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Destroying Party Democracy: The Key to Blairism's Future

Martin Sullivan

RECENTLY A glossy new brochure from Millbank plopped through the letterboxes of Labour Party branch secretaries. Entitled 21st Century Party (with the subtitle Members – the Key to Our Future), this discussion document was prepared by the party's Partnership in Power Taskforce and agreed for circulation among the membership at this year's annual conference. The document is intended to provide the basis for a consultation on whether there is a need to "reform and modernise" the present structure of Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs).

After the consultation is completed, the Taskforce will draw up proposals on party organisation which will be presented to next year's conference and, if agreed, implemented in January 2001. It is not difficult to predict what those proposals will be. They will involve destroying democracy in the CLPs and handing over the control of local parties to small Blairite cliques.

That isn’t immediately obvious from a reading 21st Century Party, for on the face of it this is a fairly bland document. It contains some general observations about the failings of the existing Party Branch/General Committee structure, and offers to consult the membership on ways in which to improve the situation. A questionnaire at the end of the document, which secretaries are asked to photocopy and distribute to members, invites comments on the present performance of CLPs.

It would be difficult for members to answer positively to many of these questions. Replying to the one on "Recruiting and Retaining Members", for example, who could honestly claim that their CLP is doing "very well" at this? Millbank itself privately admits to 75,000 members having left the party since the 1997 general election, and the current national membership figures are artificially boosted by retaining members who are up to fifteen months in arrears with their subs. Similarly with the question on "Mobilising Members to Fight Elections", few could claim great achievements for their CLP on this score. In the 1999 elections to the European Parliament, long-standing party members not only refused to turn out and campaign for the party but in many cases even refused to vote for it.

21st Century Party carefully avoids encouraging members to give their opinions on the reasons, other than organisational ones, for the CLPs' difficulties. Yet you don’t have to be the Brain of Britain to work out that problems of recruitment or campaigning are not solely or primarily the result of inadequate party structures. They have political causes.

The fact is that most Labour Party supporters are opposed to important aspects of government policy. They don’t agree with abolishing single parent benefit, imposing tuition fees on students, attacking the rights of asylum seekers or cutting disability benefits. They want the government to restore the link between pensions and earnings, to set the minimum wage at a much higher level and to increase taxes on the rich in order to fund public services. They want Blair and Co to stop cosying up to millionaires and pandering to the prejudices of Daily Mail readers, and instead to show greater responsiveness to the needs and aspirations of ordinary working people.

Labour supporters who are not yet members are hardly motivated to join the party if they are dissatisfied with the policies of the Labour government, while many of those who are already in the party become disillusioned and see no point in renewing their membership. Furthermore, as far as Labour Party members are concerned, their dissatisfaction is aggravated by the contemptuous attitude of the party apparatus towards their democratic rights.

Even before the 1997 general election, the Blairites initiated a fundamental attack on party democracy with the Partnership in Power package of reforms. This was intentionally launched in the run-up to the election, so that many union conferences were fearful of damaging Labour's chances by inflicting a defeat on Blair, and therefore hesitated to take a stand against the proposed reforms. The timing of Partnership in Power had the additional advantage that it would be voted on at the first post-election party conference, when euphoria at the defeat of the Tories and the election of the first Labour government for eighteen years would be at its height, and the party would consequently be disposed to accept the recommendations of the leadership without too much criticism. Even then, however, a majority vote at conference in favour of Partnership in Power was achieved only by the use of the union block vote and pressure on constituency delegates to break their mandates from their CLPs.

The anti-democratic consequences of Partnership in Power, and the byzantine Policy Forum structure it established, were in any case unclear to many party members and trade unionists when it was adopted at the 1997 conference. These have since been revealed for all to see. At this year's National Policy Forum, amendments to the draft policy documents were either withdrawn under pressure or, in the face of an alliance between the Blairites and trade union leaders, failed to secure the required number of votes. These amendments included such basic policy demands as opposition to PFI deals in the NHS and to the means-testing of incapacity benefit, restoration of the link between pensions and earnings and of benefits to asylum seekers, and retention of the right to trial by jury – all of which have wide if not majority support among party members and trade unionists.

The result of this stitch-up at the National Policy Forum was that no minority positions were put to party conference, which was largely reduced to a pro-leadership rally, with hand-picked delegates delivering speeches written for them by Millbank apparatchiks praising the achievements of the Blair government. A conference delegate from my own CLP, who had joined the party as an admirer of New Labour, reported afterwards that she was so upset by the manipulation of the proceedings and the suppression of any real debate that she had considered resigning from the party. "And if that was the way I reacted", she commented, "imagine how other delegates felt!"

The Blairites at one time believed that they could camouflage their dictatorial methods and provide the New Labour project with the appearance of democratic support by appealing to the individual members over the heads of the much-derided party activists, through the use of One Member One Vote. The assumption was that what the Blairites term an "oppositional culture" was restricted to activists and that ordinary members would be broadly sympathetic to Blairism. Many of them had joined the party after Tony Blair became party leader, and since few were regular attenders at party meetings they were removed from the iniquitous ideological influence of left-wingers and defenders of Old Labour values. Writing in the Times in the spring of 1997, Peter Mandelson proclaimed that, within the party itself, OMOV was the essence of New Labour. No longer were votes determined by unrepresentative activist- and union-dominated General Committees, Mandelson asserted – the party was now democratically controlled by its members.

This method secured the desired results in the plebiscites over the abolition of the old Clause IV in 1995 and the endorsement of the party's manifesto the following year, though the membership showed little enthusiasm for either of these exercises – the turnout for the vote on Clause IV was probably less than 30%, while the response to the Road to the Manifesto consultation had to be artificially boosted by phoning members and badgering them to vote yes. And, as in the case of the Partnership in Power consultation, party members were effectively blackmailed into not opposing the leadership for fear of a Tory victory in the forthcoming general election.

The Blairites, however, convinced themselves that with the adoption of OMOV they’d cracked the problem of leftist opposition in the constituency parties. So it came as an unpleasant surprise to Mandelson when he stood for the constituency section of the party's National Executive Committee in 1997 and was comfortably defeated by none other than his arch-enemy Ken Livingstone. The party apparatus drew the obvious conclusion from Mandelson's humiliation. If the individual members couldn’t be relied on to vote the right way in internal party elections, then their right to vote should be severely restricted if not abolished entirely.

Hence the adoption of the closed list system for the European Parliamentary elections. Although members were given a sort of consultative vote, the results of this were ignored and the lists of candidates were drawn up by an NEC subcommittee in accordance with the requirements of the party leadership. Not surprisingly, sitting MEPs with any record of dissent were placed so far down the lists that they stood no chance of getting re-elected, while Blairite loyalists were placed at the top. It was this above all which led many party members to refuse to participate in the election campaign. They were not going to be "mobilised to fight elections" for Millbank-imposed candidates who had not been democratically selected.

The procedures adopted in selecting candidates for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Greater London Assemblies were no less anti-democratic. Here the preferred method was to exclude anyone suspected of not being entirely "on message" by means of a scrutiny/interview panel. In Scotland, the panel found veteran left-wing MP Dennis Canavan to be unworthy of representing the party in his country's new parliament and denied him the right to stand for selection. The response of Labour supporters to this dictatorial procedure was demonstrated when Canavan stood for the Scottish Parliament as an independent and overwhelmingly defeated the official Millbank-approved candidate. In the case of the GLA, the panel blocked numerous non-Blairites from putting themselves forward for selection. Among those who fell victim to this procedure were UNISON London convenor Geoff Martin, current Labour Party NEC member Christine Shawcroft, Greater London Labour Party equalities officer Raj Jethwa and other prominent black and Asian candidates such as Peter Herbert, Lee Jasper and Kumar Murshid.

The same approach will be used to weed out potential oppositionists for elections to the Westminster Parliament. Whereas previously CLPs could select as their party candidate any individual not in breach of party rules, aspiring candidates will now have to undergo an interview before they are allowed to be placed on a centralised list from which CLPs are expected to choose a shortlist for selection. Although individuals who are not on the approved list are not entirely excluded, they will still have to be vetted by the NEC.

Still another method was employed for the election of the leader of the Welsh Labour Party. Here an electoral college was established, consisting of one-third party members, one-third trade unions and other affiliated organisations, and one-third Welsh MPs, MEPs and Assembly candidates. Although Rhodri Morgan won a clear majority among individual party members and among those trade unionists who were balloted, the Blairites' favoured candidate Alun Michael achieved victory through the MPs' support combined with trade union block votes wielded by bureaucrats who refused to ballot their members. This stitch-up, by common consent, was one of the causes of the Labour Party's appalling showing in the Welsh Assembly elections.

We are seeing a repetition of the Welsh electoral college stitch-up in the selection of the party's candidate for London mayor. As one-third of the votes will go to MPs, MEPs and GLA candidates, the result is loaded in favour of leadership-backed candidate Frank Dobson, and means that Ken Livingstone might win large majorities among individual party members and in the trade unions and other affiliates, yet could still end up losing to Dobson. Even the liberal bourgeois press has condemned this as a "shameful fix".

Far from an attempt to improve the organisation of CLPs, 21st Century Party is therefore merely the latest manifestation of the leadership's programme of destroying inner-party democracy in the interests of implementing a programme and political project which have only minority support among the membership.

This becomes clear from a reading of "The New Labour Party: A Vision for Organisational Modernisation", an earlier document which provided the inspiration for 21st Century Party. Written in 1998 by David Evans – then the Labour Party regional director in the North West and now an employee at Millbank – it was intended for discussion within the party apparatus and therefore spells out the modernisers' plans for local parties with an honesty and clarity missing from the official document. "Representative democracy should as far as possible be abolished in the Party", Evans argues. "All members are equal, so there is no need for General Committees. These meetings would be replaced with dynamic policy forums, campaigning meetings and others as appropriate." According to Evans' plan, CLPs would be run by an Executive elected at an annual all-member meeting, but would otherwise be able to control the local party for the next twelve months without being answerable to any democratically elected body – so, although all members are equal, those on the Executive would be considerably more equal than others. And Evans is quite explicit about one of the main objectives of the proposed reorganisation: "it will empower modernising forces within the Party and marginalise ’Old Labour’."

That this is the underlying aim of the 21st Century Party document becomes clear if you look at the section headed "New Ideas", which presents examples of the zippy new modern organisational arrangements adopted by various CLPs in which Blairites are dominant. One of these is Enfield Southgate, whose MP – not entirely coincidentally – is the ultra-Blairite Stephen Twigg. Here Evans' plan has been implemented in an extreme form and the traditional structure of the CLP completely dissolved. The GC has been abolished and replaced by all-member meetings, with the constituency party being run by a small Executive. Even branches have been wound up, except for selection meetings, and in their place members now have constituency-wide "issue groups" which have discussed political questions such as foreign policy, employment and constitutional reform. This is the model which the Partnership in Power Taskforce, after due "consultation", will no doubt seek to impose on all CLPs.

Indeed, even before conference had decided to circulate the 21st Century Party document, its main author Ian McCartney MP was already announcing to the press that GCs were to be "transformed". McCartney, who in the context of New Labour is sometimes depicted as a left-winger, launched a pre-emptive attack on potential opponents of 21st Century Party, couched in impeccably Blairite terms: "Those who campaign against this and call themselves the left of the party are fast becoming the conservatives in Britain because they oppose everything about change, everything that will empower party membership."

There are some evident problems in resisting this new assault on party democracy. Disaffection with the government has produced not only active opposition in the ranks of the party but also demoralisation. The Blairites' plan is to use the results of this demoralisation – poor attendance at meetings, lack of enthusiasm for campaigning or fund-raising and so on – as an excuse to change the party structures in order to stifle active opposition. Unfortunately, some comrades who should know better seem prepared to go along with this. Thus Ann Black of Labour Reform, writing in the September issue of Labour Left Briefing, has argued that we should not be dogmatic in defending existing structures. After all, she reasons, who can argue that poorly attended GCs are an institution worth retaining? Given widespread support among the membership for anti-Blairite policies, she concludes, "all-member meetings can vindicate, not marginalise, the centre-left majority".

But the evidence is that the new structure adopted in Enfield Southgate has done little to improve participation. Writing in the 24 September issue of Tribune, a member of that CLP revealed that the new issue groups have attracted between four and seven members, while an all-member meeting to discuss local issues with leaders of Labour-held Enfield council drew precisely 19 of the CLP's 600-plus members. Reports from other CLPs where GCs have been wholly or partly abolished show that within a matter of months, after the initial novelty has worn off, the new all-member meetings end up with fewer participants than the old delegate-based GCs did. What is the point of turning up to meetings if they have no power to make decisions or decide policy, and when all effective political authority is vested in a handful of unaccountable Executive members?

The abolition of GCs has the additional damaging effect of severing the link between the party and the trade unions at constituency level, as unions are then no longer able to send delegates to CLPs. Even such an arch-moderniser as Ken Jackson of the AEEU baulks at this. True, he produces a right-wing argument in defence of the link – that the participation of the unions is necessary to counter the influence of the left. Nevertheless, the defence of CLP democracy does offer the possibility of breaking the trade unions from their present solid bloc with the Blairites against the constituency-based opposition, and drawing them instead into an alliance with constituency activists against the Blairites.

There is an urgent need for a national campaign to rouse the party against the threat posed by the 21st Century Party consultation. This campaign should be as broad-based as possible, and in building it we should be prepare to ally ourselves with the devil, his grandmother – and even Sir Kenneth Jackson. If the Millbank Tendency gets away with this attack on inner-party democracy, it will be a further step along the road to the full implementation of the Blairite project – the destruction of the Labour Party as a party of labour.

From What Next? No.15 1999