Labour Party conference: what the media didn't report

Submitted by martin on 2 October, 2009 - 7:49

A long-time Labour Party activist reports on some of the things at Labour Party conference which didn't reach the newspapers or the TV coverage.

The Labour Party leadership put a lot of effort into trying to stop the rule change to have the 55 constituency Labour Party (CLP) delegates to the National Policy Forum elected by the membership at large rather than by a few hundred CLP delegates at national conference.

Pat McFadden, Chair of the Labour Party National Policy Forum, was having delegates called out of the hall to meet him so that he could pull them into line, yet in the vote we had a 55%-45% majority for the rule change among the CLP delegates. We thought we might not. The last rule change slightly opening things up for the constituencies, the one in 2003 to allow them four contemporary motions to conference, was passed by the union votes with, ironically, a majority of CLP delegates against it.

The unions voted 79% for the NPF rule change. According to René Lavanchy of Tribune, Downing Street's objection to the rule change was: "It’ll let the left in".

Why do they think that? In recent years, CLP delegates to annual conference have generally proved more malleable than CLP members at large; to have the 55 NPF delegates chosen through an extra filtration makes them more malleable again.

The wider ballot is likely to produce a result more like the ballot for constituency members of Labour's National Executive, where the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance holds four out of six seats. The constituencies have 55 representatives in the NPF and the unions have 30. The NPF's total membership of 184 also includes the 32 members of the National Executive, 22 regional reps, plus ministers, MPs, MEPs, etc. The rule change increases the chance of getting minority reports from the National Policy Forum to allow real debate at conference.

But we have to make the rule change work. It is not automatic. The powers-that-be are not going to sit on their hands. They will be organising to win those ballots for NPF reps.

The other big constitutional issue was about restoring contemporary motions. Since 2007 the unions and CLPs have not been allowed to submit contemporary motions. We have only been able to submit "contemporary issues", which are discussed, not voted on, and shunted off to the NPF.

In the run-up to conference, the affiliated unions, through the Trade Union Liaison Organisation (TULO), pressed for the restoration of motions. In the end the leadership agreed a compromise. A review of the question of motions, and of the whole party structure, will be held between the General Election and the 2010 Labour Party conference. And the National Executive report accepted by conference added that the NEC had "consulted with the Conference Arrangements Committee"; if the 2010 conference restores motions, then "issues" submitted to that conference will retrospectively become "motions".

There are a lot of other issues which I think are important to push in the run-up to 2010 conference, including the right to amend National Policy Forum documents and a loosening of the previous requirement that motions be strictly "contemporary", a requirement that has in the past licensed the Conference Arrangements Committee to rule many motions out of order. It is important that motions of contemporary concern are not restricted to topics reliant on particular events occurring in the six weeks prior to the deadline.

The conference passed two emergency motions. One from the rail unions ASLEF and TSSA said that the East Coast mainline should be retained as a public company and not returned to the private sector. Another, from the CWU, said that the Government must take responsibility for sorting out the Royal Mail pension fund deficit. The platform allowed both to go through without anyone voting against.

Generally, the conference could have dissolved into complete demoralisation, and it didn't.

At the fringe meeting organised by the biggest unions, Dave Prentis of Unison said that we must insist that the manifesto includes no plans for further privatisation of the Health Service. That's a negative way of putting it, when I think we should be talking about positive things that should be in the manifesto, but the unions were showing a slight measure of independence from the leadership.

Then you had a standing ovation for Peter Mandelson! I suppose conference delegates were grateful he took the fight to the Tories, and did it in an accomplished manner. But it was disturbing that he got that applause.

According to Mandelson, the difference between Labour and the Tories is that the Tories are going to make cuts, and Labour is going to... make kindly cuts. In fact, cuts in public services will be one of the big battlegrounds of the coming months.

Alongside the right-wing populist rhetoric against teenage single mothers and so on, there was a bit of anti-banker rhetoric from the platform. But it was more on the lines of promising to sort out the bankers' bonuses than of talk about controlling the investment and lending policies of the banks themselves.

The trouble is, the message from the top table was not "we can win if we change", but that we can win as we are, which I don't think is true.


Submitted by martin on Fri, 02/10/2009 - 21:09

Foul right-wing populist attempts to catch votes by promising to be "tough" with teenage single mothers or parents of troubled kids. What should be a conference being used instead as a showcase for a series of glib, shoddy speeches from ministers.

A standing ovation for the "Prince of Darkness" who almost killed the Labour Party in the late 1990s, Peter Mandelson, just because he made some jibes against the Tories. No clear opposition to Mandelson's line that Labour should differ from the Tories by making "caring" cuts while the Tories just make cuts.

The headline news from Labour Party conference was much what you would expect from a Labour Party where the leadership, over 15 years, has squeezed almost all life out of the membership, shamelessly courted the billionaires, and worshipped capitalist market mechanisms.

The small print, however, had some small surprises. A few months ago it looked as if the last weight in the heavy lid which the New Labour clique has put on top of democratic voices from the unions and local Labour activists - the banning from Labour Party conference of motions from unions and local Labour Parties, initiated in 2007 - would be confirmed at this conference. There was no sign of a move by the unions against it.

In fact, however, the unions did move. They called for the restoration of motions. They did not go as far as forcing a vote on the issue at the conference. Finally, at an emergency National Executive meeting, they accepted a compromise. The right to put motions, and a range of other party-structure issues, will be reviewed in 2010, and reinstatement of motions then will be retroactive, meaning that motions are debated at that very conference. But the unions moved.

At the same time, the top Labour leaders gave every sign of demoralisation. On the day the Labour conference opened, the Observer had Chancellor Alistair Darling saying that the Labour leadership had "lost the will to live", and the Sunday Times had Peter Mandelson saying that if the Tories win the next election he will seek a government post under them.

Many of the middle-class careerists in the ministers' offices and the think-tanks who have formed the praetorian guard for Blair and Brown since 1994 may jump ship after the probable heavy Labour general election defeat.

Talking to Solidarity, veteran Labour Party democracy campaigner and National Executive member Pete Willsman was categorical. "That's all sorted. We'll have motions back in 2010". Willsman's judgement is not to be sneered at. The unions are now solidly for restoration of motions. Next year's conference - after (probably) a big Labour election defeat - will be more unruly, without the pressure to rally together for the coming general election which has shaped this one.

The unions also pushed through, against strong opposition from the Labour leadership, a rule change to have the 55 constituency Labour Party representatives on the National Policy Forum directly elected, rather than chosen from among the constituency delegates at annual conference. This is a recalibration rather than a reversal, but it increases the chance of minority reports from the National Policy Forum which will allow real debate at future annual conferences.

These small stirrings could well yet come to nothing. A new Labour leader will probably be elected in 2010 after a general election defeat. He or she will have authority and credibility - not as much as Blair had in 1994, or even as Brown had in 2007, but some.

All of the contenders, even Jon Cruddas, who is trying to "re-brand" himself leftwards, come from the New Labour stable. (Cruddas was an aide in Blair's office between 1997 and 2001). They are all likely to want to try to rebuild Labour Party membership, but also all quite likely to try to hi-jack the promised review of party structures so as to circumvent today's little whispers of democracy, and to drive things even more in the direction of Labour becoming like the US Democratic Party.

But why are the unions beginning to stir, in a small way? Because they fear the coming Tory cuts, feel obliged to mount some opposition to them, and are anxious to nudge Labour into coming forward as at least a quarter-credible political alternative to the Tories for the labour movement. Will those pressures continue after the general election? Yes. In fact they are likely to increase, with Tory cuts underway rather than promised, and the Labour Party in opposition, so more malleable. There will be, or at least should be, a struggle.

From the desk of George Parker of the Financial Times the conference looked different from how it looks to us on the left. Mocking rather than impressed or startled, Parker saw this:

"Labour this week rediscovered the joys of class war. The prospect of taking the fight to the Tory toffs and their banker friends has put fire back in the party's belly...

"Mr Brown's celebration of City ingenuity and Lord Mandelson's endorsement of the 'filthy rich' have been airbrushed out of history. Mr Brown... claimed the [financial collapses of September 2008] were the death throes of... a free market, immoral approach to capitalism that he attributed solely to the Conservatives.

"Whatever the credibility of this approach, it opens up lines of attack on the Tories - and the well-heeled leadership of David Cameron and George Osborne - which Labour will deploy relentlessly in coming months...

"Crude attacks on the wealthy and the sight of trade union barons ripping up copies of The Sun are the kind of thing Tony Blair thought he had eradicated from the Labour party... But Mr Brown believes the financial crisis has changed the public mood".

If we can open up the unions sufficiently that more of that mood filters through politically, then the Labour leader to follow Brown may not have things all his or her way.

Martin Thomas

Submitted by martin on Thu, 08/10/2009 - 21:31

Another Labour Party activist, long centrally involved in battles for democracy in the party, gave me his views and assessment on 8 October.

The vote at the Labour Party conference this year to have OMOV [direct election] for the constituency places on the National Policy Forum was the best thing that has happened at conference for thirty years.

The unions and the constituency parties united and took on the whole party machine and won. That hasn't happened for a long time. It was fundamental if only as a symbolic issue: the constituencies and the unions united against the party machine.

What happens now depends on the general election. If we win the general election, then I have no doubt that Gordon Brown will allow a bit more democracy in the party. If we lose the general election, then there will have to be a total review of the structures.

I think the restoration of contemporary motions at Labour Party conference is guaranteed. [It is due to be reviewed in 2010, to apply immediately to the 2010 conference if agreed]. But in my view a lot of other things are much more important than the restoration of motions. Motions mean nothing if the leadership can just ignore them when they are passed. We need to control the process of carrying out the motions.

If we lose the election, then there will be a new leader, and a lot depends on who that is. If we get a Blairite, then they may push things back.

Blair was a Tory, really, and the Blairite takeover was a Tory takeover. It seriously damaged the party, though it could not completely destroy the working-class base.

Even if we get David Miliband, who is a Blairite, as the new leader, he will have difficulty unravelling the moves to restore democracy now underway. But I don't think Miliband can win. Alan Johnson is the more dangerous Blairite candidate for leader. Some people say Johnson is not really a Blairite, but I think he is.

There is no left-wing candidate for leadership who will get enough nominations for the ballot. Jon Cruddas voted for the Iraq war, and anyway he would have no chance of winning.

What we can hope for is a new leader who will agree to more democracy in the party. The only person I see in the frame is John Denham. He is not a left-winger, but he is honest, he resigned as a minister over the Iraq war, and he would agree to more democracy.

If we could win the right to amend National Policy Forum statements at conference, that would give the party more power than motions did in the old days. In fact it would be better, in terms of conference control over actual policy, than anything since 1918.

I think it will take some years to win that. We might get something towards it earlier, for example the right to amend annex reports, which cover the progress (or otherwise) made at Policy Commissions in relation to submissions from conference.

But there is a long battle to win the unions to support the right to amend National Policy Forum statements. The CWU would support that now, but it will take some time to convince the other unions.

Martin Thomas

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