Britain’s next general election is scheduled for 2015. Political parties are preparing their appeals to the electorate and their constituency branches are choosing candidates who will stand as their representatives. In the last week, during this routine selection process, there has been an almighty row in the Labour Party prompted by machinations in the Scottish constituency of Falkirk — one that threatens to decisively change the processes of British parliamentary democracy.
What happened in Falkirk was this: UNITE, the largest trade union in the country and one which contributes significant sums to the Labour Party coffers, registered a number of its union members to the Labour Party without their knowledge so that they could with a large vote ‘fix’ the selection of the party’s candidate and in this ‘safe’ Labour seat plant their nominee in parliament.
These machinations were exposed by the press and the selection procedure denounced as corrupt and suspended by Ed Milliband, the leader of the Labour Party. Apart from suspending this selection, Milliband announced that the Labour Party would in the future open up the selection of its parliamentary candidates to all voters in a 'primary' election, whether they were members of the Labour Party or not.
This is not only a historic proposal; it is seen as an ironic one because Ed Milliband was himself elected to the leadership of the Labour Party through the support of the trade unions. He is seen as biting the hand that fed him, but he can do no other. He knows that the general electorate won't vote for a party that is openly controlled or manipulated by the institutions of trade unions.
The Labour Party was founded in part by the trade unions, starting out as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 and transforming itself into the parliamentary party in 1906.
The trade unions have always funded the party, just as at first landowners and then as now capitalists have funded the Tories.
Milliband's proposal to throw open the selection of candidates, albeit from a slate nominated by the party, to all the voters in a constituency, party members or not, is revolutionary. He is telling the unions, the historic base of his party, that they will have no say in the selection of candidates. He must know that he runs the risk of the big unions breaking ties with the Labour Party and withdrawing their funding of it.
Indian parliamentary democracy was the bastard child of Westminster but it went its way and forged its own destinies, patterns and corruptions through its 68 year development. Can this crisis in British democratic procedure suggest any analogous developments in India? May one fantasise?
The leadership of the BJP announces that the RSS has no say in choosing its parliamentary candidates. Narendra Modi announces that if he is chosen as leader and PM designate every BJP parliamentary candidate will be chosen by a 'primary' election of all voters and not by powerbrokers, vote-bank lords, local dadas or through some transactions involving money.
In the vast Indian constituencies such 'primaries', not organised and executed by the state, would require gargantuan organisation and funding.
Where would such funding come from? The backers and funders of political parties and their activities in India are not philanthropic benefactors of the democratic process - they are funding their own political and financial influence. The main parties have thousands of backers on this quid pro quo basis. The CPI(M), I imagine though I admit I don't know, is funded to a small extent by membership fees and to a larger extent by vested interests who fund the plausible or likely party of power with no regard to ideology.
Years ago I was confronted with a dilemma. My friend Tarun Tejpal's journalistic outfit exposed a video which showed my other friend Jaya Jaitley accepting a bribe on behalf of the then BJP coalition's defence minister George Fernandes.
The exposé was revolutionary, even though the sums involved were peanuts compared to the scandals and corruption the Indian media has exposed in the years after Tejpal's Tehelka pioneered the technique of the sting that serves the truth.
I was asked by the editor of an Indian newspaper who knew that I was a friend of both Jaya and of Tarun to comment. Which side was I on? Jaya, Fernandes and some in the government resorted to the absurd idea that the Tehelka expose was a fraud using doctored tapes.
Considering the affair from several angles I sent this challenging editor a column in the form of an open letter to Jaya advising her to acknowledge the truth of the Tehelka tape, to plead guilty of corrupt practice and to argue in mitigation that unlike in rich democracies such as the USA, small political parties in India, such as the 'socialist' one that Fernandes and she were part of, had scant sources of funding and the money she was seen accepting on the secret tape was destined for the party and the furtherance of a poor and desperate democratic process. Jaya didn't take my advice and we haven't spoken since.
Farrukh Dhondy is an author,
screenplay writer and columnist based in London
The views expressed by the author are personal