Veteran observers of Labour Party infighting expecting the 1 March Special Conference at the ExCel centre to be a Sealed Knot style re-enactment of the earlier special conference battle at Wembley in 1981 are likely to be disappointed.
The subject under discussion is similar – the constitutional balance between Labour’s key stakeholders – but the mood is radically different.
I am not sure why this is surprising. History has not repeated itself in any other regard since 2010 compared to the period after 1979. Labour hasn’t reacted to defeat by descending into factionalism. The Party’s grassroots haven’t cried betrayal and moved radically to the left. And there is no modern-day SDP waiting to break off to the right. So if we’ve broken with all these other benighted historical precedents, why would we need to resolve our constitutional reform debates with the acrimony and fireworks of the past?
The later reform debates over OMOV in 2002 and New Clause IV are also no template. Then, because the Party had moved so far to the extremes in the early 1980s, Smith and Blair needed to symbolically bash the left to demonstrate to the public they were moving back to the centre. The Party hasn’t been on the same leftward journey to require a centrist reaction.
The key protagonist in this debate is a different one to 1981. Then the clash was with radical young Bennite activists from the CLPs who wanted an internal revolution and to smash the power structures of the Party. The same people are still around, but in far smaller numbers and mellowed by advancing middle age. And this is not their fight. Any argument this time is with the General Secretaries of major trade unions. These are not people who want to smash Labour’s power structures, they are part of them. And their day job is to negotiate compromises.
The proximate cause of this Special Conference was the row over the Falkirk selection. The heat has gone out of that because a candidate has now been selected, in the end with minimal fuss. Each successive newspaper revelation about Falkirk has tended to muddy the waters and make party activists more confused about what really happened, rather than created a black and white narrative.
And 106 candidates have been selected in our target marginals, plus those in the handful of seats where the MP has announced their retirement, using the existing rules and without a huge fuss. My impression is that Unite felt aggrieved at the start of that run of selections because it wasn’t winning many, then did a bit better nearer the end because it backed some stronger candidates and started running more positive campaigns.
In a five year election cycle, March 2014 is a very, very different political time to May 2013. The election is now only just over a year away so no one wants to be responsible for any display of disunity. All that can wait for after the General Election … and the selections have almost all happened so there’s not a lot of point having a row over them.
The mood in the wider Party is one where the big Labour hashtags on Twitter are #costofcameron and #labourdoorstep. I don’t think there even is a hashtag for the internal reform debate, and anyone launching #navelgazing, #obscureconstitutionalrow or #themostimportantsubjectfacingusisprimaries would quite rightly be ostracised. Members are determinedly focused on winning the General Election – hence the huge levels of participation in the Cost of Cameron leafleting at stations at the start of the month and the action day on Saturday – and not in the mood to be distracted or disunited.
The players in the internal debate have respected that mood and the need for compromise. To their credit the unions have engaged in negotiations rather than threatened Ed Miliband with a defeat they could administer as they have 50% of the votes at the Special Conference. And to their credit Progress as the organisation most ideologically committed to primaries submitted proposals to Lord Collins that tried to find common ground rather than take an absolutist position.
So I would expect today’s TULO (Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation) meeting of the 16 affiliated unions to come up with a collective position that makes a deal possible and hence a rather boring Special Conference with a very lop-sided yes vote. It’ll be a springboard for Labour going into the 22 May Euro and local elections because it shows how united we are, not because there is an ‘80s or ‘90s style dialectical clash.
I’m not going to speculate about the details of the deal because I don’t know what is going on in the negotiations, but it is not beyond the wit of the people involved to bring in a highly symbolic reform of individual union members opting-in to affiliation to the Party whilst not decreasing the unions’ collective voice; and to bring in a new selection system for London Mayor which is somewhere on the spectrum between what we had in 2010 and unpalatable US-style primaries where only candidates with access to big money can win.
Arriving at something that does not leave anyone walking away from ExCel feeling humiliated or rejected is really important. The union link with Labour is something precious but also fragile. It needs improving and making more real at a local level, but that needs to be done carefully. This is because there are people at both ends of the political spectrum who want to break the link. I don’t mean inside the Party. I have only ever met two members in 26 years of activism who want Labour to have no institutional link with the unions. But the Tories and Lib Dems would love to find a legislative mechanism for breaking the link. They know it is a great source of strength to Labour. And there are “useful idiots” on the extreme left beyond Labour, some of them holding high office in trade unions, who would play into their hands by seeking to break it so that they can get their hands on union political funds to pay for a new far left party. They think they would get an equivalent to Die Linke in Germany or Syriza in Greece. The reality is they would temporarily help the Tories and hurt Labour by splitting the centre-left vote. Then our First-past-the-post electoral system and the innate moderation of British working class voters would mean that no amount of money in the world could provide them with an electoral breakthrough. They would be just like a mirror of the SDP – quickly forgotten by voters but reviled for the rest of their political lives as traitors by Labour.
I don’t want anyone to ever face a choice between being a proud Labour member and a proud trade unionist. Labour is the political voice of a wider labour movement. For that reason I want a package of reforms agreed at the Special Conference that everyone in the movement can sign up to.