Party reform – an omelette without breaking any political eggs

Luke Akehurst

The first thing that needs saying about the proposals on party reform that Ray Collins is tabling at today’s NEC meeting is that the Labour Party owes Ray a huge debt of gratitude.

The process got off to a bad start with accusations of a bounce and bad faith from senior trade unionists when Ed Miliband made his initial post-Falkirk speech launching the review.

As recently as January there was muttering about negotiations having broken down.

What has actually emerged is a package that appears to have fairly broad support across the Party.

Among the affiliates, four of the five biggest unions are understood to be fully signed-up to the proposals (GMB, UNISON, CWU and USDAW), with Unite still to decide its position at a special executive meeting in mid-February. Unite will need to decide if it wants to be part of a majority at the Special Conference on 1 March or take a position that leaves it isolated from the rest of TULO (the consortium of Labour’s affiliated trade unions) and with the leader not owing it any political favours. This is ironic given that at the start of the review Paul Kenny of the GMB was the angriest person in the Party, and he now seems very content, whereas Unite’s Len McCluskey was emollient and the most enthusiastic union leader for the “opt-in” principle.

Among CLPs there appears to be a broad sweep of support from the soft left rightwards, with only the hardcore oppositionalists of the LRC (Labour Representation Committee) and CLPD (Campaign for Labour Party Democracy) in their traditional stance of muttering about leadership betrayal. It is quite difficult to see what they have to complain about. They set out their concerns here, but it reads like someone trying really hard to nitpick, particularly as all the worries about the union link appear not to worry most of the union General Secretaries.

The people with most to complain about are the PLP, who having lost their right to elect the Shadow Cabinet in 2011, have now lost their 33% share in the electoral college, when just over three decades ago the Leader and Deputy were only elected by MPs. Extraordinarily, reports of last night’s PLP meeting seem to be that rather than protest against this, MPs took on the chin a downgrading the 25% or 20% of MPs nomination threshold that had been mooted for the leadership to 15%, which ought to also cheer up the left in the CLPs as it’s left candidates who are likely to lack parliamentary support.

Overall, my expectation is that Special Conference will deliver a thumping majority for the reforms. It’s a recall conference with largely the same delegates as in September so the split in the CLPs is likely to be similar to the 57%-43% split between moderates and the left on last year’s Conference Arrangements Committee election; whilst the affiliates are likely to be, in the worst case if Unite votes against, split 60%-40% in favour, or if Unite votes for, the result would be above 95% in favour.

The proposals have been described to me by someone near the process as a curate’s egg. This strikes me as a bit unfair, as a curate’s egg is partly bad.


I think what Ray has actually done is cook an omelette, without, as Stalin and logic say is essential, breaking any political eggs. He’s created a synthesis, a consensus, that isn’t wholly what anyone would have proposed as theoretically perfect, but has kept most people happy and avoided a rupture within the Labour movement between its political and industrial wings. It’s also radical enough to demonstrate that Labour is capable of change and that Ed Miliband is strong enough to lead us out of our comfort zone.

I’m delighted that a mechanism has been found that enables the collective affiliation of trade unions and socialist societies to be maintained alongside the introduction of the principle of consent for individual members of affiliates paying affiliation fees to the Labour Party.

I’m also pleased with the fact that all candidates in leadership elections will now be able to contact all eligible voters and that the Labour Party will be able to communicate directly with affiliated members, involve them in campaigning and other local activities, and hopefully encourage them to take up individual membership.

I’m happy that concerns about the potential risks of primary elections leading to a “big money” aspect to candidate selection have been reflected and that the London Mayor selection will be based on the same principles as the leadership ballots.

If I was on the NEC today I’d be saying that I welcome the thinking that is going on around fairness and spending limits in all selections, but think further work will need to be done on the detail around this. I’m unimpressed by talk about some affiliates wanting the spending limits relaxed. I want Labour selections decided on the basis of who has put in the hard yards on the doorstep and has a record of achievement in the community, our party, their trade union, or local government, not who has the deepest pockets or the richest backers.

I’d also be expressing serious regret that the opportunity has not been taken to equalise the number of CLP and trade union representatives on the NEC and to regionalise the CLP representation. Members, who are the backbone of our campaigning, remain under-represented on the Party’s National Executive, and the regions are also likely to remain under-represented. We will continue to make the case for this change. TULO has made submissions saying the unions favour a balanced NEC with more CLP seats so it is disappointing they couldn’t deliver this, or chose not to prioritise delivering it, in the recent negotiations.

I would also be arguing against the proposed short-listing process for London Mayor, which only involves the NEC and Regional Board. If the logic is that the London Mayor selection is effectively the same franchise as the leadership election then the nomination threshold should also be replicated and candidates for Mayor should have to demonstrate they have a minimum level of support from office holders or CLPs.

My other concerns would be technical ones around the rigour of the checks made to prevent entryism by supporters of other parties, or people mass-recruited by a candidate, faction or interest group, through the affiliated and registered supporters processes. Data checking will also be needed to ensure multiple votes are not still available to people by them using a slightly different name in each of their applications for individual membership, registered supporter and affiliated supporter.

Overall though it’s a good package and I would urge CLPs to back it and send their delegates to Special Conference encouraged to vote for it.

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