Rule changes at Labour conference 2018: The good, the bad and a huge betrayal

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This article looks at the most important rule changes that were adopted – or defeated – at Labour Party conference 2018. Please note that it deals with rule changes only. For a political assessment of conference, please click here. We also recommend this article about the conference session on Palestine: Rhea Wolfson and Emily Thornberry – pro-Zionist sisters in arms.

Most rule changes were pushed through at conference in eight ‘packages’ coming out of the Party Democracy Review. The original recommendations from Katy Clark to the party’s ruling NEC – while far from radical – actually contained a number of very sensible proposals. Unfortunately, meeting the night before party conference, the NEC decided to reject most of those, which means conference did not get to vote on them:

– that a CLP/union should be able to submit both a motion and a rule change in any one year;
– that the 3-year rule for rule changes be abolished (if a proposed rule change touches on a subject that has been discussed in the last three years, it is automatically ruled out of order)
– that policymaking in the party should no longer be outsourced to the National Policy Forum (which has been established by Tony Blair)
– that the Local Campaign Forums should revert back to the more accountable Local Government Committees;
– that there should be a number of democratic changes in the local government area – for example, that members would vote for the local Labour group leader on the council and the election manifesto;

THE BAD

Leadership Elections: Just like before, any candidate will still need the support of at least 10% of MPs/MEPs. But in addition, they will now also require nominations from 5% of individual party members, or 5% of union and other affiliates. Marxists demand the scrapping of all hurdles – surely it should be up to the members to decide who their leader should be, not the right-wingers in the PLP.

The national constitutional committee (which deals with disciplinary cases that the NEC does not want to deal with itself) will more than double in size from 11 to 25. However, the right is likely to retain an inbuilt majority, because it is mainly made up of delegates from affiliates rather than CLPs: it is an outrage that union delegates can decide on disciplinary matters affect Labour members. Also, adding 14 members might indeed “speed things up”, but this does not mean that the proceedings will become any more just or fair – especially now that the NEC has adopted the ‘working definition’ on Anti-Semitism published by the International Holocaus Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

Witch-hunters’ charter: In order for Labour to become the umbrella organisation for all trade unions, socialist groups and pro-working class partisans, all undemocratic bans and proscriptions must be abolished. Unfortunately, a constitutional amendment from Mid Worcestershire, Rugby, Truro & Falmouth, Bexhill & Battle was defeated, which wanted to remove the first part of the infamous rule 2.1.4.B (‘membership conditions’) from the rulebook: This bars from membership anybody who “joins and/or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the party”.
This rule has been applied in an entirely one-sided way against leftwingers only – among them supporters of Socialist Appeal, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and Labour Party Marxists. Groups such as Progress and Labour First remain untouched and can continue to operate freely and in a highly organised fashion. And what about members of Stop the War Coalition or Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament? Surely they are also examples of a “political organisation”? This rule should go. A small consolation: 24 % voted for it to go.

Membership fees: The fact that the NEC’s decision to “review membership rates and discounts” had been categorised as a rule change (which will “expire” at the 2019 conference!) means that the motion from Tewkesbury, calling for 50% of members’ dues to be returned to CLPs, automatically fell. CLPs will continue to be seriously underfunded – they receive only £2.50 per member per year from party HQ.

Online Omov: The NEC will now run “pilots” to allow “electronic attendance” and “online voting” locally to look into ways of “maximising participation”. We think this is a retrograde step. Decisions should be taken by members who are fully informed and aware of the issues at stake. Online Omov atomises comrades and makes serious political engagement very difficult. For example, how do you question a candidate when all you have is a short statement and s/he does not reply to emails? In terms of making policy, how can you effectively move an amendment when you do not have the possibility of talking to people and explaining some of the nuances? Online voting also marginalises the role of the unions in the party. Yes, the representatives of rightwing unions have played an entirely negative role on the NEC and when it comes to trigger ballots. But in general, the affiliation of unions is an enormous strength of the Labour Party. While they should not be allowed to stop the democratic selection of parliamentary candidates, unions have clearly played an important role in preserving the character of the Labour Party as aworkers’ party, even under Tony Blair. In fact, we should fight for a serious commitment to a vigorous national campaign to affiliate all unions to the party.

THE GOOD

The category of “contemporary motions” at annual conference has been abolished. Previously the word “contemporary” has been used to automatically reject motions which were considered to overlap with reports from the NEC or National Policy Forum. Instead, CLPs will be able to submit motions to conference on any issue they choose and they do not have to continue to scramble around for ‘recent’ studies or articles to justify their submission.

Rule changes will be heard at conference in the same year they have been submitted by CLPs – getting rid of the undemocratic ‘tradition’ of delaying them for one year (which was never part of the rule book).

No second deputy leader: Wirral West withdrew this rule change when it transpired that Tom Watson was backing it, prompting fears that a right-winger was being groomed for the role. From Marxists’ point of view, the position of leader and deputy leader should actually be abolished altogether – it is very difficult to hold them to account or to get rid of them.

Trigger ballot: The NEC proposal has replaced the current trigger ballot with two separate ones: the first for local affiliated bodies like unions; and the second for the local Labour Party branches. The threshold in both has been reduced from the current 50% to 33% and it would be enough for one of the two sections to vote ‘no’ to start a full selection process – ie, a contest between the different candidates. This should make it easier to get rid of some right-wingers.

Quorum reduced: At the same time, the NEC has reduced the quorum for meetings with an all member structure to 5% of eligible members or 75 eligible members, whichever is lower. For meetings with a delegate structure, quorum remains 25% of eligible members.

AND ONE HUGE BETRAYAL

Much better of course if the undemocratic trigger ballot had been abolished altogether. This was a proposal moved by International Labour, which wanted to introduce open selection (aka mandatory reselection) of parliamentary candidates. And conference came within a whisker of adopting this important democratic principle. But it was defeated by Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey (who went against his own organisation’s position) and Momentum’s inept owner Jon Lansman. Click here to see a full report.

On the positive side, comrades in the Open Selection campaign have to decided to establish a permanent, national campaign that will bring back the rule change again – and again, if necessary, until we have won this important democratic principle.