By Gerry Bates
Shortly after his “election” as Labour leader, Gordon Brown announced a consultation on reform of the Labour Party’s structure, entitled Extending and Renewing Party Democracy. As we have come to expect from the Blairites, this Orwellian title represents the exact opposite of what the document actually aims to do.
While Brown trumpets his plans for minor democratic reforms to Britain’s parliamentary system, he is also seeking to abolish one of the last vestiges of democracy in the Labour Party by removing the right of Constituency Labour Parties and affiliated unions to determine party policy by sending motions for discussion and voting at annual conference.
Labour governments have always refused to carry out conference decisions they found unpalatable; under Blair, however, these decisions were simply declared irrelevant. Now Brown wants to use his political honeymoon to go one step further, by replacing the decision-making conference with something much more like an American-style rally.
At first glance, it is surprising that he would be willing to risk provoking a fight in this way. After all, even the growing number of defeats that the leadership has suffered at the conference in recent years (over the anti-union laws, council housing, agency workers etc) have not changed anything: the links between the union and constituency rank and file and the party structure are too atrophied for that.
Why not continue with what must, from the Blairite point of view, be a very tolerable status quo, in which the unions can occasionally blow off steam by voting against the government, but nothing that goes any further than that?
Brown, like most of the Blairite leaders, is not stupid — and he is a class warrior. He knows that, with any major upturn in the class struggle, defeats at the conference could cease to be a minor irritation and become a rallying point for opposition to the Government. The structures of the Labour Party, though they are currently chronically under-utilised by the unions, still make that possible. The threat of cross-public sector strike action over pay must have sharpened Brown’s resolve in this regard, as must the postal strike.
This is a vital turning point for the labour movement. If Brown succeeds in pushing these proposals through September’s Labour Party conference, it will be a big step forward — if not, perhaps, the final step — in transforming Labour into a straightforwardly bourgeois Democratic-type party. If he is defeated, it will, together with resurgent industrial conflict, cripple his government from the beginning.
The “big four” unions — Amicus/TGWU-Unite, Unison and GMB — plus the CWU have apparently met and agreed to oppose the plans. The T&G, in particular, has issued a strong statement condemning them. However, there are also indications that the other unions might peel away from this alliance if the government makes minor concessions on other issues. That is undoubtedly in part what the Government’s announcement of its plan to repeal the ban on council house-building was about.
A well-timed deal funding the local government equal pay settlements which Unison and the GMB bureaucracies so desperately want but do not want to fight for could tip the balance, for instance. At the Unison-Labour Link conference in July, general secretary Dave Prentis made definite conciliatory noises.
All the more important, then, that socialist activists in the unions, the Labour Party and beyond get organised against the proposals now.
• To download a copy of Brown’s proposals, and for the Labour Representation Committee’s response, see www.l-r-c.org.uk