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Labour's culture of fixing goes far beyond the unions

Privileges and patronage are wired into the party's institutions. Falkirk is merely the latest example.

Stall holders chat after Ed Miliband's speech at last year's Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Labour’s troubles in Falkirk are just one symptom of a bureaucratic culture that doesn’t merely tolerate the practice of fixing by insiders and groups but institutionalises it. In Falkirk, Unite stands accused of signing up its members to Labour without them even knowing about it, in order to get its favoured candidate, Karie Murphy, selected as the prospective MP. There have also been claims that the union plotted to get the seat declared as an all-women's shortlist in order to exclude a male rival. As I have found since I joined Labour in 2010, these sorts of practices are not exceptional. They are standard, and not exclusive to the unions by any means. 

Of the New Labour years, former party general secretary Peter Watt has said: "There was an understanding that controlling process meant controlling the party.  Conferences, policy making and of course selections were all ruthlessly managed." However, he added, "the world moved on and the time for command and control was over."

Fixing is generally practised by classic command and control. You secure senior positions in the party apparatus and on crucial committees and use these roles to control processes and the distribution of power in your favour while blocking opponents.

This is what has happened in the European Parliament candidate selections. In London, Carole Tongue (a former deputy leader of Labour MEPs) and Anne Fairweather (who attracted the most votes from London Labour members last time) were incredibly refused even an interview with the selection panel.

As Labour Uncut has revealed, "Out of seven members of the London European candidate selection panel, five are either serving officials in the unions or have been backed by Labour Briefing – a hard left publication committed to establishing the most left-wing policy platform for the party since 1983." Of the shortlisted London candidates, only one does not profess a union background (and his agenda is much the same as the others).

But there is much more to be concerned about. As Jon Worth has written, "You had to be an insider to even know this European Parliament selection process was even happening". Labour’s East Midlands Region’s selection panel ended up selecting one of its own members, Nicki Brooks, as a candidate, apparently due to the lack of female applicants.

As might be seen with Unite’s apparent manipulations in Falkirk, Labour’s female preferences – and especially the power to declare an all-women’s shortlist (AWS) – are crucial aspects of its bureaucratic architecture that provide plentiful opportunity for party fixers and insiders.

In one selection process I was involved in, the AWS was imposed after the deadline for candidate applications closed, so local non-insider women who would not normally think of standing (and who should surely be encouraged by the process) had no idea they might have a decent chance of representing their local area. In the end, of the women shortlisted, only two came to hustings and only one of these (who was also the candidate last time) was credible. So it was effectively a shortlist of one.This is Labour Party democracy, GDR-style: more Erich Honecker than Abraham Lincoln.

There is another uncomfortable truth for the party in that this sort of fixing is not just accepted culturally when it suits our personal and group interests, but is institutionalised into our structures. Privileges and patronage are wired into Labour Party internal processes through a miasma of rules that actively subvert democracy – female preferences, union preferences and ethnic minority preferences to name but a few.

The culture of fixing within the party flows from these practices and the institutions that support them. They foster a sense of entitlement and moral superiority in which fixing elections is seen as necessary to secure the right result. In this manner, Labour relentlessly turns into itself, rather than upwards and outwards. Instead of embracing democracy and seeking to promote a robust and healthy political culture, we reduce and pre-empt it, with the AWS standing as a template of success to be replicated, rather than an example of failure (as it should).

Labour’s travails are an example of institutional decay, something common to all the major political parties in Britain and also the major unions. All need to reinvent and rediscover what they are and what they are for, and seek legitimacy for that.

As Matthew Taylor, now head of the RSA and a former policy director to Tony Blair, has said, "institutions need a different mind-set. Put simply they need to see themselves as operating in a glass box in which most of what they do and most of why they do it is visible to everyone." This means starting to embrace openness and also starting to take responsibility for how they do their business.

For Labour, it means cutting out the airy waffle about ‘Labour values’ and starting to practice genuine ethical standards with practical meaning to everyday behaviour: standards that will make Falkirk and the Euro selections debacle things of the past while allowing the party to claim the mantle of ‘fairness’ for what it does, rather than what it promises.

Ben Cobley blogs at A Free Left Blog and is secretary of Abbey Ward Branch Labour Party

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