For the electorate, the crucial fact is that the unions continue to dominate Labour's policy-making bodies and, through the electoral college, will still exercise unjustifiable influence on the election of the party leader and deputy and the selection of MPs. As far as the public is concerned, the existence of large, monolithic block votes, often cast at the whim of union bosses, is an undemocratic anachronism that has helped to render Labour unelectable.
In June the national executive committee set up a working party to review the relationship between the unions and the party. It is a union-dominated affair, which is realistic because any changes will eventually have to be endorsed by an unreconstructed - and therefore union-dominated - party conference. But it has proved to be a sluggish body that has met only a handful of times, and has so far failed to produce any worthwhile suggestions about the reform of Labour's federal constitution. Yesterday's debate and the events that preceded it will have done nothing to spur the working party to more rapid and more radical effort.
Yesterday it was apparent that few union leaders were willing to see their power over conference significantly reduced, as would happen if the block vote were abandoned. Yet even then they would retain considerable influence with Labour's leadership, because their unions meet almost 80 per cent of the party's bills. The remarks of Larry Whitty, the general secretary, opening the debate on the future of the links between the unions and the party, were little more than an apologia for the current state of affairs. On Tuesday, in his first address to conference as leader, John Smith confined himself to a brief comment concerning the pride he takes in the linkage.
What is needed from the leadership is a clear and public commitment to the concept of one person, one vote, as part of an overall constitutional settlement with the unions. There are more than 5 million trade unionists paying the political levy, compared with only about 250,000 individual party members linked to Labour's machine through their constituency parties. Labour's aim must be to translate the former into party members, albeit ones whose subscription is collected through their unions as a matter of convenience. They would, like existing party members, participate in decision-making through their constituency parties.
The switch would not be easy, for two reasons. First, many trade union members are not fully aware they are paying a levy that makes them part of a political party: any new scheme would have to involve people consciously deciding to 'opt in' to membership. (At present they have to signal a wish to opt out of paying the levy.) Second, the levy is far smaller than the full individual subscription to the party. The larger payment would frighten off a significant number of people. But if only half the levy payers agreed to make the transfer, Labour would, for the first time, be a genuine, mass party.Reuse content