Labour’s row over its procedures for selecting parliamentary candidates and electing its leadership is deeply depressing. The time and energy that have been wasted on this senseless internal bust-up should have been used to develop the coherent political strategy and radical vision that Labour so obviously lacks.
Both sides in the argument have been acting as if something extraordinarily important is at stake. Some claim that the introduction of one member one vote would transform Labour’s relationship with the trade unions or perhaps even destroy it. Others argue that Labour’s credibility as a democratic party would be undermined without the immediate introduction of OMOV. Still others give the impression that Labour’s chances in the next election somehow depend on how the row is resolved.
All this is rubbish. Now that all sides have agreed that everyone involved in selections and leadership elections should be balloted, there is no way that any of the options on offer lack democratic legitimacy.
More importantly, the reality is that parliamentary selections and leadership elections are not particularly crucial in defining the relationship between Labour and the unions. Contrary to the hype on all sides, even simple OMOV, as advocated by John Smith and the so-called modernisers on the National Executive Committee, would make only the smallest of changes to the nature of the party-union link.
Whatever happens, Labour will remain utterly reliant on the trade unions to pay its bills until some government (which will not be Tory) introduces state funding of political parties. Whatever happens, the unions will retain a decisive block vote at Labour Party conference, will keep more than one-third of the seats on the NEC and will still have representation on Constituency Labour Party general committees.
Even with OMOV, the Tories would be perfectly justified in saying that Labour is the party of the trade unions. The current row, in short, is not about whether there is a union link or not: it is about the party’s procedural minutiae. While these are of great interest to Labour politicians, trade union leaders, political commentators and a handful of ordinary members of the party, they are not burning questions for most of the dwindling band of Labour card-carriers, let alone for the vast majority of voters.
For some unfathomable reason, most sane Labour Party members, along with most voters, consider that the credibility of the party’s programme and of its front-bench team matters more than the technicalities of internal party organisation.
From this point of view, one can only despair that many senior Labour figures have leaped into the OMOV fray with such relish, displaying an enthusiasm that they have not applied to any other task in the past year.
In the past week, Labour has gone from looking lacklustre and dull to appearing insular and introverted, utterly incapable of even the most elementary ordering of political priorities.
One hates to imagine what it would be like if it actually had some power.