On Ed Miliband’s latest move in the political chess match that is how to fund our political parties
The text of Ed Miliband’s speech outlining his policy response to the wider relationship between Labour and trade unions can be found here. I tend to go for the text as is because that way I can make my own judgement on it without it being spun either way – as it has been.
The speech itself was short on detail, but made the point that the way things stood was no longer sustainable. The principle Miliband set out is moving from systems of voting and funding blocks to a more individual and dare I say it ‘personalised’ relationship between trade unionists, their trade union and the Labour Party. What Miliband announced today was that someone – in this case ex-Party General Secretary Ray Collins, would be tasked with developing the detail. Inside that detail are where all the devils await.
This represents a huge financial gamble for Labour. Their returns to the Electoral Commission tell us this. Their latest (Q1 2013) returns show a debt of nearly £10million. That’s more than all of the other political parties put together, and more than three times the size of what the Conservatives owe. You could argue that perhaps it’s because the Tories are in office as the majority partner in a coalition that donations are easier to solicit. The gamble for Labour is that changing the financial structure of how the party is funded significantly reduces donations, making the loans harder to pay off. Does the party risk bankrupting itself?
The restructure – a massive mindset and culture change?
Something tells me that the Labour leadership may not have quite realised what sort of genie they have let out of the bottle. The reason being that the current system allowed for the party leadership to take trade union funding for granted, giving trade union members very little policy say in relation to the amount of money it received and the numbers of people giving it. Indeed, at times it felt like culture, history and structure were the things that held trade unionists to the Labour Party rather than actual policies – especially under the later Blair years.
Labour has traditionally been very ‘top down’ in its leadership in the past. Look at how MPs were controlled by the communications machine developed by Mandelson and Campbell in the 1990s. Yet as I argued recently, what looked like a slick machine in the 1990s, eg paging MPs on which way to vote in the Commons & giving consistent lines to take, now looks clunky and clumsy in a social media world.
What will the longer term impact be on candidate selection?
Because let’s be honest, the ‘Duckhouse Parliament’ of 2009/10 was really scrapping the bottom of the talent puddle as far as calibre of MPs was concerned. In years to come, I hope parties of all sides will ask themselves how and why they allowed such weak candidates to be selected/imposed in their areas by party HQs. Ditto with nominations to the House of Lords. In the absence of wider Lords’ reform, will Ed Miliband open up the selection process when recommending candidates for the House of Lords?
Improving the quality and quantity of people putting themselves forward for selection within Labour also means trade unions themselves adapting their structures to match a 21st Century society. In particular a society that, through social and digital media is far more willing to answer back and less likely to defer to political authority. The reason why this is important not just for Labour but for politics in general is the proportionately lower levels of political engagement from younger people. Even more so because it’s younger people that have been disproportionately hit in terms of the burden of cuts and taxation compared to what previous generations went through.
Community organising is all very well, but…
Policies. What influence will ordinary members have on policy – bearing in mind the cohort of shadow cabinet ministers that served in the previous administration may still be of the mindset of command and control? Will the likes of Ed Balls be happy to be given a strong steer by members on economic policy? Or Stephen Twigg with education policy? Paradoxically, even though some Blairites/Progress members in Labour have been vocal about reducing the influence of trade unions within Labour, the new structure could empower grassroots Labour activists who (in my experience) are fairly left wing themselves. Thus the ‘top down’ institutional trade union influence may be diluted, but an organised, empowered and autonomous grassroots network could be even harder to control.
There is also the issue of devolution in England and the administrative structure that any future Labour administration will inherit – should they get elected. In particular, there is the growing role of city administrations and elected executive mayors along the lines of the Mayor of London. What this means potentially is fewer powers and ministerial posts in Westminster and Whitehall in comparison to pre-2010. Why would you want to be one of several mid-ranking ministers when you can run an entire city?
Is the existing structure of the party too confusing?
This was something that came out of the initial Falkirk revelations: some trade unionists assumed that they were already members by virtue of the political levy from their trade union. Given the number of different associations an individual can have with the Labour Party, no wonder there is confusion amongst some. Labour students, a trade union member affiliated to Labour, a Labour full member, a member of an affiliated society…hence attempts to clear this up. But this should have been sorted out long ago.
In the twenty-first century, it just doesn’t make sense for anyone to be affiliated to a political party unless they have chosen to do so
It didn’t make sense in the 20th Century either. The same principle for me applies with religion – hence my issue with religious/faith schools. In both cases they allow for institutions to claim they have greater support than they actually have.
The role of non-members that are sympathetic to Labour’s aims and values
One of my former directors said to me that once you’ve been in a Whitehall policy team at the sharp end, it’s very difficult to be tribal with party politics because you become trained to unpick other people’s arguments to the extent you cannot wish away the flaws. The other two issues are the toxicity of party political brands and the existing cultural expectation to defend every single breath sighed by each and every member of your party. Whether it’s the un-PC outburst by a local Tory councillor or a Labour activist caught holding a placard of some far-left sect calling for violent revolution, Parliament is full of such point-scoring. “Bad stuff is happening in this council area and as it’s run by that ‘orrible lot over there, they presumably all back this bad stuff – yeah – look ‘ow orrible they all are!” …and the like.
Which is one of the reasons why I’m not a member of any political parties. I really can’t be bothered to account for the behaviour of every other human being. Life’s too short. But what is interesting – and what all parties should welcome, is the growing acceptance of public scrutiny before selection decisions are made: primaries.
Open primaries? Closed Primaries? Semi-demi-hemi primaries?
Not being familiar with the nature of primaries, it turns out that the devil here will be in the detail too. Just look at the Wiki page. There are different models of primaries just as there are democracies. What I like about the principle of them is that it allows the general public as well as party members to see what potential candidates are like under scrutiny from a general public not versed in the history and culture of the local party. It also brings another potential interesting tension for local parties too. What do you do in a scenario faced with a candidate popular within the party but less so outside of it, versus another candidate who is the opposite? Do you back the person you like the best or the person most likely to get elected – whose guts you hate?
The ball back in Cameron’s court
Miliband will be able to fall back on the line of waiting for a review to publish its recommendations. In the meantime, focus can switch back onto the Tories. In one regard, this is a bit of a party political point. It stems from the fates of MPs Tim Yeo and Patrick Mercer in the latest lobbying scandal. What the Coalition managed to do was to encompass trades unions relationship with Labour into the whole issue – much to the anger of the latter two. You can see the transcript of what was a bad-tempered debate here.
One of the things Labour will not want to concede is reform on their side without some movement from the Conservatives over donations from big businesses and wealthy donors. Scroll down to the last three groups here, and you can understand why there is unease in some quarters about the ability the wealthy have to ‘buy access’ to senior ministers.
What we do know is the Deputy Prime Minister has committed to publishing legislation before the summer recess. That’s in less than a fortnight’s time. The day Parliament breaks for recess is traditionally the date the government of the day makes lots of policy announcements that are quickly forgotten about because everyone has gone on holiday the following day. Well…in Westminster anyway. Will that statement be one of those policies that are buried?
Food for thought.