Some thoughts on the NEC and parliamentary selection rules

The Labour List article on the Orgsub’s tuning of the Parliamentary Selection process has attracted some interesting comments which gives some ideas as to how people think in other constituencies, or at least so I assume; you don’t have to be a Labour Party member to comment (or post) on Labour List.

On the comments thread, Robbie Scott argues that to make things fair for all candidates, we should restrict campaigning expenses, and access to the membership list. I feel the outcome of his proposals would be a sterile uninformed process in which those with the biggest name value win, a bit like Labour’s other internal elections. In the internal elections, campaigning is pretty much restricted to material accompanying the ballot paper and thus to what the Party can afford to post. This does not in my opinion lead to the best democratic experience. The manifestoes are written in fear of losing votes, rather than with courage to give people a reason to vote. You need a microscope to determine the political differences unless they’re supported by one of the slates and they all promise to listen, work hard and report back. The fact that they all say this, makes identifying those for whom the promise is genuine and thus really worthwhile, hard to identify.

The epitome of this sterility is the CLP section NEC elections. MPs are now ineligible to stand as candidates for these positions. This right was removed because the CLPs were deemed to be electing the wrong MPs. The reason that the MPs could win these seats were that their views and personal manifestos were known and on a national scale. They had their own national brands.  It seems that from the way that the 2013 conference arrangements committee elections are shaping up with three MPs and Pete Willsman standing, the search for external brand value has already begun or more probably recommenced; these elections are to be fought under the restricted internal publication rules.  If we stop candidates saying what they want, and we stop listening, internal elections will only be won by big names, and the power of their brand is not necessarily created by the Labour movement.

I suppose the central truth is that if we restrict what ‘Party members say to each other, be it leaflets, mails, blogs, mandating blind copy etc., then others will fill the gap. In some recent conversations about internal democracy I have had, some comrades reflect back to the time when the Militant were influential ; what they forget is the role that media played in attempting to influence the politics of constituencies and unions at the time. The press seem quiet on these issues at the moment, helped by the fact that Murdoch’s media business is under the cosh due to Hackgate and pursuing a paywall strategy for its internet properties.  The other candiditares seeking to fill in the conversational gaps are incumbent leadership, restricted now to the PLP.

The reputations of Glenda Jackson, Michael Cashman, John O’Farrell, Ross Kemp, Alan Sugar and Eddie Izzard were not made on the #labourdoorstep, and I don’t think we should be building an internal democracy that reinforces the power of “rock stars” at the expense of local activists.

Our electoral processes need to be a reflection of our policy debates and our leadership choices need also to be based on the political direction we wish to travel. Democratic reform in the Labour Party over the last 20 years has been about building a hub and spoke architecture, with the fail safe device that the hub can ignore the spokes if they want. The critical weakness is that it remains very hard to talk to other members at scale. Membersnet’s blog is poor, its comment threading is a disaster, its membership search feature appalling and our leadership don’t use it, so even if you say something useful interesting or insightful, it’s ignored. The technical weaknesses can be fixed if we wanted, but our insistence that all email correspondence, even at branch level is undertaken using blind copies, and the general crapness of membersnet ensures that our members can’t talk to each other except at branch meetings. I have to assume this is deliberate, despite the mantra that Labour needs to listen, it seems to me that it means grass roots members need to give up their influence because nothing that’s come out of Refounding Labour has increased it at the expense of the hierarchies of power in the Parliamentary Labour Party NEC or Regional and Head Office bureaucracies

The world wide web has superseded “hub and spoke” and  Obama’s famous  big data/micro task driven “Ground Campaign” reinforces this point if you care to learn. If we trust our membership to speak to members on the doorstep, then we should trust them determine policy and elect a leadership. We should equip them or we must equip ourselves to talk to each other so that the decisions are taken after well informed discussion, the consideration of evidence and a vote. It’s no longer acceptable that Labour Party policy is made in the committee rooms of Westminster or Bloomsbury. We need to turn the lights on in the cupboard.

Elections and Policy need to be about membership expressing their will.

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