Institutionalised fixing: the Labour way

June 13, 2012 9:50 am

“Let’s overturn these tables
Disconnect these cables
This place don’t make sense to me no more
Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?”

Bob Dylan was probably not referring to the Labour Party’s ingrained culture of fixing in these lines. But his words do have a certain resonance at least for me when thinking about it. How cathartic it would be to smash everything up in a fit of rage and run for the hills, screaming, “To Hell with the lot of you”.

It would be wonderful and cathartic, yet utterly futile of course.

As Nick Cohen said of the Labour Party back in January 2010, in much worse times, “It may be a vehicle whose wheels are invariably falling off, whose passengers are invariably stabbing each other in the back and whose driver is invariably mad and heading at full speed in the wrong direction, but there you are, it’s all there is.”

Labour is the political Left in Britain. We must live with it and try to make it better.

LabourList’s editor Mark Ferguson has been admirably vociferous in challenging classic fixing practices, notably on candidates for election using access to Labour Party communications to promote themselves.

So what is this ‘fixing’ culture all about, and where does it come from?

The first thing to say is that for such a culture to arise and become ingrained in what is a relatively benign environment, it must have some justification. Generally, we are not talking about bad people doing bad things. Certainly from my own, limited, experience, Labour Party fixing is more about people doing what they think is right.

After all, if I deserve a position I am going for in the party apparatus, surely it is OK if I do everything I can to ensure that I get it?

That seems fair enough.

The problematic aspect comes with that “deserve” element. After all, are we judging our own assets here, like Enron executives did before its collapse and as American mortgage brokers did before the housing slump? Labour Party internal positions may not seem to be comparable compared to the multi-million dollar payouts on offer in these companies, but the basic principle is the same.

Just as Enron fat-cats and the mortgage sharks were ultimately accountable to ordinary people and their pensions (via pampered, rent-seeking fund managers), Labour Party representatives are accountable to members – and, hopefully, the wider public.

The weakening and dilution of those relationships can open a space for practices that might have been considered abuses to become common, accepted ways of behaving. This seems to have been what has happened in the Labour Party.

Elections are easy to manipulate when you have access to the means of controlling them and understand how the system works. Restricting visibility and transparency about rules, processes and events over time, and calling snap elections at short notice are just a couple of the practices that make ‘fixing’ a relatively simple exercise. Using Party communications for self-promotion is an optional extra.

A healthy democratic culture depends on free information, transparency of what positions are on offer, what they are about, who occupies them and who is seeking them, freedom for candidates to gather and organise, independent communications, and plenty of notice for candidates and electors alike – especially when applied to CLPs which depend on those elected from wards. This has been sadly lacking though in my experience, unless of course it has suited the interests of those doing the fixing.

There is another uncomfortable truth for us in the Labour Party though, in that this sort of fixing is not just accepted culturally, but is actually institutionalised into our structures.

Privileges and patronage are already wired into Labour Party internal processes. We have a plethora of policies surrounding internal governance that actively subvert any idea of democracy – union preferences, female preferences, ethnic minority preferences and preferences for various affiliates to name but a few.

Do our members deserve to be treated this way, as institutionally sexist, racist, anti-union and anti-pretty much anything that has won approval as deserving of preference?

There are genuine arguments to be had here of course on the detail. But, for myself, I find it difficult to happily accept the way that we are institutionally anti-democratic as a result of all this.

The culture of fixing within the party surely takes its cue from such practices: they foster a sense of entitlement that justifies the subversion of democratic processes. Fixing elections is not necessarily a controversial issue among many people because it is seen as the right thing to do, to secure the right result.

Our new General Secretary Iain McNicol responded to the controversy on using internal communications in an admirable fashion. It is unacceptable, end of story.

Stamping these sorts of practices out in the wider party will be a much bigger task though. Most importantly, we shall need a major cultural change, with a renewed respect for the basic principles of democracy.

As the former Labour MP and diarist Chris Mullin said in his last speech in Parliament, “The great thing about democracy is that, although harsh things are sometimes said, we are not actually trying to kill each other. Differences are ultimately resolved at the ballot box. One side wins, one side loses, and the loser lives to fight another day.”

In politics as in life, there will always be differences of opinion, passions and personality. Democracy is a gift for us to resolve these disputes which leaves us all free to fight another day. We should respect it, and treasure it.

  • rednick

    So propose a rules change.

    • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

       This isn’t just about rules change rednick, it is much more about cultural change. As Malcolm X said, “You can’t legislate goodwill.”

  • http://twitter.com/RF_McCarthy Roger McCarthy

    Absolutely spot on. 

    ‘inclusivity’ sounds a wonderful idea (although not to my spellchecker) but has in almost every case been a managerialist tool which has undermined true democratic process. 

    The one country where affirmative action has been to some extent successful in literally changing the complexion of its political class is the US. 

    But they didn’t get there by imposing short-lists on the Democratic and Republican parties but by Civil Rights legislation and forcing colleges and universities to accept many more minority students. 

    It took nearly two generations to produce a black President but eventually it did so because parties (OK very largely the Democrats) got a growing  influx of minority members and activists who used existing democratic structures to climb the greasy pole themselves.    

    But we in Labour have never been a democratic party in the American or continental sense – rather from day 1 we have been a not altogether natural coalition of trade unions, ambitious parliamentarians and socialist societies where individual membership was only tacked on as an afterthought. 

    Anyone who has read the biographies and diaries of Labour leaders and MPs knows that our political culture has always been one of ‘fixing’ – because the cutting of deals and the internal coup is the way such broad political coalitions operate.  

    But as long as we were a true mass party and trade unions were mass working class organisations the competing managerial elites had to compete for support relatively openly and so members votes had at least some value.

    And then in the 1980s we saw the abandonment of class for liberal identity politics, the shrinking of both trade union and CLP membership and a series of union mergers which strangely did not increase the influence of unions within the party but undermined it as the process of gaining first consensus and then increasingly stunned acquiescence was greatly simplified by the reduction of the number of elites that had to be negotiated with.

    The influx of corporate money in the mid and late 1990s then liberated the parliamentary leadership from even the need to retain active union support while local parties had by now become increasingly embourgeoised and dominated by the more or less liberal middle class.

    And so while retaining the outward form of a mass party of the working class we have become something very different – and accordingly while we have managed to retain the support of most of the ABC1s we gained in the Blair years, C2DEs have abandoned us at the ballot box to the degree that based on 2010 poll data being working class is no longer a statistically significant predictor of voting Labour. 

    The solution is not yet more rule changes but a true Refounding of Labour. 

    What we needed was a constitutional convention out of which a real democratic party based on one member one vote at every level was reborn. 

    Instead we got what can only be described as a mockery of a debate.

    • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

      Thanks for the thoughts Roger, that’s a lot of really interesting historical context you put in there that makes a lot of sense.

      What is particularly new to me is the example of the Democratic Party and its democratic processes (appropriately given the name).

      I also agree completely that for us yet more rule changes are not necessarily the way to go. It is more about spreading the word, and making this sort of thing unacceptable behaviour. Especially it would seem that the boundaries between self-interest and the interests of the institution have become blurred in many cases – for example with people seeing fit to use the institution to promote themselves, as with Fiona Twycross using the London Labour email to send out that message before these NPF/NEC elections.

      Like I said in the article, I don’t see this sort of practice generally coming from bad people – our problem is that it seems to be widely accepted among those in positions of power, and barely questioned.

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