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.

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

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

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As a Conservative MP, I want Parliament to get a proper debate on Brexit

The government should consider a Green Paper before Article 50. 

I am very pleased that the government has listened to the weight of opinion across the House of Commons – and the country – by agreeing to put its plan for Brexit before Parliament and the country for scrutiny before Article 50 is triggered. Such responsiveness will stand the government in good stead. A confrontation with Parliament, especially given the paeans to parliamentary sovereignty we heard from Leave campaigners during the referendum, would have done neither the Brexit process nor British democracy any good.

I support the government’s amendment to Labour’s motion, which commits the House to respecting the will of the British people expressed in the referendum campaign. I accept that result, and now I and other Conservatives who campaigned to Remain are focused on getting the best deal for Britain; a deal which respects the result of the referendum, while keeping Britain close to Europe and within the single market.

The government needs to bring a substantive plan before Parliament, which allows for a proper public and parliamentary debate. For this to happen, the plan provided must be detailed enough for MPs to have a view on its contents, and it must arrive in the House far enough in advance of Article 50 for us to have a proper debate. As five pro-European groups said yesterday, a Green Paper two months before Article 50 is invoked would be a sensible way of doing it. Or, in the words of David Davis just a few days before he was appointed to the Cabinet, a “pre-negotiation white paper” could be used to similar effect.

Clearly there are divisions, both between parties and between Leavers and Remainers, on what the Brexit deal should look like. But I, like other members of the Open Britain campaign and other pro-European Conservatives, have a number of priorities which I believe the government must prioritise in its negotiations.

On the economy, it is vital that the government strives to keep our country fully participating in the single market. Millions of jobs depend on the unfettered trade, free of both tariff and non-tariff barriers, we enjoy with the world’s biggest market. This is absolutely compatible with the result, as senior Leave campaigners such as Daniel Hannan assured voters before the referendum that Brexit would not threaten Britain’s place in the single market. The government must also undertake serious analysis on the consequences of leaving the customs union, and the worrying possibility that the UK could fall out of our participation in the EU’s Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with non-EU countries like South Korea.

If agreeing a new trading relationship with Europe in just two years appears unachievable, the government must look closely into the possibility of agreeing a transitional arrangement first. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, has said this would be possible and the Prime Minister was positive about this idea at the recent CBI Conference. A suitable transitional arrangement would prevent the biggest threat to British business – that of a "cliff edge" that would slap costly tariffs and customs checks on British exports the day after we leave.

Our future close relationship with the EU of course goes beyond economics. We need unprecedentedly close co-operation between the UK and the EU on security and intelligence sharing; openness to talented people from Europe and the world; and continued cooperation on issues like the environment. This must all go hand-in-hand with delivering reforms to immigration that will make the system fairer, many of which can be seen in European countries as diverse as the Netherlands and Switzerland.

This is what I and others will be arguing for in the House of Commons, from now until the day Britain leaves the European Union. A Brexit deal that delivers the result of the referendum while keeping our country prosperous, secure, open and tolerant. I congratulate the government on their decision to involve the House in their plan for Brexit - and look forward to seeing the details. 

Neil Carmichael is the Conservative MP for Stroud and supporter of the Open Britain campaign.