Party democracy on the cusp

The most important issue at this year’s Annual Conference is the future of Party democracy. The hopes raised by some of the welcome proposals in Gordon Brown’s consultation document ‘Extending and Renewing Party Democracy’ will be dashed and the whole process thrown into reverse if the leadership gets its way on one other proposal which outweighs all the rest, namely that in future delegates will no longer be allowed to vote on and pass resolutions on any policy questions.
The consultation, which ended on 14 September, recognised that the Partnership in Power arrangements put into operation in 1997 have long faced a crisis of credibility. The original aim of the Blair leadership at the time had been to remove CLP and union motions from Conference altogether, but after intense pressure a last-minute limited concession was made that Contemporary Issue Motions could be submitted and four could be chosen for debate by ballot. However, once Conference began to pass some motions that the platform didn’t want – like restoring the earnings link to pensions, opposing NHS privatisation, and supporting the Gate Gourmet workers – strenuous efforts were made to rule out such motions and many were at last year’s Conference. Now it is proposed that even this very limited concession, which is already being clawed back by one procedural device or another, should be swept away altogether.
This would render Conference utterly toothless, which of course is what some in the leadership may well want. Conference would become, even more than it is already, a piece of theatre, a glorified photo-opportunity for platform speeches. Any serious discussion of real issues, which is what democratic politics is all about, would disappear. The accountability of the leadership to Conference, which the Party’s Rule Book has always envisaged, would simply vanish.
For all these reasons, if Conference is not to become merely a showpiece television spectacle, it is essential that this latest proposal be roundly rejected. But stopping it is not enough; there are several positive reforms that urgently need to be made to Party procedures.

We need a Labour Party Charter of Members’ Rights drawn up and agreed by Conference, which would then be monitored and enforced by a Party Ombudsman.

The Party Chair should be elected by the Party, not appointed by the Leader, and should have the role to speak for the Party in Cabinet.

The control of Party finances should be seen to lie clearly with the elected Party Treasurer and the NEC, and all fund-raising activities and major expenditures should have to be approved by the NEC.

All Parliamentary and local selections of Party candidates should be transparently managed in accordance with a Code of Conduct which treated all candidates equally and precluded pressure on Party officials to support favoured candidates.

The issue of holding the leadership to account is clearly a sensitive and difficult one, but in view of recent experience a Commission should be drawn up by the NEC, with membership and terms of reference agreed by Conference, to prepare proposals to be considered and voted on by Conference.

The lack of accountability has now become one of the most serious issues in British politics today, not only in respect of political parties, but also of Parliament and the wider society. Conference 2007 is where we should make a start in turning round the drift to autocracy which is now marring so much of British public life.