Friday, July 28, 2006

Democracy has broken out in the union movement

Rumour has it that that was how a usually politic (to the point of boringness) union official responded to Laila Harre beating Mike Jackson in the first round vote for the position of National Secretary of the NDU. The news that Jill Ovens beat Lisa Eldret to the position of Northern Secretary has provoked a similar sort of reaction among similar circumstances. Both times the incumbent used all the power of their position (and then some), to try and

I'm delighted that a challenger can beat an incumbent within the union movement, but I'm not sure that that's quite the same as democracy. Obviously, I'm also pleased that both the eventual victors were more left-wing, more competent and more principled than the people they challenged (although admittedly that's not a particularly high standard on any count). That doesn't mean that either of those unions have become fantastically more democractic because of those victories.

One of the big debates among left-wing groups is what is the more truly democratic way to make decisions. To generalise hugely anarchists tend to prefer concensus decision making and communists tend to prefer voting. As I tend to do in these situations I agree with the criticisms both groups make of each other.

I think that concensus decision making is usually the best form of decision making for action-based groups that involve people from a lot of different backgrounds (although I speak from experience when I say I would rather wax my legs than design a poster or decide a slogan by consensus - well I've never waxed my legs, but it sounds like it'd be painful) - there's no point in going on a simple majority rules basis if people don't have a commitment to the group and a willingness to carry out decisions if they lose the vote. I have no problem with voting in a situation where there are only two options, a decision has to be made and people have committed to a majority rules decision making basis (as in a ratification vote or a strike vote). But I do know that both consensus decision making and voting can be pretty easily manipulated - and they're most easily manipulated when a select group of people control the flow of information.

But the decisions I have most experience of, and appear to me to work in a reasonably democractic way, are relatively simple decisions, either single decisions, or a larger group of decision made by a reasonably small group of people. The questions that are made when it comes to running a union are generally a lot more complicated. I can see roles for voting and roles for consensus, roles for elected, recallable delegates, and roles for direct decision making. But I do know that a truly meaningfully, democratic organistion would not look the way unions look now. The most meaningful indicator of whether or not an organisation (or country) is democratic is not the form used to make decisions, but the level of participation and knowledge. While unions are very democratic by our society's standards, they're not democratic by mine, because all the theoretically democratic structures in the world don't help without participation.

I don't expect either Laila or Jill to change that, I don't think we can expect leaders to just give democracy.


  1. Sounds like a lead in to a debate on compulsory voting or even compulsory consensus making (however that might look). The problem being most people feel the odds of their vote making a difference are miniscule and that gets stronger and stronger the bigger the population making the decision.

    For vast numbers of people it is completely rational to say "it is more important for me to do the shopping today than to waste my time participating" and that argument generally gets stronger the poorer you are also.

    I see a balance between, for starters civil liberties (1), corruption (2), democracy and equality (3).

    1. i.e. you could have various degrees of imposed structure
    2. You could just leave gaping holes in the system and just accept there will be some abuse
    3. You could atomize society into many tiny groups each democratic but not democratic as a whole.

    With a world like that I guess we can feel any marginal improvement is good consider the utopia looks pretty much impossible.

  2. I assume you've seen that Jill has joined Labour? (see Indymedia if you haven't).


  3. It's very weird Asher - it's not like Darien Fenton wasn't doing her best to ensure Lisa got the job. I don't see what Jill would see in the Labour party (unless she sees herself as an MP) or vice versa.

  4. I think it was an issue of trying to neutralise the argument that it was about voting for Labour or the Alliance, which is how the Eldret camp were playing it. The real issue was about competence and vision and Jill joining Labour meant that became the debate. That's my 10c anyway.