Will Labour open up?

Submitted by martin on 22 September, 2010 - 10:22 Author: Colin Foster

Colin Foster previews the Labour Party conference, which will start on Saturday 25 September with an announcement of the winner in the leadership election.

All the Labour leadership candidates - even David Miliband, who is obviously the "Blairite continuity" candidate - have promised a more open Labour Party, campaigning against the Tory cuts.

But will any of them deliver? Or, more to the point, will unions and local Labour Party activists be able and willing to push them into delivering?

Labour Party democracy campaigners fear that the desire to smooth things for a new leader will push the unions into letting the Blairite Old Regime continue, even under a leader (David Miliband) whom they explicitly did not want.

The argument will be that we should do what the leader wants, or else we create divisions which help the Tories.

There are three simple answers. First, the Labour leader should do what the Labour party wants, rather than the party doing what the leader wants.

Secondly, a live Labour Party with real internal democracy and thus a real responsiveness to the concerns of working-class people is much more like to build a strong movement against the Tory cuts - a diverse one, with sparky internal debates - than a continuation of the New Labour approach which millions of working-class people despise and resent, even if they still vote Labour.

Third, we want a new Labour government in five years' time, not just to carry on where Cameron and Blair left off, but to get improvements!

In advance of the conference, there are many warning signs.

  • At last year's Labour Party conference, the leadership promised an all-up-for-grabs review of Labour Party structure and the undemocratic changes pushed through by Tony Blair in 1997 ("Partnership in Power"). But still no specifics are available.
  • In the run-up to the conference, a raft of rule changes submitted to the 2009 conference and remitted for debate to the 2010 conference have been declared "out of order" by the Conference Arrangements Committee on spurious grounds.
  • It seems definite now that this conference will once again debate and vote on contemporary "motions" from unions and local Labour Parties, reversing the 2007 decision whereby unions and Labour Parties could submit only "issues", to be discussed but not voted on. But there are rumours that the Executive may try to proceed by just admitting motions in practice without formally changing the 2007 rule.
  • Both David Miliband and his slightly-less-Blairite rival Ed Miliband talk of making "community organisers" the core of future Labour organisation.

    "Community organisers" sounds very bright and breezy and Obama-ish. But it could mean sidelining local Labour Party democracy even further, in favour of control by "community organisers" trained and controlled by the Party hierarchy.

    It is not clear whether the Milibands envisage these "community organisers" as paid full-timers, or if so how they'll find the money to pay them. But David Miliband's leadership campaign, at least, has been run mainly by employees rather than volunteers.

    That is how the Milibands' thinking works. That is their basic conception of a "campaign" - a grant, an office, a computer, a smart young careerist to run and control it, and then perhaps a few plebs to make a crowd for photo-opportunities and the like.

    We could end up with something like what happens in some unions, where branches and committees are eclipsed by paid organisers appointed by and accountable only to other paid officials.

    Matthew Taylor, Tony Blair's "Chief Adviser on Political Strategy" until 2006, is worried that the "community organiser" idea could "backfire", from a Blairite point of view.

    "David Miliband quotes the success of [Labour MP] Gisela Stuart’s campaign in Edgbaston as evidence of the power of strong community-based organisation. But local activists have said that their ability to mobilise behind the MP was also related to her record of voting against the [Labour] Government whip on controversial questions [surprise, surprise - though actually Stuart's rebellions were rare and minor]...

    "If a party runs the local authority but local branches then campaign against its unpopular decisions (and let’s face it there’s going to be plenty of them in the years to come) it undermines party unity..."

    If we get "community organisers", we will have to work for them to "backfire" as Taylor fears. In any case we must work to reconstruct Labour Party democracy, and reopen the valves of accountability shut down by Blair, without being blackmailed by calls to "back the leader".

    Contact: labourdemocracytaskforce@googlemail.com. Check out frequently updated information at http://www.grassrootslabour.net and http://www.leftfutures.org.

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