Earlier this year, the Liberal Democrats at their annual conference voted down their platform position to support the Coalition Government’s NHS “Reforms”. The platform position was proposed by Paul Burstow, the Minister of Health and a Liberal Democrat MP. I am pleased that the left Liberal Democrats are finding their voice, but a historical look at the effectiveness of democratic conferences’ ability to manage their parliamentary parties in opposition, let alone government doesn’t give one much hope.
The NHS revolt is led by some of the most senior Liberal Democrats, but being in Government is new to this generation of Liberal Democrat activists. Its conference and democracy was not built to manage a party of government. Julian Huppert , now an LD MP, and Isabel Fox have twice taken opposition to the Digital Economy Act/Bill to the Liberal Democrat Conference, have twice won their votes and motions, and yet the Liberal Democrats in Government have failed to get repeal of the DE Act into the “Great Freedom Bill”.
However, at the least the Liberal Democrat conference agenda is still under the control of its members and they can criticise and advise their leadership in this public and collective fashion.
One really has to wonder if the Labour Party is still capable of undertaking such an action. Labour Party Conference had a long and proud record of attempting to lead its party and for many years was “sovereign”, subject to the law of the land. (Not a constraint that it understood well!) 1
It’s common currency that Blair proved his electability to the British electorate by taming the Labour Party and the most visible victory was the re-writing of Clause IV. However, this was a fight at the end of long process, one that, it’s often forgotten was started by John Smith; all ‘reforms’ aimed at taming the Labour Party and its membership. These reforms either took power away from the membership, or weakened the leadership’s accountability to the policy of the Labour Party. They include,
- One man (sic), one vote for Party Leader,
- Prohibiting MP’s from standing for the Constituency Section of the National Executive Committee
- Inhibiting CLPs from sending the same person to conference in consecutive years
- Prohibiting CLPs from proposing policy at conference, this is a result of the creation of the National Policy Forum, which now proposes policy to Conference
- Individual Balloting for the Constituency Section of the NEC
- Individual Balloting for the membership of the National Policy Forum
The result of these reforms is to take policy development and even debate away from the membership and restrict it to the National Policy Forum. Individual balloting stops the members holding the leadership accountable to policy because successful candidates have mandates of their own. Before 1997, the Parliamentary leadership chucked in some rallies as consultation and listening activities but this stopped soon after they won the election. Labour has turned its conference into a rally to which they now sell tickets to its members. Its policy development now takes place in poorly lit broom cupboard.2
I rejuvenated my involvement in the Labour Party during the last election because a number of its members and campaigners convinced me that the Labour Party was where people that wanted a fair society were. I am delighted to meet new (& old) friends and comrades as I expand my contacts and resuscitate old ones, and proud to meet people that campaign for a better society and use their elected council positions to do their best to protect those at the brunt of the cuts. But in the 70s & 80s, I believed and felt that the Party’s policy belonged to the members of the Party, Unions and affiliated socialist societies, but with the changes made in opposition in the early 90s I am not so sure.
The election in May was not a single election. Many things happened, but one thing that is true is that in many parts of the country the Labour Party on the ground had a better election than the Party in Millbank. The national leadership owe the party on the ground a huge debt that allows us to begin to oppose the Tory led Government from a considerably stronger position than might have been the case. The least they can do is listen to its membership on policy.
Labour’s National Policy Forum was designed to take policy away from conference. It was designed to isolate the policy makers from their mass movement and the people they represent. Its designers wanted policy to be set by the Parliamentary Labour Party, or more truthfully its front bench. Despite their rhetoric, which they backed with successful action to reverse the decline in membership since 1945, the membership, especially individual members weren’t to be trusted with policy. The National Policy Forum was created and Conference prohibited from deciding on policy. The irony is that the Party Blair and Brown recruited in the mid ‘90s probably didn’t need such treatment. Its successor gave Dianne Abbot, the only Left wing candidate 7½% of 1st preferences. It’s a long time ago since Tony Benn won 49% of the Deputy Leadership elections.
When conference was the Labour Party’s policy making body, it was possible to know and be involved in the selection of the conference delegate. The National Policy forum does not have this accountability. I suggest it had zero impact on the policy of the last Labour Governments, which is, shamefully, about the same level of influence as the NEC.
This article was started a long time ago and I have participated in two meetings to discuss this since. In one of them, Ellie Reeves, one of the NEC members responsible for the review made the point that there are two dimensions to the disenfranchisement that members feel, repeated here on YouTube, one is that their ideas disappear into a black hole, there is no commitment to transparency, and secondly that some of the ideas that the Labour government did pursue, such as Privatisation of the Post Office and the Digital Economy Act were never put to the Party. To most Party members, they came from nowhere.
This blog article has a short URL of http://is.gd/tawmaW
1. I originally went down a rat-hole about the great and not so great events at Labour’s Conferences and the lessons of the past for today’s activists, I shortened it to make it more readable and focused the article about making Labour Party policy today, but the research, as is often the case with the Labour Party, is hard, as there is little on the internet but it seems to me that a history of Labour Conference is one worth writing.
2. The old jokes are always the best. (No they’re not!).