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Party democracy: renewal or reprise?

Ann Black fears warm words on accountability will not be matched by actions

Gordon Brown’s proposals on Extending and Renewing Party Democracy have been portrayed variously as the next Great Leap Forward, and as the final castration of conference and the representative spirit. As with most such rhetorical confrontations, they are neither. In fact they contain remarkably little that is new. There are two significant changes: ending votes on resolutions at conference, and enshrining one-member-one-vote ballots on the manifesto in the rulebook.

Because Gordon Brown described their development as a model for future policy formation, it is worth reviewing this process as it leaves much to be desired. The first draft came to the national executive committee (NEC) on the morning of his coronation, but no amendments were possible as it was already formatted for the website. Individuals were able to comment online, but copies were not sent to local parties and collective views were not encouraged. There were 173 submissions, but only one in eight constituencies responded. The contents were not published.

During September the leadership met trade union general secretaries, who were understandably reluctant to undermine a popular prime minister and agreed to support him in exchange for a review after two years. Constituencies remained excluded until the September NEC, where the next draft was endorsed with five (including myself) against. However, there was a further twist: at the last minute, four national policy forum (NPF) members had been added to the conference arrangements committee (CAC), depriving the unions of control. The unions mutinied, and five days later the NEC un-agreed those bits and took them back for further discussion.

Though there was little danger of defeat at conference, the usual precautions were taken. Regional briefings introduced the plans to delegates, and party staff followed up by telephone, telling them that internal dissent would be massive in the media and give succour to the Tories. On the conference floor most support came from inside the NPF, though one delegate predicted that 2017 would see Gordon Brown celebrating 20 years of Labour government, membership 400,000 and rising, and every speaker praising the changes we had the courage to make today. The urge for unity was strong and the rule changes were carried by 84.5% to 15.5%, with 87% of constituencies and 81% of affiliates in favour (amid rumours that some union votes were accidentally cast the wrong way).

For me the most depressing feature was how many promises were identical with those made ten years ago, for Partnership in Power. That also pledged to give every member a say, to encourage local forums, to reach out to the community. No rule changes were needed to provide better feedback, rescue submissions from the black hole into which they vanish, sharpen up what Ed Miliband described as “long and boring documents”, list the NPF membership on the party website, allow representatives to talk to constituencies, or allocate more resources.

What is actually required is a change of culture and a commitment to delivery. For most members, feedback is the absolute priority: a sign that someone has read and understood their concerns. The new rules place further obligations on constituencies to involve members and the wider community, but give no corresponding guarantee that the party will listen to what they say. Unless warm words about transparency, openness and accountability are matched by actions, disillusion will only increase.

Turning to formal mechanisms, contemporary motions to conference have been replaced by contemporary issues. Instead of voting, these will be referred to the relevant policy commission which will report to the following conference. The ‘contemporary’ hurdle has, regrettably, been retained, so the silly word-games will continue. In addition constituencies acquired, under the last review, the right to submit textual amendments to the final-year NPF documents which are due in Spring 2008. Representatives from their region should act as advocates at the final July meeting when the basis for the manifesto is agreed. No one knows quite how this will work, but it should certainly be tested.

The last element is a one-member-one-vote ballot on the manifesto programme. When Tony Blair did this in 1996 it took dedicated telephone banks, mail-shots and half a million pounds to get a decent turnout, at a time when most members would have supported the slaughter of the firstborn to secure a Labour government. For the next manifesto, unless the earlier stages have given them a genuine sense of ownership they will abstain or vote No, to express discontent with particular policies or with the process as a whole.

And a closing thought: if there had been an autumn election, the manifesto would have been written by the inner elite, with no Warwick-style negotiations in the NPF, no consensual policy outcomes, and no concluding ballot. If the proposals are indeed essential to party democracy, should they be so casually set aside?