This article was written for LabourList.
Ed Miliband’s proposals for Party reform have been warmly received across the Labour movement. The Shadow Cabinet has supported them, the PLP gave them its endorsement and the NEC approved them.
The final, all-important hurdle is now the Special Conference on 1 March. Although the proposals have so far been well received, a number of concerns have been raised. Some of these have their origins in the Tory-supporting press and can be easily dismissed, but others deserve to be thought about and addressed. I have heard two worries in particular.
The first concerns the threshold of 15% of MPs which an individual has to reach to become a candidate for Leader or Deputy Leader. When it was first mooted that the threshold might be 20% or even 25% there was a widespread concern that such a figure would restrict the number of candidates. The fear was that the contest might be between ‘two white, early middle-aged, middle class men in grey suits’. Because of these understandable concerns, the recommendation is that the threshold should be only a little above the existing threshold.
But now the worry in some quarters is that the new threshold might allow an ‘unsuitable’ candidate to ‘slip through’ the PLP net and go on to win widespread support from Party members, but then fail to command wider electoral support. In the past this would have been a legitimate concern, but not today. No longer is the Party dominated by individuals whose views are out of sync with mainstream, progressive opinion in the country. Indeed, the strength of today’s Labour Party is that it increasingly reflects modern Britain in its prevailing attitudes and its social composition. I have every confidence that this is not a passing phase, but is a change that is achieving permanence.
It follows that there are no grounds for there to be concerns about the Party membership, or indeed of the new category of registered supporters. And this leads me on to the second concern that I have heard.
Some have suggested that it may be possible for local Parties to be ‘taken over’ by new, registered trade union supporters. The fear is that newly-empowered trade unionists from affiliated trade unions will ‘move into’ moribund Party branches and sweep to one side long-standing Party activists. I am old enough to remember this is what the Militant tendency did in the 1980s. But Trotskyist entryism is a thing of the past and those trade unionists who sign up for Labour should not be feared; on the contrary, they should be welcomed with open arms.
Also, let’s not forget that in future it will be only registered Labour supporters who will be able to vote for the leadership of the Party.
My local Labour Party is similar to many throughout the country. One of the exasperations of Caerphilly CLP is that we have been unable to make contact with those trade unionists who have been nominally affiliated to the local Party. As we all know, the local affiliations are more apparent than real, and more often than not there have been very few ‘real’ trade unionists behind the affiliation.
In my CLP, the only trade unionists who attend and participate in our Party meetings as trade unionists are two full-time trade union officers. We are lucky in having their involvement, but wouldn’t it be good if we could contact individual rank-and-file Labour trade unionists, welcome them into the Party and work with them in the workplace as well as in the local community. These changes will allow such a positive relationship to develop.
The changes we will discuss on 1 March are radical and exciting. They are not about reducing the influence of any part of our ‘federal’ Party; they are intended to broaden and deepen the Party’s relationship with the people of this country. It is therefore important that they be accepted at the Special Conference, but just as importantly, it is imperative that the changes be introduced with determination and enthusiasm.