop its time-bomb being exploded.