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Labour Party Democracy

I wrote the following article for Socialist Campaign Group News September  2007

Defend Conference Sovereignty

Welcome though the “Brown bounce” is, the Labour Party still has an uphill task to re-engage with our electoral base.  Active and committed Party members will be crucial in securing a fourth term of government.  Bringing in “all the talents” into policy making should surely include those on the left!

In his document “Extending and Renewing Party Democracy”, Gordon Brown has acknowledged that members want to be more involved in policy making and that their ideas must not just disappear into a black hole.   However his proposal to replace ‘contemporary resolutions’ with ‘contemporary issues’ would remove the one area where CLPs and unions can still bring resolutions to Conference and determine policy, albeit on a maximum of eight topics each year.

I accept that the existing system that allows the Government to ignore policies passed overwhelmingly at Conference is not working and adds to the disengagement felt by many members as a result of the over-centralisation of power within the Party.  If Gordon is really serious about tackling this problem, his proposal needs to be changed to allow conference to vote on issues submitted by CLPs and affiliates and not just to prioritise for referral to the widely discredited National Policy Forum.  It would also be beneficial to remove the artificial restriction of ‘contemporary’ currently placed on what issues can be discussed and voted on, as it is more useful to devote time to addressing the topics that are of principal concern.

The idea of having direct election of NPF reps by the whole Conference, to be responsible for progressing policies approved by Conference is a good one.  But there also needs to be reform of the policy forum process, which, in its present form, is anything but a “partnership in power”.  The threshold for alternative positions should be lowered to 15% of those attending NPF plenaries and voting at Conference must be allowed on sections of policy forum documents right up to the manifesto stage and not on the current take it or leave it” basis.  CLPs and unions should be able to submit either an amendment to a policy document or a motion for prioritisation and approval.  The current manipulation of the NPF process by ministers must end and Conference must be allowed to give a clear policy direction to the leadership.  After all, on those few issues where Conference has disagreed with the leadership, Conference has been shown to be right.  It is now acknowledged that the 75p rise in pensions was a mistake as was the failure to restore the pensions’ link to earnings, health service privatisation is now being reviewed and hints given that the role of council housing will be restored.

In a democratic political party there will always be the possibility that the leadership is defeated on policy issues.  Prime ministers are not infallible and it is widely acknowledged there have been serious mistakes over the past few years.  Such problems cannot be solved by abandoning aspects of the Party’s internal democracy.  On the contrary, the experience of recent years emphasises need for a more democratic decision-making process.

Another proposed rule change being put to the vote this year is that the draft manifesto should be subject to a membership ballot.  Policy documents will not be mailed out to every member and they are not amendable at this stage.  This is not a process that will give members a real chance to influence the manifesto but a hugely expensive rubber stamping exercise, that does not involve the membership in policy determination, but uses it to endorse a fait accompli.  It is, in fact a rehash of the membership vote that took place in 1996 and the very suggestion is a sign that Gordon’s credentials are not as democratic as he tries to make out.   Let us hope he sees sense and withdraws this proposal and looks to build on those that will truly give members an effective role in the development of Party policy!

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