SINCE PARTY CONFERENCE made it easier to move from delegate General Committees (GCs) to All Members Meetings (AMMs) for Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), there have been several attempts to do this. Many unions have now woken up too late to the implications of this rule change which they voted for.
Since the Tolpuddle Martyrs, combination – solidarity – has been central to the labour movement. Instead of that collectivism, the move to AMMs reduces us to individuals.
Trade unions are autonomous organisations with their own structures and rule books, not branches of the party. Unions decide collectively whether to affiliate to the Labour Party. That means the union affiliates. It does not mean every member of that union is a party member, but that the union has the right to send representatives to every level of the party - local, regional and national. It was through such collective decision-making that unions decided to found the Labour Party.
Saying all party members are union members, as some stress, does not address the issue of union collective decision-making, nor the fact that union delegates are representing members who have voted for them to be delegates but are not necessarily themselves party members. AMMs weaken the input of the unions into the party.
A delegate structure ensures the trade union-party link is real locally. Local union branches can meet and decide policy and elect delegates through democratic debate. Delegates then represent them in CLPs. Local activists have an input which they may not have regionally or nationally. That link to the organised working class is, to a large part, responsible for the fact that the Labour Party has not disappeared like many social democratic parties which had no such link to prevent them going over totally to neo-liberalism – such as PASOK in Greece and the SP in France.
The importance of that union input can be easily illustrated – the Blair government wanted to privatise Royal Mail. It was only the campaign of the CWU, both inside and outside the party, that stopped it. Many on the left of the party see AMMs as a way of loosening the grip of the right on their CLP. Owen Jones cheered on the move to AMMs in Streatham. Momentum appears to be cheering on the move behind the scenes – all this on the basis of ‘what works’.
We should be careful what we wish for. The Blairite ‘modernisers’ did most to reduce the influence of the unions in the party. They saw the link with the unions as a hindrance to the party making its peace with capitalism. The Tories have always pushed to keep the unions out of politics – the lobbying bill being the latest example.
Myths abound, such as that GCs deny members a right to vote. They don’t. We all have a right to vote in our branch meetings. No one suggests we should all be able to turn up at party conference and vote. The CLP sends delegates on our behalf. The same goes for regional conferences. So a delegate structure is accepted, just not at CLP level.
There are plenty of examples of undemocratic manipulation of both AMMs and GCs. The only protection against undemocratic practice is organisation and vigilance. One problem with AMMs is that you cannot be sure who will turn up. This can result in more power devolving to the executive, the reverse of what is being claimed.
Party branch delegations must be at least 50% women. Moving to AMMs increases the chances of male domination of CLPs. Members around the country report that with the introduction of AMMs attendance at branch meetings falls. Branch meetings should be where local campaigns are planned, and councillors questioned and held to account. That can’t happen properly at CLP level, whether GC or AMM, but moving to AMMs makes it less likely since many members would see participation in branch meetings as less important.
Venues are often barely big enough to accommodate GC meetings. Bigger venues would be needed for AMMs, with all the problems of availability and increased costs.
Of course, union involvement is not always democratic. We need to democratise our unions just as we need to democratise the party. But unions are an organic part of the party, not some outdated add-on. Unions may presently be weaker than for decades, but the answer is to build them and organise, not to turn our backs on them.