By Martyn Cook
There’s a reason that the closing lines of T.S. Elliot’s The Hollow Men are so widely quoted. It captures that disappointingly common experience of something profound or important being lost - not in blaze of glory, but in pathetic acquiescence.
There was a notable lack of protest in the vote at Special Conference over the Collins Review changes, with 86.29% voting in favour and only 13.71% opposing the reforms. So, for socialists within the Labour party, what does this mean? Is this the way the Labour-trade union link is broken? Is this the way our world has been brought to an end?
Thankfully, the fundamental link between the affiliated trade unions and the Labour Party remains intact. The unions have retained their 50% vote at Conference, and 12 NEC seats. This means there is still a route for the organised trade unions movement to raise its voice and shape policy within the party. We are all aware of the limitations that are present - the leadership can simply ignore motions from Conference, for instance – but on this front, while there was no advance, there has at least not been step backwards. For the time being, at least.
Many of actual changes seem little more than fairly calculated tinkering.
Firstly, there was a shift in the leadership selection process from a three-way electoral college (which previously consisted of the PLP of MPs, the trade unions, and CLPs) to One Member One Vote. This shift may actually be a victory of sorts, as the PLP's disproportionate influence has been reduced. However, as the percentage required for a candidate to be nominated has increased - from 12.5% to 15% - it certainly won’t make it any easier for left-wingers to get on the ballot.
Secondly, there is a new category of member, the Registered Supporter, who will receive limited voting rights for a reduced rate of membership fee. This is being floated as a way of getting wavering or hesitant potential members in to the party. While any attempt to increase numbers should be welcomed, the fact that we’ve already tried a half-way house recruitment category in the form of Affiliated Supporter (which failed spectacularly to increase numbers) seems not to have been noted. Supporters will need to be given a genuine reason to sign up - they won't appear for no reason.
Thirdly, there is the introduction of primaries in to the London mayoral elections. Clearly, this opens up the potential for outside influence and money to become involved in Labour party elections – something to be wholly opposed. Mercifully, it has been limited to this one election for the time being. Like all the changes, this test primary was passed through the vote as part of the Collins “package” rather than individual amendments, and as the party at large seems ambivalent - at best - about the idea of this being rolled out to CLP level, there are some grounds for hoping that this will go no further.
Perhaps the biggest, and I believe most risky change, comes in the move towards opting-in. This involves trade union members now having to actively indicate their support on various forms which states that that they are happy for part of their subscription money to be paid to the Labour Party. This apparently is more democratic and will encourage more active participation within the party.
Of course, this ignores the fact that trade unionist had already opted-in by joining an affiliated union. There are enough non-affiliated unions who, unfortunately, will take nothing to do with the Labour Party, which provide non-Labour party alternatives to join instead. It also ignores the fact that the affiliated unions have to hold rigorous periodic ballots regarding the use of their political funds – which routinely return high support for their current political strategies. Or that the formal links with the Labour party have been democratically agreed and endorsed at numerous conferences over the decades.
Never mind that all that though, because over the next five years there will now be a transition towards opting-in for all members. Since then we’ve seen Unite half their funding, following on from the GMB, who reduced their funding by 90% before the Conference had even taken place.
If he who pays the piper calls the tune, then apparently One Nation Labour is less likely to take requests from millions of ordinary working people speaking with a collective voice, and instead is more open to suggestions from individuals such as Tony Blair and Lord Owen, who have pledged large donations to plug to gaps in the run up to the general election.
But it’s not just a crude point about funding. The logical conclusion in this process is towards the links that the trade unions have retained (the 50% Conference vote and 12 NEC seats) being further eroded. It will be much harder to justify, or so the argument will inevitably go, that the trade unions should keep this level of influence when they are contributing less supporters and money to the party than before. This will only increase the pressure on the link to be broken by those on the right of the party (and the Tory party and anti-Labour press outside it) who want to see it gone.
However, it doesn’t necessarily need to go this way. In any socialist organisation collective funding given in good faith should be the preference, but it’s clear that if one side is taking advantage of the situation, then things do need to change. The affiliated unions have been ignored for too long. The current changes would allow the trade unions to be more selective in which Labour MPs and candidates they provide funding to, rather than it being at the discretion of the Party. Of course, there are the likes of Lord Sainsbury and the Progress faction who would seek to fund and promote their own candidates, but as they are doing this already, and the unions have already been treated abysmally since the Falkirk debacle, there is very little left to lose.
Similarly, there is also scope for CLPs to shift to the left. The Collins review openly admitted the need for increasing numbers as there has been a rapid decline since the New Labour project was started. While numbers have dropped and local CLPs have often been hollowed out, this paradoxically presents an opportunity for a renewed left. The reality of the situation is that where half a dozen trade unionists or left wing activists join a CLP they would likely have a substantial impact on the local party’s perspective and policy.
It is only through this grassroots level of organising that we will see a Labour party that reflects the needs of society – one which provides socialist alternatives to the current crisis of capital. The Collins review was a mess, generated from a fabricated scandal designed to marginalise the influence of trade unionists, and the changes it has finally ushered in pleases no one. The review process in to its changes will continue on, and it is still not clear which direction the party will take over the next 5 years. But if we wish to prevent the end of our party as we know it – a century’s worth of working class and trade union organisation - and instead re-build a fighting movement that refuses to submit with a mere whimper, then now more than ever we need to make as much noise as possible.