'LABOUR’s CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS'

Conservative Political Centre – September 1992

I   A Chronic Condition

In the summer of 1960, a paper on the Constitution of the Labour Party was drawn up by its General Secretary, Morgan Phillips. In it, he declared:

“The Parliamentary Party could not maintain its position in the country if it could be demonstrated that it was at any time or in any way subject to dictation from an outside body which, however representative of the Party, could not be regarded as representative of the country. In any event, constitutionally, the British Government is responsible to Parliament whether that Parliament votes along Party lines or across them. Nothing can alter this”.

Despite this clear and accurate summary of the situation, Labour was within a few weeks openly to defy its own parliamentary leader, Hugh Gaitskell, by voting at its notorious Scarborough conference for unilateral British nuclear disarmament. A year of frantic convulsions and devious manoeuverings followed. Then, at Blackpool, no fewer than 13 trade unions – with over a million and a half votes between them – reversed themselves on the issue.

These events had already undermined the central theme of Professor Robert McKenzie's classic study, British Political Parties, when its second edition appeared in 1963. He maintained that, largely because of the use of the trade union block vote to back Labour's parliamentary leadership, the theoretical and structural differences between Labour and the Conservatives were more apparent than real:

“whatever the role granted in theory to the extra-parliamentary wings of the parties, in practice final authority rests in both parties with the parliamentary party and its leadership”.[1]

Confirmation that this had been the aim of the architects of power in the Labour Party came from an authoritative source. In his foreword to Bagehot's The English Constitution, Richard Crossman suggested that:

“since it could not afford, like its opponents, to maintain a large army of paid party workers, the Labour Party required militants – politically conscious Socialists to do the work of organising the constituencies. But since these militants tended to be ‘extremists’, a constitution was needed which maintained their enthusiasm by apparently creating a full party democracy while excluding them from effective power. Hence the concession in principle of sovereign powers to the delegates at the Annual Conference and the removal in practice of most of this sovereignty through the trade union block vote on the one hand, and the complete independence of the Parliamentary Labour Party on the other”[2] [emphasis added].

Although Crossman criticised McKenzie for gravely underestimating the social, organisational and disciplinary differences still dividing the two main parties, both agreed on one point: the crucial role of the trade union block vote in neutralising the militancy of rank-and-file activists at Labour Party conferences.

That block vote is now under review by Labour's new leadership. Handled properly, its abolition could pave the way for the transformation of Labour into a modern Opposition party capable of contributing usefully to the process of politics in Britain. Yet, all the signs are that reform will be botched, half-measures adopted, and a cure applied which will prove even worse than the disease.

II    What Is Labour Trying To Do?

The reform of the trade union block vote is the most – if not the only – distinctive policy proposal to emerge from Labour since its fourth consecutive general election defeat, in April 1992. Why is this? Is it that the power of the unions in Labour's policy-making process figured as the key electoral issue? There is scant evidence for that view. If Labour were anxious to rectify its electoral mistakes, it would hardly have chosen as Leader the man responsible for those tax proposals and spending sums which so manifestly failed to stand up to scrutiny and criticism during the campaign. They were clearly far more central to Labour's political failure.

Is it, then, a sudden realisation that the unions can no longer be relied upon to back the parliamentary Labour leadership – the role so strongly emphasised in the studies of Crossman and McKenzie? This seems improbable: the unions have seen their memberships slide, their powers to misrepresent the workers restricted by compulsory postal ballots and other democratic devices, and their profile lowered by Labour propagandists in an attempt to sanitise the Party's image.

Could it be that the constitutional point, urged by Morgan Phillips, has finally taken root? Yet, if so, the reforms would have to assert the integrity and sovereignty of the Parliamentary Labour Party, as the elected representatives of the voters. The current notion of leaving the annual conference structure as it is, but allowing the votes on policy to be determined by rank-and-file “militant” activists (to use Crossman's own term), would in that case be unthinkable.

Perhaps there is a more realistic explanation. Could it be that, despairing of seeing off the Liberal Democrats as a party, Labour strategists hope instead to poach their voters by trying to dismantle a major barrier between them and the Socialists – the traditional Liberal distaste for the restrictive practices and bullying tactics of the trade union movement in industry and in politics? Such accounts of Labour's motivation can only be speculative; but the likely consequences of half-baked reform plans are much more predictable.

Consider nationalisation and unilateralism. Sensing the depth of public opposition, Labour's parliamentary leadership secured trade union acquiescence in its calculated retreat on both issues. What would have happened if Labour's individual members had been in control of the party conference? According to a representative survey of 5,065 of them, conducted in late 1989 and early 1990, there would probably have been head-on confrontation. It found that 71 percent still favoured more nationalisation, and that 72 percent still wanted “nothing to do with nuclear weapons”. Indeed, almost a fifth of the Labour Party's membership were individual members of CND – a higher level of support than for any other pressure group.[3]

Other notable findings showed no fewer than 92 percent of Labour Party members in favour of tax increases to finance more spending on health, education and social benefits; whilst 66 percent viewed “the class struggle between labour and capital” as the “central question of British politics”. On secondary action, 73 percent thought that workers “should be prepared to strike in support of other workers, even if they don't work in the same place”. Finally, when asked to position themselves on a Left-Right spectrum in comparison with other Labour Party members, only 22 percent considered themselves to be on the Right of the party, whilst 58 percent considered themselves on its Left – including 17 percent on the hard Left.[4]

III   From the Frying-Pan Into the Fire

For a decade from the mid-1970s, constituency militants organised their efforts to win power in the Labour Party on a scale unprecedented in its history. Disguised as the Militant “Tendency”, a Trotskyist group called the Revolutionary Socialist League wreaked havoc within moribund local Labour parties, ousting MPs and substituting far Left candidates certain to be elected in rock-solid Socialist areas. In May 1977, Labour's National Executive Committee approved the report of a special sub-committee supposed to look into extremist infiltration. Its banal recommendation was

“to carry through an intensive membership drive with a wide appeal to Labour supporters, with the aim that each Constituency Labour Party should have a creditable [sic] membership”.[5]

The idea of diluting unrepresentative activists by the creation of a mass membership did not work either then or later. Only after years of procrastination and cowardice was membership of Militant finally made incompatible with belonging to the Labour Party.

Figures recently issued by the Labour Party[6] illustrate both the extent to which the unions dominate voting at Labour conferences and the revolution in constituency influence which would be wrought by abolishing the block vote. At the 1991 conference, the four largest unions (TGWU, GMB, NUPE, AEU) wielded between them 51.9 percent of the votes. The unions as a whole cast 87.8 percent, the affiliated Socialist societies 1.1 percent, and the constituency parties just 11.1 percent.

If the systematic radicalisation of Labour in the 1970s and 1980s caused such conference disruption when the constituencies held only a tenth of the vote, what would it do in the future if they held an overwhelming majority?

Some pro-Labour commentators are in no doubt. According to the Guardian's Ian Aitken:

“Those millions of [trade union block] votes, plus the guaranteed trade union majority on the party's national executive, were the only bulwark which kept the late Aneurin Bevan and his left-wing followers from securing control of Labour's national machine ... it was the unions which once again saved the party leadership from the Bennite challenge of the early 1980s. But for their votes and their behind-the-scenes support, a parliamentary party already cowed by the threat of deselection would have enabled Tony Benn to sweep the board at Westminster, just as he had in the constituencies”.

He concluded that:

“a Labour Party exclusively controlled from the constituencies would be profoundly vulnerable to the kind of disastrous Trotskyist take-over which engulfed the rank and file in the 1980s. In those circumstances, it would be goodbye Blair, and probably goodbye Smith, too”.[7]

Addressing his own annual conference in May 1992, Alan Tuffin, General Secretary of the Union of Communication Workers, similarly warned that a move to one-man-one-vote control of the Labour Party

“could lead to a resurgence of the domination of constituencies by small interest groups”.

He added that he would welcome it

“if the Party had a million members, but it does not”.[8]

Even Neil Kinnock was reported to have originally backed a complex, weighted trade union franchise

“amid fears that one-member-one-vote would leave the more moribund local parties, with only 120 or so members, open to Militant or other infiltration. He now believes the alternative is so unworkable that MPs will simply have to ensure membership is large enough to prevent cliques taking over”.[9]

Thus the wheel has come full circle, with Mr Kinnock recommending in 1992 the same ineffectual method of countering any new round of extremist infiltration as that which failed to work when put forward by the NEC in 1977. Only, this time, with constituency parties dominating future annual conferences, the prospects of being able to expel a new generation of entryists will be far harder to achieve than even the snail's pace process of the mid-1980s.

IV    Money and the Breathing Space

From the point of view of a healthy political system, and of commentators like Bruce Anderson, the purpose of the union block vote remains vital:

“to protect the Labour leadership from the Labour membership”. Its removal “would create a power vacuum, and at present, the only force to fill it would be the constituency parties, the vast majority of whose members are well to the left of the leadership. The left is weakened and demoralised by successive defeats ... [but] only the block vote prevents it from taking control”.[10]

Such considerations have had little influence on Labour's high command, which is worried by something much more basic: what will happen to the unions' financial backing if their role is neutered? As Tom Sawyer, NUPE's Deputy General Secretary, declared on 1st June 1992:

“People who fund the party must have a say. While we fund the party we will have a say. It is as crude as that”.[11]

Thus, on 24th June, the NEC voted 13-8 to defer ending the unions' role in parliamentary candidate selection for at least a year. It will now be considered by the team appointed to review all Labour-union links. Any recommendations will not be adopted until Labour's 1993 annual conference, at the earliest. The key proponent of delay was John Edmonds, General Secretary of the GMB – John Smith's sponsoring union.

Men like Mr Edmonds cannot be ignored with impunity. This year the unions will pay £1.60 a head for every member included in their block votes. Labour can therefore expect about £8m. in union affiliation fees, half of which will come from union members who do not even vote Labour. That is why 5 million votes will be cast by unions at Labour's next annual conference, though only 2.5 million workers from the party's affiliated unions are thought to have voted Labour in 1992.[12]

The moderate Labour MP Frank Field has conceded:

“The plain fact is that Labour could not survive as a major national party without its trade union links and support. Almost all of its serious money comes from trade union political funds”.[13]

This view is echoed by commentator Anthony Howard:

“Money, in fact, is at the root of the current argument. Whatever its critics or even well-wishers may pretend to believe, the harsh truth is that without the financial support of the unions (which is by no means confined to the general election fund), Labour could not maintain even its present creaking national apparatus. The party has fewer than 300,000 individual members, and were it not for the regular income from union affiliation fees it could barely keep its national headquarters in being, let alone the dozen regional offices”.[14]


V   Conclusion

In the end, then, the potentially disastrous move to constituency activist control of Labour conferences may be fu ged or frustrated by the union barons themselves. But the party's reformists should be under no illusions that a shift to one-member-one-vote will prove more acceptable to the public than the absurd spectacle of 5 million votes being cast by two dozen union bosses at Labour conferences. Indeed, such a move would deliver the formulation of policy into the hands of activists and extremists who are hardly more representative of ordinary Labour voters than union leaders are of the millions of non-Labour supporters whose votes they presume to cast.

The Conservative Party has been unsparing in its criticism over many years of the unions' undue influence on the Labour Party. Today it amounts to the direct election of 12 of the 28 members of Labour's NEC and effective control of a further 8 – the leader, the deputy leader, the treasurer and all five members of the women's section. Conservatives should be equally uncompromising in attacking any moves to hand over control of Labour policy to unrepresentative cliques in the party outside Parliament. In a democracy, government should be confronted by a credible opposition. This has been lacking in the past, and Labour's present intentions show no promise of it for the future.

According to a confidential paper prepared by Labour Party headquarters, four possible reforms are now under scrutiny. They include splitting the way the block vote is cast, in line with divisions of opinion within a union, and creating “a new class of associate Labour member” based on the number of political levy payers who explicitly accept this status.[15] All four options have one thing in common – they will increase the power of constituency activists over Labour's affairs by weakening that of the unions. As an unnamed “union and Labour activist” told the Independent:

“The whole thing is unrealistic. It has been dreamt up by someone who knows very little of what's going on at the grass roots”.[16]

If Labour is to take its place as a mature and responsible democratic party for the 1990s and beyond, it must shed the baggage of socialist control grafted on to its constitution in the early years of this century. It must acknowledge that the correct role of MPs in a representative democracy is to be responsible to their electorates and to no group of organisations or volunteers in, or connected with, their party's organisation outside Parliament.

Once and for all, Labour must acknowledge that the role of the party outside Parliament is to help, to support, to advise and to warn – but not to control the policy of the party inside Parliament.

As long as the myth of conference “sovereignty” is allowed to dominate its thinking, the Labour Party will remain in a state of constitutional crisis.

* * *

The author wishes to thank Andrew Lansley, Colin Smith and Rachel Whetstone for advice and assistance in preparing this pamphlet.

* * *

  1. R.T. McKenzie, British Political Parties, 2nd edition, 1963, p.635.
  2. R.H.S. Crossman, Introduction to Bagehot's The English Constitution, 1963, pp. 41-2.
  3. Patrick Seyd & Paul Whiteley, Labour's Grass Roots: The Politics of Party Membership,
      1992, pp. 232,247, 250. 
  4. Ibid., pp. 230, 240-1, 251. 
  5. NEC Sub-Committee Report, approved for circulation to CLPs and affiliated bodies, 25th May 1977.
  6. The Times, 21st July 1992.
  7. Guardian, 22nd June 1992.
  8. Independent, 18th May 1992.
  9. Ibid.
10. Sunday Express, 3rd May 1992.
11. Financial Times, 2nd June 1992.
12. Peter Kellner, Independent, 12th June 1992.
13. Guardian, 7th July 1992.
14. The Times, 24th June 1992.
15. Guardian, 13th August 1992.
16. Independent, 14th August 1992.