Consultation on Ray Collins’ interim report closed at Christmas. Since then, media stories suggest that any reforms will be negotiated between the leader and the unions, with members and their representatives sidelined – not exactly the new politics which Ed Miliband promised. Contributors were told by e-mail that
the feedback which Lord Collins receives will help shape the final report presented to our special conference next March”
So I have asked for a summary of responses at the NEC on 4 February, when we agree proposals for the special conference on 1 March. In the meantime I’ve been doing some research. As well as fifty submissions copied directly to me, I’ve read one-third of those filed at HQ, another 150 or so, from branches, constituencies and individuals. It is possible, though statistically unlikely, that the other two-thirds say something completely different, but these 200 do not bear out Ray Collins’ claim that “overwhelming consensus that change is necessary”.
Instead the majority echo concerns expressed to me at local and regional party meetings: that these are the wrong changes, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons. The words “Falkirk” and “kneejerk reaction” occur frequently. In the run-up to the general election Labour should be looking outwards, and this exercise is a distraction. However members are also loyal, and wish to work constructively with the leadership in widening engagement and increasing the chance of a Labour victory in 2015.
For Better or Worse
On relations with trade unions, two-thirds believe that no significant change is needed. The rest hold mixed views or are generally supportive of Collins, though even some of this group have reservations. One writes:
I think the proposed reforms to trade union funding have merit in principle, but as currently framed are potentially disastrous in practice”
The likely impact on party funds, and on campaigning strength, dominates submissions. They argue that rather than reacting defensively, Labour should have shone a spotlight on the rich and unaccountable men who bankroll the Tories. While not everything is perfect in party-union relations, affiliation fees from millions of individual levy-payers constitute clean money by comparison, and anyway union members can already choose to opt out. Local parties need resources to fight elections, and they reject unilateral financial disarmament.
Wishing and Hoping
Many doubt whether mass membership based on opt-in levy-payers will materialise:
merely articulating a bold vision to grow our membership from 200,000 to 500,000, 600,000 or more is not a plan”
Instead there are alternative suggestions for attracting members. First, developing and promoting policies which appeal to working people and to all who share Labour’s values. Second, cutting membership rates to affordable levels – the People’s Party is the most expensive mainstream party in Britain – though this carries its own financial risks.
Other aspects of the Collins report do command support. Current processes for selecting candidates are not satisfactory, and many specific problems are illustrated. There is a hunger for more diverse representation beyond the political classes, and caps on spending would be endorsed as a step towards lowering barriers to participation. The difficulties here centre on developing workable and watertight procedures. Unfortunately recent press interest has focused mainly on whether Neil Kinnock’s son would be able to stand as an MP for Aberavon. The NEC did not consider this in agreeing an open selection rather than an all-women shortlist, but perceptions sometimes matter more than facts.
On electing the party leader, there are varied views on whether to change the electoral college or replace it by one-member-one-vote, but most would welcome removing the current ability to vote multiple times in different sections. However the rule-book does not yet include the changes agreed by the 2011 annual conference, which gave registered supporters a small share when their numbers reach 50,000, and I believe it would be wise to incorporate these before considering further amendment.
Reasons to Believe
Some question whether the consultation is genuine or whether decisions have already been made, pointing out that Collins asks how, not whether, Ed Miliband’s ideas should be implemented. One reader noticed that the new One Nation magazine has a think-bubble asking “How do we use primaries to select Labour candidates?” as if primaries were a done deal.
In fact three-quarters of the sample opposed primaries entirely, because they undermine the role of members, and because they may make selections more open to hostile or factional manipulation. And they would be expensive for candidates, working against the aim of widening access. Most of the rest were willing to consider trials or to let London do its own thing, with just two people wanting primaries for all selections.
In March the national policy forum will launch new papers for a final round of consultation in the run-up to the manifesto. If members are not heard, or not seen to be heard, on party reform, how can they be convinced that anyone will listen to them on policy either? So this is the challenge: show members how their views have been taken into account, or keep them, and their NEC representatives, in the dark. Transparency builds trust; secrecy breeds cynicism. Labour stands at the crossroads, and has just weeks to choose.
Ann Black, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 07956-637958, firstname.lastname@example.org