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Modernisers living in the past

The three Croydon constituency Labour Parties conducted a widespread consultation with branches to produce their response to the 21st Century Party document. Charlie King and Peter Latham report.

For the party to succeed both locally and nationally the broad spectrum of volunteers, that make up local parties, need to be motivated by a leadership undertaking the implementation of policies that have the support of the membership. It is also essential that the members feel responsible for contributing to those polices and can clearly identify with them. We understand that Government must be more pragmatic and needs to have a broad consensus of support in the wider country. However, this does not mean we have to abandon or change our principles every time we have a bad headline in the Daily Mail. The party and the leadership not only need to look after the poorest members of society and 'Middle England' (Britain): it also needs to improve the living standards of 'Ordinary Britain'.

Actions of the leadership as well as party structure have an effect on membership. Failure to keep manifesto commitments or changes to policies without consulting the membership cause disillusionment in the party and just as many resignations as poor party structure. Remember volunteers need a purpose and an input to policy and a continuous campaign message. Too often in the last three years the party has rested on its laurels and failed to campaign at all, as in the case of the 1999 European Elections.

We accept it is right that the party reviews its structures to ensure that they are adequate for the next century. However, this does not mean there has to be change for change's sake. It is the view of the three Croydon parties that, with a positive approach, the existing structure is flexible enough to meet the needs of the foreseeable future.

In any large nation-wide organisation there has to be a manageable sub-structure that reflects the needs of both local and national parts of the organisation. It also needs to be of a size that both the local members and the public can identify with. The advantage of constituency parties is the direct link and identity with the local MP. This is particularly important for constituencies with Labour MPs as both the members and the public identify the party with the MP. In those constituencies that do not have a Labour MP the constituency chair takes on this role. If there were no constituency party the local identity would be lost.

We agree that as council wards are electoral divisions of a local authority they do not always reflect a local community. However, the existing rules allow the creation of branches from one or more wards: and this happens in Croydon where wards do not reflect the local community. The existing rules also allow constituency parties to step in where a ward is moribund. The problem is usually that as we are volunteers there are insufficient people to undertake this task. The existing rules also allow all party and all member forums and conferences, which take place on a regular basis in Croydon.

Constituencies can assist each other in election campaigns and work together with joint borough wide local elections. We have a proud record of undertaking this in Croydon. Our biggest concern is the changes to the selection procedure for selecting Parliamentary, European, Assembly and Mayoral candidates. This procedure has alienated and divorced the members from the party and the candidates, at the expense of the party and its ability to mount election campaigns. The members feel that their voice has been muted and Millbank is imposing itschosen candidates upon the party. We agree that it is important that candidates are vetted to ensure that they are fit persons to hold Labour Party Office. However, the way the present procedure has been implemented fails to consider the feelings of the local party. It also would seem to exclude anybody with a mind of their own regardless of their standing locally.

We are also concerned over the cost of these new internal selection procedures for both the local party and to the candidates themselves. The candidates selected in the last European and GLA elections in London were those who could afford to contact the most members by post and phone. This excludes many working class candidates unless they have the backing of a national trade union. This would seem totally wrong in a party that is based on equality of opportunity.

This combined with the expense of running local parties and the constant badgering of members for donations has caused more disillusionment in the party than changing the structure will ever resolve. It is a constant concern that the source of income to local parties is the members and we have to constantly compete with Millbank for their donations. This is a particular difficulty for parties without sitting Labour MPs.

The national party's new structure denies CLPs a role in Labour's policy-making - since they cannot submit amendments to the rolling programme direct to conference - and to do so through the National Policy Forum requires the support of at least two thirds of the Forum's CLP delegates. In practice, moreover, CLPs contemporary resolutions cannot get on the agenda without being supported by major unions in the priorities ballot.

Unless CLPs have a real say in policy-making their ability to fulfil campaigning and fund-raising functions will decline and the membership will no longer identify with the party. CLPs' policy-making functions should be restored. All-member meetings should complement GC and branch meetings not replace them. We should not throw out the baby with the bath water. Members' views should be listened to and acted upon not only when they are in tune with those of the leadership. The decline in membership is due to the fiasco of the internal election procedure for Europe, Scotland, Wales and London where the views of the 'foot soldiers' were ignored. This alienated many members, which is demonstrated by the high proportion of members who refused to assist in the latter campaigns.

Local policy forums are a useful means for the discussion and exchange of ideas. However, they can be pointless without decision-making processes; and decisions are pointless if they have no impact on the party. The best place for decision-making is the existing CLPs. There is no point in trying to replace one decision-making body with a different one. There is no substitute, where there is disagreement and decisions have to be made, for voting.

Branch Meetings are the basis of grassroots democracy and holding them monthly enables members to respond to current events locally and nationally. The existing structure should therefore be built upon not abolished, since it is already flexible enough and can be adapted to meet the needs of local parties and communities. General Committees should also be retained not abolished. They reflect the public face of the local party identifying with a local MP. This is important to avoid not having different messages from the party and the MP. Enhancing the link between national party and the constituency will increase the incentive to attend.

Local Government Committees have a major role to play in maintaining the link between local parties borough wide and the Labour Group. However, they can be ineffective if members are not able to hold Labour Groups accountable. With the proposed changes to local government structures a review of the way leaders are elected and how they are accountable to the party at large is needed. An OMOV ballot of members to choose group leaders and senior positions should be considered.

The stated "aim" of the consultation document, namely, "to give the party back to its membership, to empower members" (page 5) - has been an issue ever since left parties were established. Robert Michels showed - in his book Political Parties published in 1911 - that the German Social Democratic Party and trade unions in practice were dominated by their leaders not democratically controlled by their members. Michels concluded that due to what he called the "iron law of oligarchy", however democratic an organisation in theory, in practice a minority always ruled. Hence until the 1990s Labour's Annual Conference in theory was the supreme policy-making body with the trade union block vote ensuring that in practice constituency militancy was neutralised and the leadership dominant.

Since the 1990s the Labour Party has moved away from 'representative' democracy towards 'plebiscitary' democracy: namely, OMOV for the election of the leader and NEC plus postal ballots on policy (e.g. the manifesto). A party organised around infrequent referenda on policies and leaders is very different from one where the leaders are held accountable to a series of representative structures. There is little opposition to leaders from a membership asked to fill out postal ballot papers now and again. Party leaders have clearly concluded that the mass media gives them the ability to communicate with voters without the need for a grass roots organisation.

Party memberships have been falling for a very long time. Labour bucked this trend from 1994 until 1997; but the long-term decline has now reasserted itself with Tony Blair's Sedgefield constituency membership falling by 500 since 1997.

No questions are included in the questionnaire that would allow respondents to state their preference for enlarging CLPs input into policy-making or extending representative democracy. This is not surprising since the whole purpose of the 'consultation' is to justify the abolition of representative democracy. On the 22nd June 1999, the front pages of the Guardian and the Independent carried reports of an internal report from the Director of the North West Region, David Evans who is now Assistant General Secretary. The report was written in 1996 and his proposals put on the back burner before the general election. Now they are on the front burner again. Entitled The New Labour Party: a vision for organisational modernisation paragraph 2.4 states: "Placing the Policy Forum principle at the heart of our activity will remove the pseudo democratic paralysis that hamstrings innovation and flexibility...Once the policy making is removed from branch and constituency then an Executive or Officers can undertake the business". Paragraph 3.3 refers to the need to "give firm proposals for staging posts along the way - the abolition of General Committees in 1999 for example". This has already happened in Stephen Twigg's Enfield Southgate constituency. Paragraph 4.4 states that: "Representative democracy should as far as possible be abolished in the Party". David Evans also reiterated this view in the autumn 1999 issue of Labour Organiser where he stated that: "New Labour politics should be matched by New Labour organisation...representative democracy should...be abolished in the Party..."

Centralisation of the Party has already massively reduced the role of branches and GCs in policy-making. The abolition of branches and GCs would complete the process; and committees and resolutions would be completely replaced by rallies at which stage armies of selected members show their faith in the leadership's wisdom. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Note Books written in a Mussolini jail during the 1930s also noted the essentially passive relationship between leaders and members in social democratic parties. In fact, in the modern world, where authority is less taken-for-granted than in Gramsci's time and deference has all but disappeared, a top-down centralised party is completely inappropriate. Hence it is the modernisers who want to remodel the Labour Party who are living in the past not the future.

July/August 2000