The Falkirk situation has led to some dramatic headlines, a gift for David Cameron and his speechwriters and an opportunity for New Labour columnists bizarrely to shriek about Militant and communists. It also provided an opportunity for some New Labour “blue sky thinkers” to push Blair’s “unfinished business” of breaking the union link and indeed has led Ed Miliband himself to propose some pretty dramatic proposals in that direction.
Except, of course, many on Labour's right wing understand that the union link was always quite useful for Tony Blair. We have a tendency on the left to romanticize the influence of unions in the party. The link is essential, it makes the Labour Party a party of labour and brings in an influence of millions of working people, keeping the party grounded in a way the other UK parties could never hope to be. But let us not pretend that union bureaucracies have not played their part in the Labour Party central machine’s barely covert war on the left.
There has always been some fixing in the Labour Party. The traditional aim of fixing was to stop the left. For most of the party’s history, constituency members’ preferred candidate in a selection would tend to be the most left-wing candidate, and official fixers (from party and unions alike) would work to ensure that a different candidate would be successful. The same alliance would work to ensure that conference votes rarely embarrassed the leadership and that choices in leadership and deputy leadership elections would always be limited. Tony Blair valued such a contribution at least as highly as any of his predecessors. But under his leadership, fixing moved out of the shadows and became the norm; became a culture that all were aware of but would rarely challenge or question (long after it ceased to be “necessary” from their own left-bashing perspective). Some of Blair's former acolytes have actually been quite open about this old relationship.
I attended training sessions at Young Labour conferences and Labour Student Council events in the 1990s and 2000s where new young members would be taught the dark arts of how to keep left-wing delegations out of conferences and how to ensure the “correct” results in internal elections. And the leading figures in the youth and student movement at that time are at the very top of the party today. Indeed some of them are among the names mentioned in much of the Falkirk coverage. It is one reason why some of us find the faux outrage that certain Shadow Cabinet members express pretty hard to take.
Because the row that has come to light in Falkirk does not have its roots in left versus right, middle-class SPADs versus working-class trade unionists or indeed really in any matter of principle or policy. Andrew Rawnsley evokes Militant, but the roots of this argument are very much in the 1990s rather than the 1980s. And the background is much less interesting outside Labour circles than the romance in the papers, although it is equally concerning to ordinary party and union members.
In the 1990s there were two “traditions” in Labour right student politics. One of them worked extensively with and through the old AEEU (now part of Unite). They were students, many of whom went straight from university to a sabbatical student politics position and then to a SPAD position or work as professional lobbyists. Some of them quickly progressed to Parliament and even Shadow Cabinet. However, they maintained an old Labour right identity. They would later identify themselves with the mysterious “Labour First” internal pressure group.
The other lot were there because of Blair, with no roots (real or imagined) with Labour’s history and an agenda of thinking the unthinkable. Many of them went on to align themselves with Progress. Many of them also found themselves in similar roles to their student “rivals”. I forgot to mention the important point that members of both groups got themselves into paid organiser positions in both the Labour Party and some of the unions.
As we know, these groups have worked together apparently very happily for many years, sharing slates for NEC elections and – let’s face it – fixing things. Fixing is pretty easy by the way. The key method is via discretion. You enforce the rules selectively. Some paid officials (and I stress some because others are excellent and fair) perform an enabling function when they deal with members who will vote the “right” way and a blocking function when dealing with “troublemakers”. This pre-dates the developments I’m focusing on here. I remember as a 19-year-old being elected as a delegate to the first ever Young Labour conference. I received a disappointing letter from a young Tom Watson to say that our delegation could not attend because of some procedural irregularity. An irregularity that also affected the young NUM group, as I recall. Alistair Campbell reports in his diaries that Jon Cruddas was able to inform him and Blair how the vote on Clause IV would go at that conference before ever the delegates assembled. Later I would hear party members proudly boasting how they were able to achieve such results. Over the years these people have turned into the machine. A machine that includes officials in the party and in the biggest unions.
But occasionally the cracks have shown in this “hard right” alliance and this is what appears to have happened in Falkirk. Others may have been carried along with apparent arguments about class and Unite's public spat with Progress, but something else seems to be at the root of all this. Disagreements are partly down to the leadership election in 2010: one group have maintained their furious loyalty to the leader of the day while the others moved into new, oppositional territory, still nostalgic for the Blair days. Suddenly there is no longer automatic agreement over who the chosen candidate should be. Two lots of fixers appear to have ended up fixing for different candidates, just as happened in Erith and Thamesmead in 2010. Karie Murphy (the Unite-backed candidate) has widely been described in the media as a "left winger" but I've seen no evidence of that, and she has been described to me as having "Labour First type politics". Whatever role Karie Murphy played (and I repeat the disclaimer from above)fixers use the same tactics, whether they're in the party or the unions, because they learnt them in the same school that built a murky, anti-democratic culture.
This cannot be dealt with by either an attack on the unions as hard-left wreckers, nor a defence of one group of fixers over another as the vanguard of working-class labourism. Both miss the point. The solution to this problem is in openness, democracy, consistency and transparency. Both the party and the big unions have a responsibility to end fixing and keep things open. Commenting on this from the left (who have pretty much always been the intended victims of this fixing culture) seems almost like intruding on private grief, but it is important for the integrity of the party and the movement - and for the selection of the best candidates and those who best represent the desires of party and union members.
I am not convinced that all of Ed Miliband's proposals fit this. Indeed it is quite hard to believe that they have all emerged as a speedy response to a crisis in Falkirk. There are things to be welcomed in what Ed has said, and it is important that the left are seen to engage with this. (Otherwise we'll hear more absurdities such as Paul Richards' tweet about "backing our leader against the Bennites"!)
So - I welcome restrictions on spending in selections. We have to be careful about it, because it could hit some candidates harder than others if some "approved" or "affiliated" candidates are given "services in kind" by their organisation. The advice provided to Progress members, for example, would cost a lot of money were candidates required to pay the consultants for the service. Furthermore, efforts would need to be made to restrict the spending of arms-length third parties. But it's a welcome proposal.
I also welcome some manner of recruitment drive among levy-paying union members. 500,000 new members drawn from the ranks of our unions would be an excellent thing. But I, inevitably, have significant concerns about this. What will it mean for the role of affiliated organisations in the future of the Labour Party? Ed talks about "mending" the link, but what are the medium and long-term prospects for the link should this happen? If a small proportion of current levy-payers make the active decision to opt in, will that not add weight to those within the unions arguing for disaffiliation? Then there are just practical logistical questions. Will affiliate members have precisely the same membership rights as ordinary members and join branches and CLPs, etc? If so, what about all the ordinary members who are also members of affiliates? Do they become "two members" (assuming they opt in) or can they choose their cheaper membership option... It's all a bit of a mess. Perhaps most importantly, where will any shortfall of money come from? Being more dependent on wealthy individuals is disastrous for Labour and for open politics more generally. I see very little evidence of union influence on policy (more's the pity, considering we are a party born from the labour movement) but the likes of Bernie Ecclestone appeared to get a clearer return on his investment. The same can be said with people in private health and education businesses and the current government.
Which brings me onto my last point (other than a rant about primaries - that'll have to come in a separate post!) - surely this is the worst time in the world for a spot of naval-gazing about process? Our communities are being assaulted by this odious right-wing government. What are we doing as an opposition? First we seem to retreat on policy, next we turn inwards and re-start the "refounding labour" conversations. Quite what the status of Ed's contributions are is a little unclear - are these things going to happen or are they proposals? What role will conference play?
The real way to build a mass membership party is to give people a reason to join. To inspire people. To propose radical alternatives. Impressive sounding "big ideas" like "One Nation" and "Better Politics" is not enough - what ultimately matters is what you'll do. We could perhaps start by giving union members some reasons to opt in.