CLPD Newsletter No.61

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CLPD Newsletter

No.61 (Labour Party Conference Edition) September 2000

No Ceasefire

The 21st Century Party 'consultation' on how to 'modernise' Labour's local structures and selection procedures is not over. The July NEC merely 'noted' Millbank's report on the consultation outcome. This despite Millbank's claim that the consultation produced a "broad consensus". Suggested rule changes arising from the report will not go to this year's conference. So the 'consultation' goes on.

The July 'rebellion'

The NEC's decision not to endorse Millbank's recommendations is a new departure. Hitherto such requests, which generally reflect the wishes of Number 10, have invariably been accepted. Initial reactions from NEC members who received advance copies of the report before the meeting weren't favourable. As a result the decision on proposed rule changes was postponed. Furthermore the demand that "members wishing to be selected" would have to be "on the parliamentary panel" was omitted from the rewritten report distributed at the meeting.

Even this, however, didn't satisfy the unusually large number of critics on the NEC. Several contentious issues were hotly debated, in particular the proposal that NEC elections - currently held annually - be held biennially.

We can only speculate why the usual number of NEC dissenters doubled or trebled. It may have been unwillingness to allow Millbank, once again, to railroad through conference a whole package of proposals without consultation and discussion. (The proposal to extend the period of service on the NEC from one to two years was not included in any of the 'consultative' documents). Or it could have been just an out-of-character episode for the normally docile NEC?

Change of heart

But it would be unrealistic to conclude that the NEC, and in particular its trade union members, have had a change of heart. Their record is discouraging. In 1997, when the NEC was still dominated by the present trade union leadership, they dutifully endorsed Millbank's Partnership in Power - a document which deprived the NEC of its policy-making powers. The trade union representatives also helped to vote through a change in the NEC's composition: the proportion of the NEC elected by affiliated and individual members was substantially reduced by the inclusion of new "stakeholders" - the representatives of the Government, the PLP and Labour councillors. This meant that the Government would normally have a built-in majority on the NEC. For the last three years the NEC has slavishly followed Millbank's lead.

It would be optimistic, therefore, to expect the NEC to continue to press Millbank to abandon most, if any, of its proposals. For Millbank is in no way prepared to give up on any part of its 'project'. Its present concessions are just a tactical retreat so that ground can be better prepared for the realisation of the project's next stage. Tony Blair is a conviction politician. He gave the party's shift to the 'centre' a new momentum and provided an ideological justification for Labour's abandonment of its historic aims.

The Blair Ideology

The basic premise of the Blair ideology is nothing new. It is that the capitalist structure of our society, and the social inequalities it generates, cannot be changed. Attempts to do so are utopian, outdated and undesirable. Class interests can be reconciled provided they are properly managed by allowing those disadvantaged by their class position some share in society's growing wealth - albeit a proportionately small one. New Labour's political strategy rests on this belief. To prevent society from falling into the hands of either the ultra-right or the left, a powerful centre bloc must be built to marginalise political competition. This would ensure perpetuation of rule by the self-proclaimed moderate centre. This necessitates institutionalised reinforcement of the status quo. On the one hand by decentralisation of the country's political institutions, which, if combined with proportional representation, would severely constrain political forces pressing for change. On the other hand the enforcement of ideological conformity within Labour's representative structure would make grassroots dissent ineffective.

Hidden Agenda

Seen from this perspective Millbank's proposals reveal a hidden agenda. No amount of 'democratic' phraseology, with which Millbank documents abound, can disguise their authoritarian character. The crucial element in the proposals for Westminster selections is that "members wishing to be selected will be on the parliamentary panel". In other words the provision to which the present rules pay lip-service, namely that CLPs can select a nominee who is not on the panel, is to be dropped. This would leave the decision on who becomes an MP in the hands of a few NEC appointees in partnership with the leadership and its apparatchiks.

The fact that this is already happening (in Dundee East, Marion Glen gained the nomination of every party branch in the selection for Westminster but was prevented from going forward to the shortlisting by a Millbank panel of three. In Chesterfield CLP the whole of the shortlisting process has been unprecedentedly and inappropriately taken from the constituency and handed to the NEC by-election panel) shows what would happen nationwide if this practice were legitimised by its inclusion within the rules.

The opportunity "open to all members to apply" to be on the parliamentary panel is meaningless since their suitability is to be judged by narrow political criteria and subservience to the leadership, not by democratic decisions of CLPs. Far from empowering members, the panel system disempowers them.

CLPs' rights would be further restricted by the recommendation "to cut the length of time of selection by making timetables shorter" - ostensibly on the grounds that - "current procedures are too bureaucratic, expensive, lengthy and do not add value to the process". So members are to be given less time to choose candidates. Just how this is supposed to encourage "more members to participate in the election process" and to allow "aspiring candidates more freedom to campaign for nomination" is a mystery. It would only work to the advantage of the well-off candidates whose occupation allows them to attend many meetings during a short period, and who can afford a great deal of travelling. If Millbank really wanted to cut bureaucracy it could leave it to CLPs to decide on the suitability of candidates.

Tripartite manipulation

Despite the disastrous experience with the Mayoral selection in London the Millbank report proposes that "all major national selections ... should be by an electoral college of one third paid-up party members, one third by relevant paid-up party affilated member organisations and one third parliamentary or elected assembly candidates". While participation of MPs in the election of the Leader and Deputy Leader has some justification, the use of the same model for the other selections is questionable. We are not comparing like with like. In the case of the London Mayoral selection it produced a farcical situation where the wishes of tens of thousands of individual members and hundreds of thousands of levy-paying members were overturned by a motley collection of London MPs, MEPs and prospective assembly candidates.

The relationship of London MPs and MEPs to the London Mayor cannot be compared to that of Westminster MPs to the Party Leader. The support of Westminster MPs is essential if the Leader is to function as Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition. The London Mayor can function irrespective of whether London MPs or MEPs "support" him or her. They play no part in the administration of London. Their view as to his/her suitability is therefore of no consequence. And as the Mayor (unlike the Prime Minister) is elected directly by popular vote, s/he is not necessarily dependent on the support of Assembly members of his/her party. The need for support by his/her party is further weakened by the introduction of Proportional Representation. This makes it likely that the Mayor in the cities where a single party fails to secure an absolute majority will be dependent on the support of Assembly members belonging to parties other than his/her own.

The sole purpose of introducing a tripartite college for selections other than leadership selections, is to frustrate the wishes of individual and levy-paying members, should they have the effrontery to favour candidates the leadership doesn't approve of.

Savings and experience

If selections for public office are to be conducted in ways which ensure that all candidates are "switched on" to parrot the party line ("gleichgeschaltet" in Nazi parlance), elections for party office are to be conducted in ways which undermine accountability. Already in the section on Westminster selections, the Millbank report complains about the time and money wasted on selection procedure. The section on internal elections reverberates with the same theme. But whereas in the case of the proposed system for Westminster selections Millbank may have a point in so far as once all candidates have been "switched on" there is very little to choose between them, and one member one vote serves merely as an expensive 'democratic' smokescreen, in internal elections this doesn't as yet apply. Having promoted one-member-one-vote (in fact a postal vote instead of one cast at branch meetings) in the hope that the 'armchairs' would out-vote the 'activists', Millbank now finds that this didn't work as intended. Hence the sudden urge to "maximise financial savings" - a concern not in evidence when it comes to glossy mailings featuring innumerable photographs of Tony Blair and New Labour 'film stars'.

Millbank also proposes that the term of office for members of the National Executive Committee and the Conference Arrangements Committee, be increased from one to two years, that of the National Policy Forum from two to four years, and that of the National Constitutional Committee from three to four years. This it is claimed would enable those serving in these positions "to develop experience, which will add value to our structures".

But financial savings could easily be made elsewhere. As for experience most members are re-elected or experienced enough not to require additional lessons. The main effect of extending the period of service would be to reduce the accountability of successful candidates to those who elected them. Annual elections are a safeguard against complacency. They remind those holding elective office that if they abuse the trust placed in them they may be replaced. They are an inducement to keep in touch with rank and file members by providing reports on their work. Making information available on how the party's representative bodies function, stimulates the interest of members, giving them a sense of ownership of the party.

Longer periods of service would have just the opposite effect.

If there is a spring election much of the time after conference will be spent on campaigning to ensure that Labour wins a second full term. In the aftermath of another Labour victory this will not leave much time to consider proposals which the 2001 Conference will be asked to approve. Branches and general committees should bear this in mind and make sure that at least some time is reserved for members to discuss the Millbank proposals which are bound to re-emerge at, or soon after, this year's conference.

Our suggested resolutions and a number of constitutional amendments on the Conference agenda draw attention to issues that must be raised if attempts to further undermine the rights of individual and affiliated members are to be repulsed. Members should seek to ensure that Conference delegates are mandated to support them, and wherever possible choose the subjects we suggest as their contemporary resolutions.

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