Suffocating lack of democracy


Delegate Jim Moody gives his impressions of the Liverpool Labour Party conference, 25-29 September 2011

Miliband: Blairism without Blair?

New Labour is dead: long live the refounded Labour Party! Well, that’s not quite what happened in Liverpool last week. In fact, the Blairite legacy is alive and well and functions to destroy real debate within the party, especially at what should be its ultimate decision-making body, annual conference.

The other side of this coin was illustrated on the Mersey too: that the unions are decisive and if their bureaucracies wanted they could change the present state of affairs, for the betterment of party democracy. In actual fact, conference functions largely as a PR presentation for the media, with stage-managed speeches absent of contention with respect to any proposal on the table, since almost everything has been decided beforehand, beyond the conference hall.

Attending conference as a delegate for the first time was an almost joyless experience for me. Unsurprisingly and perhaps even unremarkably, the attenuated (ie, denial of) democracy beloved of New Labour persists. Those of us active in the party know how democratically eviscerated it has become since the time of Blair’s takeover in the mid-1990s. When it comes to what would be usual for conferences of trade unions and all kinds of democratic organisations, Labour now does things differently. We have arrived at a situation where, instead of a conference at which affiliates’ and constituencies’ delegates debate motions and amendments to motions, there are the deliberately impenetrable and abstruse policy forums and subsequent empty rhetoric and pointless conference speeches. Once the national policy forum’s (NPF) report is accepted by the national executive committee, that is that: the report, section by section, can only be accepted or rejected by conference; no amendments are allowed. As expected, it was passed as the leadership intended following conference ‘debate’. In conference itself, there were only flashes of real discussion, mainly centring on attempts to reference-back the morning’s conference arrangements committee (CAC) reports on a couple of occasions.

Constituency Labour Parties and affiliates such as trade unions are allowed to submit one so-called contemporary motion (and CLPs can only do that if they have not submitted a rule change proposal). However, if a contemporary motion is to stand a chance of appearing on the conference order paper at all, its subject matter must not already have been discussed by the NPF or its commissions before the cut-off date (the NPF’s last meeting in late July). Obviously, this considerably constrains what CLPs and affiliated organisations can put forward. At conference itself this thin slice of permitted motions is squeezed into a few composites, only eight of which can be moved. On the first day two groups – CLPs and affiliates (overwhelmingly the unions) – each choose four composites.

But this year, through overlapping choices and the restricted interpretation of the CAC, only five composites actually made it onto the agenda. The unions chose ‘Jobs, growth, employment rights’; ‘Health and social care’; ‘Phone hacking’; and ‘Public services’. CLPs in the main disregarded advice given in the first bulletin put out by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, so their votes were largely wasted when they were cast for three dead certs (ie, three of the union-backed composites), plus a composite on ‘Housing’. This meant, for example, that the ‘August riots’ did not get taken: a glaring omission. Although there were challenges to the CAC’s morning reports on its recommendations, none was successful and chairs of sessions refused calls for card votes.

What constitutes an emergency motion to conference was even more tightly defined: so much so that none of those submitted this year cleared the hurdles placed in their way. All the proposed rule changes that were accepted onto the agenda, none of which was earth-shattering, fell on card votes after CAC recommendations against their acceptance.

Of course, arguably the most important item at conference has been the culmination of discussions on the Refounding Labour document first proposed by Peter Hain in March on the instigation of Ed Miliband. Branches and CLPs spent considerable time and effort on this project, submitting thousands of responses. But these appear hardly to have been given more than a nod in the end; we are still waiting to see if the responses will be published in full; the only feedback so far, apart from standard bland letters of acknowledgment from Hain, has been bare statistics on the number of responses that were made.

The NEC finalised a reformulated version days before conference after secret recommendations were made by its organisation committee in the light of trade union objections. Then last-minute negotiations between party and union officials on the day before conference started ensured that the leadership’s key proposals were retained in Refounding Labour.

Accordingly, from now on non-members can become registered supporters of the Labour Party, able to vote in the leadership election and otherwise participate within the party alongside individual members; levy-paying trade union members will have to register to have these rights. The unions pushed through a concession, whereby this is not achieved solely at the expense of their representation, as was originally proposed. The last-ditch deal allows registered supporters, once their numbers reach 50,000, to gain 3% of electoral college votes, with 1% taken from each of the three former electoral college components: individual members within Constituency Labour Parties; those paying the political levy in the trade unions; and MPs. If registered supporter numbers increase beyond the minimum 50,000, the proportion of electoral college votes they control will rise progressively up to a maximum of 10%, to be allocated on the same basis: ie, a 30:30:30:10 split.

In addition to the dilution of membership rights, both individual and trade union, another step away from democracy was contained in the document. The longstanding right of Labour MPs to elect members of the shadow cabinet is now abolished. Instead, the Labour leader while in opposition now has the right to select whomsoever he wishes independently of any Labour body, just as a Labour prime minister already does. This further adds to the dictatorial powers of the leader, who, instead of acting like an elected monarch, should be accountable to and recallable by the NEC. And no-one should be fooled by all those full seats during such set-piece, key PR moments as the leader’s speech: officials will put anyone and her brother in empty ones to ensure the hall looks full. There were more media and PR people attending conference than delegates, which is nothing out of the ordinary these days.

Of course, given the way things are carved up in the Labour Party, neither CLPs nor affiliates were able to intervene openly to change Refounding Labour at conference; once again, no amendments were allowed. It was again ‘take it or leave it’ time. A minority of delegates followed the logic of opposition to these objectionable proposals, as well as to the undemocratic process as a whole, and voted against the entire document when it came to a card vote on the first day of conference.

The bitter pill had been sweetened for conference delegates by offering incentives. Constituencies will no longer have to pay a fee for the first delegates they send. In addition, local councillors and Young Labour will in future have representation at annual conference and distinct rights in leadership elections. But why should councillors – or MPs, for that matter – be granted special powers and rights? This is another example of the tail wagging the dog, since they allegedly represent us.

However, there may be some unintended positive consequences for party democracy. It all depends upon how members press the point. For it now may be possible, as a consequence of the rule changes brought in by Refounding Labour to win (its new name), for branches and constituencies to allow affiliate (eg, trade union levy-paying) members, as well as the new registered supporters, to attend their meetings.

Unable to amend it, on the usual ‘take it or leave it’ basis CLPs overwhelmingly supported the final NEC-approved version of Refounding Labour to win: voting was 112,286 in favour, with 14,842 against. Affiliates, which numerically are mainly the trade unions, voted 2,459,269 for and only 11,822 against.

The high point for real debate at conference has to be its fringe meetings, where all sorts of groups – within and without the Labour Party – vied for delegates’ attention at lunch breaks and at the end of each day. Single-issue campaigns provided plenty of scope to discuss questions where debate was squashed out of the agenda in the conference hall itself.

The best fringe meeting that I attended was organised by the Labour Representation Committee in a nearby hotel. Over 200 comrades crammed into a sweltering room to hear platform speakers John McDonnell, Tony Benn, PCS’s Mark Serwotka and Unite’s Len McCluskey lambast politicians of all stripes, including Labour ones. The speakers’ main focus was on the forthcoming strike on November 30, but they and contributors from the floor called for the resistance to the cuts to be built beyond one-day events and to include civil disobedience.

Comrade McDonnell stated that class struggle is “at its bitterest for generations”, while Len McCluskey wanted the widest “coalition of resistance”. Mark Serwotka was very clear: “We should say there should be no public spending cuts … We should say we’re not having austerity.” Were the mood and tenor of the LRC meeting to have been that of even a large minority at the conference itself, there could have been a direct challenge to the pro-capitalist cliques that currently vie at the top of the party to control it.

As well as those organised by unions and other groups from the working class movement, there were fringes put on not just by charities, but by overtly pro-capitalist bodies. The very well-funded Blairite Progress group held several, in conjunction with ‘partners’ such as the Chemical Industries Association; Progress had a platform speaker at one fringe meeting from Nato’s London Information Network on Conflicts and State-building. One of the Fabian Society fringes was supported by EEF, “the manufacturers’ organisation”. Businesses and commercial organisations holding fringe meetings included Aviva, the Nuclear Industry Association, Reuters, The Times and The Observer.