UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Can the leadership debate re-engage Labour supporters?

It is sad to see process overtaking politics in the Labour leadership debate, especially because the campaign had at least contained something about visions and policies and how best to deliver on them.

That is what has engaged the thousands who have turned out to hear Corbyn. Many of them are young and have been enlivened by a political debate on austerity that has been completely missing from the mainstream (except perhaps in Scotland but even there we detect a gradual awakening that SNP rhetoric and policy on that issue are two different things).

Engaging so many people in that debate surely can’t be a bad thing. So has it re-engaged disaffected Labour supporters?


The vibrancy of the leadership campaign is driven by the Corbyn phenomenon but Burnham and Cooper were also campaigning on policies and we have started to hear debates in workplaces and pubs about austerity, about leadership and about who would be best placed to re-vitalise Labour as an electoral force. It is not at the level of the independence referendum but there is a debate going on and that can only be a good thing.

Now that is all at risk as the shenanigans about the ‘registered supporter’ process gives the public confirmation of their view that politicians will fiddle anything if they can and Labour couldn’t organise a small refreshment in a brewery.

Since the reality is that the process is now dominating coverage of the debate, we need to look at what is right or wrong about that process – especially for the 2.7 million trade unionists who pay the political levy that funds a major part of the Labour Party’s organisation.

On 12 August it was reported that only 189,703 of them had registered to vote in the leadership election. There should have been many more and the failure of organisation with our own members – and engagement in the political process – should be the priority to address rather than anything else.

However, it is still far more than the 121,295 non-levy paying people who had registered with the £3 supporter’s fee. So most of the people who have signed up are union members who would have had a vote anyway under the old system through their union.

The difference this time is that each vote will count exactly the same as the individual vote of an MP as opposed to the votes of 232 MPs carrying the same weight as 2.7 million trade union levy payers – effectively giving each MP the equivalent of more than 11,600 votes.

In that context the change looks like a good thing. But it removed automatic voting rights from union levy payers and it broke the important principle of collective affiliation to the party. In any organisation that purports to support working people, collectivism is the only way to balance establishment power.

Of course we are not na├»ve enough to think the change was all about empowerment. It did not envisage those members voting for the ‘wrong’ candidate. Neither did it envisage that the ‘registered supporter’ would deliver anything other than supporters who were pretty middle of the road.

It was all a bit of a mixter-maxter, it was poorly thought out and it was always going to be a problem. Not least of those problems is the effect on fee paying full members or levy paying union members – the people who keep the party afloat. How do they feel when anyone can just sign up for £3 and vote? And of course, there was always going to be a problem vetting people.

But everybody knew this as the Labour Conference effectively nodded it all through. So why all the hullabaloo now?

Vince Hill in the ‘Labour Hame’ blog has one analysis: “Years of pursuit by the Blairite right of one member one vote and primaries, where supporters can select Labour candidates, should according to these very Blairites be reversed overnight because the potential result does not suit the ‘aspirations’ – and how they love that word – of Labour’s existing and wannabe elite.” http://labourhame.com/pathology-and-political-amnesia/#more-5339 Perhaps a bit hard on Burnham but it does strike a nerve.

We are now in a situation where whoever is elected will have a cloud hanging over them about whether the election was above board. Anyone, left or right, using that to build for a major split would only be heading for a self-serving disaster. When we talk of lessons from the past, that is the one that should take centre stage.

So let’s try to move back to policies. We are told we need the ‘right’ ones to get elected. It was not attacking austerity that failed to get Labour elected. It was a shadow cabinet after 2010 that failed to articulate that the Tory cuts were political and not economic and there was an alternative to austerity. That wasn’t a failure of presentation, it was because many of them didn’t believe there was an alternative. You don’t provide a credible alternative by saying we’ll do austerity better than the Tories.

Things have moved on. The alarm bells of ‘lurches to the left’ in the past do not apply in the same way now as they did in the past. Things are different. The so-called centre ground has moved to the right and Labour has chased it instead of trying to pull it back. The 2015 manifesto made some moves that way but too little too late. The label of ‘hard-left’ needs to be seen in relation to the centre having been pulled significantly to the right.

Many of us are highly sceptical about reports of mass infiltration from whatever quarter but if there is a problem it is time to get it sorted – based on evidence not allegations – and get back to debating the policies.

Another hat tip to ‘Labour Hame’, this time from Jamie Glackin, Chair of the Scottish Labour Party, pointing out what the real challenge is: “When all is said and done in the UK leadership contest, we all have to return to what brought us into the Labour Party in the first place – our mission to improve the life chances of working people. We are unlikely to be in a position to make progress on that if we are still fighting each other rather than the Conservatives.” http://labourhame.com/we-must-find-unity-after-strife/

JS