The overwhelming decision of the special conference is rightly seen as a triumph for Ed Miliband. I confess that when Ed Miliband first announced his intention of changing the relationship I feared the worst. The initial perception was that his intention was to detach the party from the trade union movement.
This would have been a disaster. Not just a financial disaster, which it certainly would have been. But it would have changed for the worse, the very nature of our party. Our link with the trade unions is unique in British politics. It is one aspect that differentiates us from other British political parties. Through our link with the trade union movement we are potentially in touch with millions of working people. With the Parliamentary Labour Party increasingly dominated by “professional politicians” this is an immensely valuable contact with real people who do real jobs.
This is the latest phase of the reforms which were started after the general election defeat of 1987. I believe there is one more obvious reform to the system of electing a leader which ought to be tackled within the next couple of years. More of that later but, first let’s re-examine the origins of the reforms.
From 1987 until 1992 I was privileged to be the party’s Director of Finance. It was a job which obviously made me appreciate the financial input the trade unions make to our party. But this is only a part of the contribution they make. They bring with them expertise, wisdom, organisational skills and commitment.
The real beginning of the modernisation of the Labour Party organisation began after the 1987 election. The instigators of this were the trade unions and the then General secretary, Larry Whitty, himself a product of the trade union movement. It was the trade unions who came to the party in 1987 to tell us that with their shrinking membership, combined with the increasing cost of politics, we would have to find alternative means of fundraising to supplement our income.
This led to the development of the National Membership System which revolutionised the ability of the party to talk to its members and gave us tremendous fundraising opportunities. It also gave individual members more opportunity to participate. There would be no OMOV without the National Membership System. Remember, up to that time, we didn’t know who our members were. The trade unions not only supported this initiative but they financed it. They also underwrote and helped administer the Labour Party Business Plan which raised millions of pounds in small donations for the 1992 election.
These initiatives and support potentially weakened the unions’ power within the party. But the relationship has always been about a lot more than that.
Contrary to what certain elements within the Party would have us believe, the trade unions have not been barriers to reform, they have been in the vanguard of reform. Without their drive and support the reforms would not have happened.
So the new rules give us an opportunity to renew and rebuild our relationship with the trade unions. The party will certainly suffer financially and that is worrying, but that can be overcome with more sophisticated means of fundraising.
There is however one area that leaves cause for considerable concern. That is the procedure for nominating candidates for leadership elections. Surely, the time has come involve party members more fully in this part of the process. That means allowing party members to nominate candidates. My objections to the current system is that we will end up yet again with a very small and narrow field. Remember, last time around David Miliband had to instruct some of his more pliable supporters to nominate Diane Abbott to ensure we weren’t faced with a field of white men. In the previous leadership election we were presented with the appalling fait accompli of just one white male candidate. To the best of my recollection, previous leadership elections gave us the choice of a total of eight white male candidates and one white woman. The current rules give the PLP the opportunity to repeat this.
Another problem with only PLP members nominating is their regrettable tendency to want to associate themselves with probable winners, perhaps with career opportunities overcoming principle.
I accept that we must restrict the field to a manageable size; therefore we cannot afford to make it too easy to be nominated. My proposal would be to keep the existing rules for PLP nominations but to also enable rank and file members and CLP’s to nominate. Why not use the same figure? 15% of members or 15% of CLPs required to secure a nomination?
Surely this proposal is in line with Ed Miliband’s plans to devolve power to all citizens of this country. Let’s be brave and empower all of our party members to participate not only the vote to elect our leader but in the entire process.
Mike Watts was Labour’s Director of Finance from 1987-1992