It seems that the leadership is getting itself tied in knots over party reform. The Independent reported that it was considering a donation cap of something like £500 per individual (with the implication it would apply to the unions) and reforms of the electoral college to allow 25% of the “Labour supporting public” a vote in the electoral college that is used to elect our leader. Today, the spin is totally different and the cap will seemingly not apply to unions but just to individuals and businesses. Also, it seems reforms to the electoral college are not “as advertised”.
It looks like Peter Watt – writing in Progress – who was hoping that the Independent article was “broadly right” is going to be disappointed. Watt is delusional. He says that the trade union money while not “buying policies” does “buy influence”. This chimes more with the fantastical realms of reality that exist solely in the leader columns of the Daily Mail than actually established corporal reality. Ask your average trade unionist how much ‘influence’ they feel their cash buys and I suspect they will be able to give you a more realistic assessment of things than you would get from Peter Watt. If Watt was concerned about “strengthening our relationship” with rank-and-file trade unionists as opposed to the “elites” he cites then I look forward to hearing of his fulsome support for entitling all political levy payers to full Labour membership and voting rights.
Fundamentally, caps are a pointless and largely inconsequential reform to politics even when they are given blanket application. Caps-a-plenty exist in the USA (details here) but does that reduce the dependency of politics on money? The answer surely has to be no. The reasons for Watt’s ‘exclusion of the public from politics’ go well beyond reasons that would be changed even if Labour did change its rules in line with what he wants; indeed, they are latent within a system of representative democracy.
I do, however, agree with Watt on some issues. Much like David Cameron, Ed Miliband is drastically overestimating the ability of the “private sector” – in this instance, small individual donors – to keep Labour financially afloat. Also, if he thinks he has the same financial pulling power as Barack Obama he simply needs to spend less time chatting to his close advisors and more engaging with the real world. So, comrade Watt is right when he says the notion that the “party could be funded by small donations alone is pure fantasy”.
The core problem with these reforms is that rather than start with the intention of democratising the party – I note with interest there are no proposals to endow conference or the CLPs with greater power – these reforms are solely intended to make the leadership look good and like it is “making radical changes”. This is fundamentally the wrong place to start and explains the flip-flopping over precisely what these changes will be. A kite was flown in the Independent; when it looked like that would meet substantial resistance (it is not just Labour’s left that treasures the union link) the course was changed.
We really have to move beyond this cosmetic approach to politics where policies are kites flown in the wind. Currently the leadership is lacking the sure sense of direction that comes with having clear convictions. This is worrying, to say the very least, as we stand on the cusp of a challenging new year.