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We are far too casual about the integrity of democracy

This week, a Labour internal report into the Falkirk vote-fixing affair concluded:

"There can be no doubt that members were recruited in an attempt to manipulate party processes." The report identified "evidence that signatures were forged ... members were pressured into completing direct debit forms ... members were recruited without their knowledge". This was the unpublished report that led Ed Miliband in July to denounce "the politics of the machine, a politics that is rightly hated" and promise to sweep away cronyism and electoral manipulation by introducing one-member-one-vote (OMOV)reforms.

But the reaction to the emergence of the full Falkirk report seemed curiously muted. This was partly because many of the conclusions had already been leaked. The Unite union officials who were criticised objected that it was a stitch-up. And some commentators shrugged and said, in effect: this is the way it's always been in safe Labour constituencies, where votes are traditionally weighed not counted, and internal factions have sought to rig candidate selections by freely interpreting the rules. The Blairite commentator, John Rentoul, no friend of the union bosses, wrote: "The signing of new members is what candidates who are serious about getting selected have to do ... and it is to be expected that, with the stakes so high, the rules will be stretched or broken." Does he mean that there's nothing wrong in signing up members to a party without their knowledge? Yes, apparently. Labour insiders point out that trades union members have always been enlisted, en masse, through the trade union levy into nominal membership of the Labour Party. This is just carrying it a bit further, kind of. And anyway, isn't it a good sign that Labour Party activists are fighting tooth and nail to get their best candidates into place?

Well, I suppose it is - if you think personation, identity theft, dishonesty and vote-rigging are signs of robust grass-roots democracy. But no. I don't think we can dismiss Falkirk as activist over-enthusiasm. The fact it has always gone on doesn't justify it. Bad behaviour in constituencies matters because the habits developed will likely be carried into government. A culture of manipulation and dishonesty leads to governments that dissemble and deceive. The omni-scandals that afflicted the Scottish Labour leadership in Holyrood in the early years of this century (lobbygate, expenses, Wendy Alexander's donations) surely show the danger of allowing this culture being carried into office.

Now, I don't want to appear pious but machine politics is very corrosive and undermines politicians who are themselves largely honest. Gordon Brown, for example, was a decent man who tried to cope with the culture of factionalism and manipulation in his party by surrounding himself with fixers such as Damian McBride, aka "McPoison", who would do what was necessary to promote the interests of his prince. It all got a bit out of hand when Mr McBride started briefing the press to damage other Labour politicians, as well as Tories.

This isn't just a problem for Labour. All political parties have been corrupted to a degree by the collapse of mass memberships, the loss of subscription revenues, and the need to raise cash from special interests: the trades unions or big business. Without an active membership, political parties become hollow shells where tightly-knit groups can use moribund party structures to their advantage. Money talks loudest in rooms with the fewest people.

So, let us praise the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, for pledging to put an end to this culture forever by introducing OMOV democracy. There has been too much hypocrisy and excusing of bad habits. However, his scheme, in a report by Lord Collins that will be presented to a special Labour conference next month, won't be fully implemented until 2020. And it isn't quite OMOV. Trades unions will still field their "affiliated" political levy-paying members in party elections, though the levy payers will have to opt in, not out. In other words, they will have to give their express agreement, first that they want their political levy paid to Labour, and secondly that they want to have a vote in the leadership election.

The last vestige of the bloc vote, the electoral college for leadership elections in which trades unions have a one-third share, is to go. Every Labour member and affiliated member will theoretically carry the same electoral clout. This means Mr Miliband is scrapping the system that got him elected as Labour leader. He rode to power on the back of union exclusionism. Union bosses sent "Vote Ed" flyers out with ballot papers and didn't allow rival leadership candidates access to their membership lists. This we are assured will not happen in future.

Mind you, some conspiracy theorist claim that the Collins OMOV reform will create just another mechanism for trades union domination of the party. The Labour blogger, Dan Hodges, claims that hundreds of thousands of new opted-in trades union affiliated members will flood the party, giving even more clout to the trades union barons. Instead of the unions having only 33% of an electoral college they could have more than 50% of the new membership structure and a decisive say in who leads Labour. Len McCluskey has the last laugh.

But that's a bit like saying some votes are less democratic than others. If they are legitimate voting members, who sign up and pay their dues and consciously vote, then it surely doesn't matter whether they are trades unionists, councillors or Seventh Day Adventists. It was, anyway, the trades unions that created Labour in the first place, when James Keir Hardie persuaded the TUC a century ago to dump the Liberals and field their own parliamentary candidates. Labour began life as the Labour Representation Committee. So, the unions are always going to figure prominently in Labour politics.

Will these reforms end the Falkirk nonsense? Well, actually no, they won't, of themselves. If trades unionists happen to be constituency chairs and decide to create phoney members they could still rig candidate selections. The Unite officials accused by the Falkirk report of malpractice insist they were innocent. They say the evidence is inconclusive and that they've had no opportunity to defend themselves.

And it has to be said that the leaking of the report on the very day Ed Miliband announced a special conference to push through his reforms did smack just a little of the machine politics the Labour leader supposedly deplores

So, do we all move on with a weary, knowing shake of the head? Well, I hope not. It is beyond doubt that there was some pretty blatant jiggery pokery going on in Falkirk and it is certainly not an isolated incident. Remember Monklands.

Remember the votes-for-trips scandals in Glasgow. The price of political integrity is eternal vigilance. But I fear that the lack of outrage at the Falkirk revelations does rather show how casual we have come about the integrity of democracy.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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