Chris Trotter writes:
WHAT MUST LABOUR DO to be welcomed back by ordinary Kiwis? What are the things it has to find, and what must it lose?
The first thing it has to lose is trade union affiliation. The big private sector unions still associated with the Labour Party: the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) and the Service and Food Workers Union; must be cut loose – and soon.
I write those words with a heavy heart, because it was the affiliated union vote that elected me to the New Zealand Council of the Labour Party way back in 1987. In those grim years unionists were the backbone of the opposition to Rogernomics. They kept the flame of the true Labour faith flickering through the party’s darkest days. And it was the block-votes of the trade union affiliates which kept Helen Clark’s political machine ticking over so reliably for the 15 long years it controlled the party.
Even so, it’s time for them to go.
Many people do not realise that several unions do not just support Labour by way of donating money and staff time, but are in fact members of the Labour Party, with significant powers. I am of the view that political parties should only have natural persons as members, and all members should have equal voting strength. This is normally referred to as “one person, one vote”.
National does not allow businesses (or associations of businesses) to join the National Party, to vote at conferences, to help rank the party list and to vote at candidate selections. There would be outrage if (for example) the Auckland Chamber of Commerce got to vote on who should be National’s candidate for (eg) Tamaki or Pakuranga. And could you imagine the outcry if National had a representative from Business NZ sitting on its list ranking committee.
But the days when unions constituted a genuinely representative social, economic and political force are long gone – and with their democratic credentials has gone the rationale for the role they continue to play in the Labour Party. In the private sector workforce barely one worker in ten is unionised. The constitution of the public sector-dominated Council of Trade Unions swept away the democratic traditions which had animated the local trades councils and concentrated all power in the hands of a gaggle of union officials at the very summit of the organisation.
What’s more, the “electorate” responsible for electing these top officials has shrunk alarmingly. In more and more unions leaders are elected not by a postal ballot of the rank-and-file, but by a few score of hand-picked delegates at the union’s annual conference. What were formerly the powerhouses of working-class democracy; and the generators of workers’ power; have become self-selecting oligarchies, against which all dissent crashes and burns.
The Labour Party rules give significant power to unions that join Labour. There are five unions that have affiliated and they have 75,719 members between them. Their voting strength is based on what percentage of their members voted to affiliate. This info is not public but let us assume it is 75% on average which gives them 55,000 notional members.
Those 55,000 notional members are divided up amongst the 70 electorates based on the Labour Party vote (ie if an electorate gets 2% of the overall Labour Party vote, then the union voting strength in that electorate is 2% of 55,000 or 1,100 notional members. On average 55,000/70 is 785 members per electorate. As you can imagine, this is vastly more than the actual number of individual members. Based on current union numbers and assuming a 75% voting strength, the average electorate committee would have unions entitled to 14 delegates on the LEC – EPMU 6, SWFU 4, DWU 2, RMU 1, MU 1. The maximum size of an LEC is 30 members so at an electorate level unions can easily dominate should they wish to.
At the annual conference which sets policy, unions get 3 votes for the first 1,000 members and then 1 vote per member after that. So based on 55,000 notional members they get 115 votes. Certainly not a majority, but still a very significant bloc. It is equal to around 29 electorates.
In terms of selection meetings, unions have multiple routes of influence. If they dominate the LEC, they can get two of their own elected to the selection committee. They can also get any of their members who live in the electorate to attend the selection meeting and vote for one of their own from the floor to join the selection committee. And they can also dominate the floor vote for preferred candidate, which counts as one of seven votes on the committee.
The affiliate unions also have significant representation on regional list ranking conferences.
If Labour wants to do the working-class a big favour it will purge its party of these oligarchs and welcome workers into the party as ordinary rank-and-file members. Who knows, if enough of them join up, they might even be able to persuade Labour’s MPs (including those who owe their positions on the Party List to the machinations of the Affiliates Council’s wise old heads) to rebuild New Zealand’s trade unions to Twenty-First Century specifications – most particularly by requiring them to operate, from bottom to top, as inclusive, transparent and recognisably democratic institutions.
This is the democratic way to do it. Don’t give union bosses card votes where they can outvote individual members. Don’t allow someone to turn up to and vote at a selection meeting who has never participated in the Labour Party previously. Unions can and should encourage their members to join and get involved in Labour, but the unions themselves should not get rights of representation in a modern democratic party. I strongly believe that only natural persons should be eligible to join a political party – not unions and businesses.
Almost everyone in Labour is saying they are unhappy with the 2011 list ranking, where some of their more talented new MPs were given lower rankings than other MPs with union support and backgrounds. Will anyone in Labour be bold enough to agree with Chris Trotter and call for reform of their candidate selection and ranking rules?
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