The General Secretary and Labour Party Democracy

Jon Rogers asks if it is now time for the Party to elect its most senior offical

Momentum – which, like the Labour Party, is now “under new management” has launched a campaign in favour of broadening the franchise for the election of the General Secretary of the Labour Party.

This is a response to the recent correspondence, emanating from the office of the General Secretary, seeking to limit discussion by Labour Party members, purportedly in response to the report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

This correspondence from the General Secretary has prompted a vigorous response from many local activists. (Full disclosure – the author has written to the General Secretary more than once).

There will be those for whom the debate about the election of the General Secretary appears only to be a distraction, whether from a broader campaign for peace and justice or from the legendary #labourdoorstep (and what to do when you are on it). However, the General Secretary has – by his own conduct – chosen to make his position a focus of political controversy and so the debate will not go away.

Under the Rules of the Labour Party (Clause II Part 4 of Chapter 4) the General Secretary is already elected – but by the Party Conference rather than (as with the Leader and Deputy Leader) by an electoral college of members, affiliated members and registered supporters.

However this election is on the recommendation of the National Executive Committee (NEC), who also have the power to make an interim appointment should a vacancy arise, to be approved by the next Conference, as they have in the case of the current incumbent.

Therefore, currently, the de facto position has been that the General Secretary is selected by a vote of the NEC, which is subsequently endorsed by the Conference, although that body has the de jure authority to elect to the position.

There are a wide range of issues to be considered in relation to the proposal that members should have a direct voice in the election of the General Secretary. On the one hand, for example, there is a compelling democratic case for the election of all those who exercise power in our movement.

On the other hand, when two individuals hold elected office, with a similar mandate from the same electorate, that can create challenges – as we witnessed in recent years as Tom Watson opposed Jeremy Corbyn, prompting an abortive and cack-handed attempt to abolish his role as Deputy Leader.

I don’t presume to make a definitive contribution to a debate which is just starting, but will look at today’s debate in historical perspective – or to be more precise – and less ambitious – from the perspective of other debates at two particular points in past time.

More than thirty years ago, the Thatcher Government compelled trade unions to elect our General Secretaries by passing the 1988 Employment Act, arguably with the transparent, but frustrated, intention of persuading the miners to get rid of Arthur Scargill in particular.

That legislative intervention settled, in practice, a debate which had taken place in the movement between those who had favoured election, and those who felt that a General Secretary should be appointed by, and accountable to, an elected (lay) Executive.

A case can be – and was at the time – made for an appointed General Secretary to be simply the most senior administrative functionary, doing the bidding of elected lay members. But, among all the arguments advanced against “Tory anti-union laws” over the past generation, that case has not often been heard.

No one in the trade union movement now argues that we should go back to a time before the election of General Secretaries. But of course the position of a General Secretary in a trade union is arguably closer to the role of the elected Leader of the Labour Party than to that of the Party’s General Secretary – and it is evident that an elected General Secretary can be at the head of an otherwise unelected bureaucracy which can wield considerable, relatively unaccountable power.

To illuminate the long running controversy over the election of officials in our movement, it is worth going back much further, to the author who coined the phrase “the iron law of oligarchy”. More than 100 years ago, Robert Michels argued in Political Parties that “organisation implies the tendency to oligarchy” accepting that this “oligarchical and bureaucratic tendency of party organisation is a matter of technical and practical necessity.”

Michels argued, based in particular upon study of the German Social Democratic Party before the First World War, that working class political parties committed to social transformation, were compelled, by their development as large and complex organisations, to appoint leaders who came to exercise power over – as much as on behalf of – the rank and file membership.

In today’s Labour Party it is evident that the General Secretary exercises such power over the membership as much as, if not considerably more so than the Leader. Therefore any democrat, including any democratic socialist, finding themselves in the Labour Party should follow Tony Benn’s advice and ask the General Secretary five questions:

“What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?”  Benn said in the House of Commons in March 2001: “If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.” He might as well have said, of Party members; “If you cannot get rid of the people who govern your Party, you are not a member of a democratic Party.”

I would say that the answers to Benn’s five questions in respect of the position of General Secretary of the Labour Party are – at present – all more or less opaque. It’s  a situation which is wholly unsatisfactory from a democratic socialist perspective and to which extension of the franchise for election to the post is – at best – only a partial answer.

To answer the first two questions, we need a Rule Book which protects the democratic rights of Party members, and to which our NEC – for which, read the Party machine – cannot submit amendments at such short notice that Conference delegates barely have time to read them, let alone debate them in our CLPs.

A satisfactory answer to Benn’s third question – if posed to the General Secretary – depends very much upon the answer to the fourth, with which answer socialists could only be happy if we had an assertive, adequately resourced, independently minded NEC which would insist upon certain basics, such as being provided with detailed accounts which they can subject to full scrutiny.

At present the formal accountability of the General Secretary to the NEC is a mirror image of the substantive reality, in which the NEC often simply provides a rubber stamp for the actions of the Party bureaucracy. Reforming the power, procedures and accountability of the NEC is at least as important as who elects the General Secretary if the Labour Party is to live up to the claim on our membership cards that it is a democratic Party.

As to Benn’s fifth question, it would certainly be an improvement upon the current position if there was an extension of the current franchise so that members had a voice in choosing the General Secretary. But as importantly, there should be a requirement for periodic re-election (to remove the appearance of internal division if a challenge to an incumbent required some sort of “trigger”) and a reasonable threshold for nomination of a challenger by, say, 10% of CLPs or 10% of affiliates.

A General Secretary elected by the membership, along with a revised Rule Book and a reformed NEC, would not provide a guarantee that Party officialdom would cease to wage war on socialism – and socialists – within the Party, but they might go some way to make it less likely – and to make it more likely that our Party would live up to its democratic values.

Or – as Michels also said, more than a century ago, “Sometimes, however, the democratic principle carries with it, if not a cure, at least a palliative, for the disease of oligarchy.”

Jon Rogers was Branch Secretary of Lambeth UNISON from 1992 to 2017 and a member of the National Executive Council of UNISON from 2003 to 2017. He is now retired. He blogs regularly here.

Image: Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey at a 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings. Author: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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