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On Alan Johnson and the unions who put him in parliament

Alan Johnson is a former General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union. Without their suppoprt and that of other unions, he would not be in parliament. Now he wants to cut or even eliminate union influence in the Labour Party. He wants to take away the votes of two-thirds of the people who voted in the Leadership election — his fellow trades unionists — who pay the political levy out of their wages, unless they area prepared also to join as individual members. The current system, he argues, allows people who are members of unions as well as the party to cast more than one vote. And yet this is a man who cast a “block vote” for David Miliband equivalent to the votes of about 479 individual members (in addition, one assumes to his own votes as a party and CWU member).

The Times (£) last week reported:

Mr Johnson is particularly scathing about a system that allows people who join multiple Labour affiliated organisations, including unions, greater influence over leadership elections than others. “It can be ‘one-member four-votes’ and that’s wrong,” he says. Like many of those close to Tony Blair, he now expresses regret that the democratisation process of the 1980s and 1990s became stalled when Labour entered government. “We did not go far enough,” he says, “the party was half reformed and we need to return to it.

It is, of course, true that a party member who (for example, like me) is in an affiliated union and also a member of the Fabians and the Socialist Health Association, would have had four ballot papers. Since 266 MP’s ballots, 127,331 individual party member ballots and 247,339 trade unionists (or socialist society) ballots each formed one third of the electoral college, those four votes would have been worth about 2½ times the vote of many other individual members. On the same basis, Mr Johnson’s votes were worth 480 times that of those individual members.

Now it is true that a federal structure, sensible and politicaly desirable though it remains for Labour, does allow individuals to exercise influence through different channels if they so choose. When it comes to electing the leader, one person having several ballot papers is an anomaly though not by any means (since it involves a relatively small proportion of voters) such a distortion to the democratic process as the vastly different weights given to the individual ballots of MPs and even MEPs (the justification for which defies rational explanation).

Unfortunately, the creation of a single electoral roll would be no simple task – unions have enough trouble maintaining a database of their own members addresses (with good reason since normally they are more concerned with their workplaces than the homes to which they are obliged by law to post ballot papers). Eliminating duplicate entries where names and addresses are recorded differently is always an almighty task, and one never successfully completed.

The anomaly would be greatly reduced if socialist societies, which are relatively tiny and most of whose members are also individual party members, were excluded from the ballot. Very few people are, after all, members of more than one trade union, so the anomaly would be significantly reduced in scale.

What would be simply unacceptable would be to remove the right to vote of roughly two-thirds of those who voted in the last two leadership contests. The choice is therefore:

  1. Live with anomaly on the basis that retaining a federal structure is politically important.
  2. Try to create a single electoral roll of party members — individual and affiliated — although that could lead to new problems.

Trade unions and constituency parties could live with the latter. Could Mr Johnson and his parliamentary colleagues?

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