Radical democracy: giving party members a vote

As Labour members in Croydon Central select a candidate to stand at the 2015 parliamentary election, ANTHONY MILLER provides some background on selection processes for those for whom one-member-one-vote is something of a novelty

In 1973, the annual conference of the Labour party, with its very democratic union block votes, decided that 25 of Britain’s largest manufacturing companies needed to be nationalised. The union leaders were over the moon.

Hardly a three-pipe problem: former Labour leader Harold Wilson, selected only by his MPs

Hardly a three-pipe problem: former Labour leader Harold Wilson, selected only by his MPs

The only problem was that, on regaining power at the 1974 General Elections, Labour’s leader Harold Wilson didn’t implement any part of that policy. To Wilson, the union block vote was not a three pipe problem. If they voted for something at conference he thought was dumb, he’d just ignore them. After all, Wilson was voted party leader by the party’s MPs – not the unions or the party – so what the unions or ordinary party members thought was not that important.

Obviously, a lot of people had the hump about this, so back-bench MP Frank Allaun formed a “Campaign for Labour Party Democracy”.

The CLPD’s first demand was for the mandatory re-selection of MPs, so that they would be under pressure to carry out conference policies. If nothing else, it was slightly farcical for the party and the conference to spend a lot of time drawing up manifestos that were obviously completely different to what they would implement in power. Mandatory re-selection was implemented in 1979-1980.

In 1981, the CLPD achieved its next objective – making the party leader accountable through election by an electoral college involving MPs, constituency Labour parties (CLPs) and the trades unions. As a result, and in order to show how modern he was, young Michael Foot, the then leader, decided that as a statement on internal democracy, the manifesto for the 1983 election would consist entirely of resolutions arrived at by conference.

The longest suicide note in history”, as Gerald Kaufman called it, was massively flawed. While MP and leadership selections had been reformed, the conference hadn’t.

The Labour party leadership, now made accountable to the party CLPs, complained that the conference was undemocratic. In 1993, prior to John Smith’s abolition of the union block vote, a John Torode (not the one on Masterchef) wrote in The Independent that, “The problem is that the ‘mass’ membership numbers are a piddling 200,000 – far fewer than the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats claim. In contrast, there are 4.5 million trade unionists paying the political levy.”

One Croydon councillor, Vidhi Mohan, a Conservative, recently suggested via Twitter, “Our party donors do not select our party candidates, unlike your party”. Outright lies, of course: who needs to buy a vote when they can join the Conservative party’s “Leader’s Group” and have dinners with David Cameron for £50,000?

The best Labour has managed is a paltry 500 quid for the shame of meeting Tony Blair.

One reason union cards are more popular than party membership cards is that unions, like all lobby groups, appeal more directly to personal self-interest.

Labour members turned out in force for the Croydon Central selection hustings at the Croydon Conference Centre today

Labour members turned out in force for the Croydon Central selection hustings at the Croydon Conference Centre today

Putting it crudely, first-past-the-post elections have created a two-and-a-half party system and the parties’ money has to come from somewhere. Croydon Central CLP is not awash with cash – from unions or other sources. At the 2010 General Election, Gavin Barwell, the Conservative candidate, outspent Labour by a good 30 per cent in the short period alone.

By the 1980s, Labour leader Neil Kinnock had been caught in a vicious cycle – he couldn’t increase the membership because the block vote made party membership seem silly. At the same time, the membership section of the party was so small as to be highly vulnerable to entryist infiltrations. The latest tryst between Ed Miliband and Unison is, in many ways, just a re-run of Kinnock versus the Militant Tendency, though on a far smaller scale.

The current “solution” to entryist CLP infiltrations is for Labour’s National Executive Committee to put a suspect CLP under “special measures” – basically a tedious process of vetting all new memberships.

The Times reported recently that Ed Miliband had put 14 CLPs under “special measures”. This is misleading – 12 have been in special measures since Tony Blair put them there in 2005. The trouble with special measures is they make it a tedious process for the innocent to join the party, while making the NEC appear dictatorial. So Labour is damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

The Conservatives came to one-member-one-vote very late in the day, not out of any conviction about democratic process, more in an attempt to end the brutal infighting that followed the disposal of Margaret Thatcher. They had only started actually allowing their MPs to have a say in the choice of party leader in 1965 when the 14th Earl of Home (Eton and Oxford) stood down after losing the general election to grammar schoolboy Wilson.

David Cameron is only the second Conservative leader actually to be voted for by Tory party members. It is notable that the first so elected, Iain Duncan Smith, was disposed of by his  parliamentary party.

In his attempt to modernise local Tory parties, Cameron junked much of the Conservatives’ existing internal democracy. Selections have been dominated by as few as 20 activists, out of 300 constituency members. Not so much OMOV as OM20Voters.

To force change, Tory party HQ tried more or less to impose some candidates. When that looked bad, they copied America and came up with open primaries. Open Primaries sound great till the £40,000 price tag per constituency is mentioned or anyone suggests that canvassing 20,000 voters might be beyond the means of most ordinary people. And to make matters worse, as Sarah Wollaston shows, the party may find itself with a strong, independently minded MP. And they wouldn’t want that, now, would they?

The Conservatives’ candidate selection process prior to the 2010 election threw up several anomalies and flash-points:

In Bethnal Green and Bow, the local members refused to ratify the candidate selected by an open primary. The candidate eventually selected, Zakir Khan, ended up a long way back in fourth place.

In Bournemouth West, Mike Greene, a councillor from Camden, won an open caucus. He gave up his council seat and moved to the south coast. Then the local membership overturned the result and sacked him as candidate.

And in Cambridgeshire North East, local activists discovered that only A-listers were informed about the selection timetable for the seat, thereby excluding local candidates, including a Eurosceptic potential troublemaker.

So while open primaries may sound great, they don’t always work in their primary goal, of  greater engagement in the politics from non-members of parties: in Hawaii, primary voter turnout fell from 74.6 per cent in 1978 to 42.2 per cent in 2006 after changing to open primaries.

Maybe allowing the members to vote isn’t such a bad idea after all.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in 2014 council elections, 2015 General Election, Croydon Central, Fairfield, Gavin Barwell, Sarah Jones MP, Vidhi Mohan and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Radical democracy: giving party members a vote

  1. markcroydon says:

    So Sarah Jones is Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Central. Which Trade Union/s gifted her the position?

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