A debate over party rules at Labour’s annual conference on Sunday saw ordinary party members hammer MPs—and clash with trade union leaders.
Much of the anger focussed on a proposed change that could make it even harder for a left wing candidate to stand in a future leadership election. Members also wanted new rules that would help them hold their MPs to account.
But votes by trade union delegates made sure the members were defeated.
Current rules say that to make it onto the ballot paper, a candidate has to be nominated by 10 percent of MPs or MEPs—something Corbyn only just managed. Many members want that threshold to be lowered.
But the union vote at conference means the party will keep the 10 percent threshold. The change passed on Sunday means a candidate will also need nominations from either 5 percent of Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) or 5 percent of affiliated organisations—mostly unions.
Leaders of the major trade unions supported this as it would give them more influence over future leadership elections.
But ordinary Labour members from CLPs were overwhelmingly against it. It means Labour MPs could still effectively block any left wing candidate supported by the membership from standing.
Charlotte Austin, youth delegate from Bishop Auckland CLP said, “Under the proposals we are voting on today, a candidate like Jeremy Corbyn would have an even greater struggle to be on the ballot.
“A PLP veto on the Labour leader is an affront to the principle of member-led democracy in the Labour Party. In 2015 and 2016 the membership got it right.”
Many delegates also opposed a change that would mean MPs have to be “reselected” if a third of a CLP’s branches or a third of its affiliates votes for it.
They hoped instead to pass stronger changes that would mean MPs face reselection votes automatically. These proposals would have been debated on Tuesday—but again the union vote meant the weaker change went through.
Ferhat Cinar from Hackney North and Stoke Newington said, “This is not just about a rule change. This is about rejecting right wing policies, the Tory agenda and the establishment onslaught against Jeremy’s leadership and a future socialist government.
“If members on the ground campaigning door to door for a Labour manifesto, while those in parliament can sabotage this and still take it for granted that they can stay in their positions—this is not fair.
“This is not just about democracy—this is about whether we want a socialist government or a the maintenance of the existing status quo”.
Howard Beckett of the Unite union weighed in. “Both the trade unions and the CLP membership are united in saying that there is no place for those parliamentary representatives who deny Labour values, deny socialism, attack our leader and side with Tories,” he said.
He wanted to present the unions as allies of ordinary Labour members against the entrenched power of the MPs.
Yet the unions’ actions—including Unite—showed how they would act to limit how much say Labour members can have over the party’s leaders and MPs.
Votes by trade union delegates—just a handful overall—made sure that members’ hopes for a more democratic party were thwarted.
A vote taken earlier that morning showed how they could do it.
Delegates were angry that they had only been given a chance to see the rule change proposals that morning.
Ordinary Labour members voted overwhelmingly against how the debate was organised, demanding more time to read the proposals. This could have meant conference organisers would have to reschedule the debate.
But votes by affiliated organisations meant they were defeated.
Voting power at the conference is divided 50/50 between CLPs and affiliates. So although affiliates have many fewer delegates than CLPs, their votes carry much more weight.
A relative handful of trade union delegates, usually following the instructions of their union leaders, can defat hundreds of Labour Party members from CLPs. Thanks to the union vote the Labour members were defeated by 53 percent to 46.
Some 90 percent of the CLP vote went against—but almost 97 percent of the affiliate vote was for.
The full break down of the rule change votes was set to be released on Tuesday morning. But the results suggest a similar split between members and union—showing that on pivotal issues, union leaders will line up against ordinary Labour members.
What's the role of trade unions in Labour?
The row touches on something significant about who holds power in the Labour Party—and whether it can deliver the change it promises.
When the union leaders founded Labour they wanted it to do the same thing in parliament as they did in workplaces. They mediate to deliver some reforms, but within the limits of what bosses find acceptable.
Union leaders and MPs look to the Labour Party as a way of delivering some reforms through parliament. But doing this means attempting to govern in a shared “national interest” of workers and bosses, and appealing for support from all sections of society.
So MPs and union leaders share an interest in limiting the demands of Labour’s ordinary members, who look to the party for changes that bosses won’t tolerate. For much of Labour’s history union leaders have acted with the Parliamentary Labour Party against the left to keep the members in check.
Labour’s structures reflect this—giving unions and MPs more power over members. Members can campaign to change Labour’s structures, and can win some victories that challenge MPs and union leaders.
But Labour’s focus on parliament—rather than struggle by ordinary people—is at the heart of the dominance of union leaders and MPs inside the party.