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Welcome to my nightmare

Labour is in danger of becoming a party of strangers where 'great deals' rather than great ideas are the order of the day. Pete Smith looks at a disaster in the making.

The picture that is emerging is a fairly clear one. The 'New Labour' elite and their lackeys are preparing to abolish most, if not all, of the representative institutions which exist within the party. They will be replaced with a system of direct democracy, plebiscitary democracy, in which the intermediate structures, General Committees etc. that occupy the territory between the leaders and the atomised and undifferentiated mass of party members will be swept away.

One ultra-moderniser, David Evans, the party organiser in the North West, suggests a system of "dynamic policy forums" in which closed party meetings, open to members only, would be a "rare exception rather than the rule". Closed meetings, not open to the media or non-party members, are, of course, essential to a free and frank expression of differing opinions, without which any system of internal, representative, democracy is impossible. Those who navigate the 'New Labour' ship do not, of course, make their deliberations and discussions open, except as part of the whole complicated exercise of spinning their tale to the media or jockeying for power in their various attempts to be closest to the ear of the Great Leader.

Leaders are able to use the machinery of the party, direct mailing, party publications and access to the non-party media, such as the tabloid press or television, to communicate with, and persuade, members to support their policy and organisational initiatives. An increasingly professionalised and bureaucratised party will be top-down to a degree hitherto unseen outside authoritarian parties of various types.

This attempt to revolutionise the party has been widely described as an attempt to 'Americanise' the party: to turn it into a loose association, which has only a shadowy existence outside election time, and which is called into existence by its leaders in order to act as a campaign organisation. This is not a very accurate description of the project. American parties are very loose coalitions of viewpoints and interests. The party organisation (what there is of it) and its leaders do not control candidate selection. The selection of candidates is done by the people themselves, voting in primaries and caucuses. Bill Clinton, as nominal leader of his party, cannot determine who will be Democratic candidates at national, state or local level. This is not a description of 'New Labour'.

Back in 1992 Republican voters in Louisiana chose former Klan wizard, David Duke, as their candidate for the governorship of the state. All George Bush, as Republican leader, could do was disassociate himself from Duke and point out that if he was a voter in the state he would not vote for him. The kind of control and veto over the selection of candidates, which is enjoyed by the Labour hierarchy, is utterly alien to the American system. For good or ill the American system is much more pluralist, in terms of the influences on candidate selection, which is one of the many reasons why American parties are such disparate entities.

The American system of government, and the party system that goes with it, is much more decentralised than the British one and the power and influence of national party leaderships is, consequently, much less. The British system is, thanks to devolution to Scotland and Wales and an assembly and mayor for London, becoming less centralised but we have seen that despite this paper decentralisation, Labour leaders have sought to exercise control over candidate selection at every level, with considerable success.

Plans for Labour's reorganisation seem to seek to combine a very incoherent and diffuse grassroots organisation with a tightly-knit and powerful full-time organisation. There will be a dictatorship exercised over the members by the leaders but one periodically legitimised by elections and ballots, the outcomes of which are foregone conclusions.

Those who seek to guide the direction of the party seem to see 'New Labour' as a kind of franchise that members, supporters and voters buy into. Margaret McDonagh, the General Secretary of the party, alludes to this in her recent comments. The editorial in the July party journal Inside Labour has McDonagh say, "You'll also find an updated membership benefits booklet, showing how you can get free legal advice, as well as great deals on a range of products and services." The idea seems to be that people join a party because they get money off offers or in other ways are attracted to 'great deals'.

This makes joining the Labour Party equivalent to joining the AA or the RAC and with members having as little real control over the organisation. We're with the Woolwich.

David Evans makes this consumerist standpoint explicit: "whilst at the moment our members have confidence in the product", which is, of course, the Government, they "do not have a corresponding degree of confidence in the local store that stocks it", which is, of course, their local Labour Party. He goes on to argue that they "know that if they advise a friend or neighbour to shop there, it may not even be open and, if it is, the service is likely to be poor."

In all this there is never any notion that a political party is some kind of common enterprise or joint endeavour. I guess the 'New Labour' crew always bridle at the term 'comrade' but that is all the term expresses, the concept of a shared purpose which unites individuals through a common bond. The belief that we have done great things together in the past and we mean to do so again. The very poor response of the party leadership to the centenary of the party is an indicator of many things. Blair seems to really believe in year zero. Everyone and everything that came before him is simply irrelevant or a threat to the 'project'. Labour party members have spent the best part of one hundred years attending boring meetings in village halls and draughty rooms over pubs when they should have been. making Britain a world leader in low paid jobs. All those boring meetings did not lead to nowhere. The party did not achieve the things its founders expected of it. The only person who never breaks a plate is the one who never does the washing up. This is the downfall of the present trend in the party. If the party is hollowed out where is the sense that we are engaged in something more than, periodically, filling out ballot papers, paying subscriptions and getting those 'great deals'? An effective political party cannot, in fact, be run in this way. The self-styled realists who inhabit the party apparatus turn out to be fantasists.

How removed from the realities of politics on the ground are the people who are paid, partly by my subscription, to be 'experts'? People who, as Max Weber once said, live "off politics" not for politics. When I take around leaflets or newsletters to local party members to deliver they deliver them, not because they have signed up to the 'New Labour' agenda or the Blair project (most of them have not) but because I have asked them to. They know me, and they know I would not ask them to do it if it was not important. I am sure people, up and down the country, know this to be true. We meet each other, and argue in the process. We know each other, which is not always the same as liking or respecting each other, but we are not strangers. What the leadership seems to be after is a party where members are detached from each other. Edmund Burke once spoke of the "little platoons" which are the real building blocks on which loyalty, authority and a sense of belonging must be based.

Why do people join political parties? On the whole it is not deep-seated ideological commitment. They are drawn in by friends, neighbours or by local issues. Or they are the tribalists that 'New Labour' is most hostile too. Bred in the bone and died in the wool. The 'New Labour' assumption that people join the party for ideological reasons has a curious symmetry with the view of the ultra-left. Hardly surprising, since so many of those signed up to the 'New Labour project' flipped over from the left to start with.

Obviously the proposed 'reforms' are a disaster in the making. I am not concerned with those people in the terminal stages of meeting addiction but those, very ordinary, members of the party who want to come to a meeting once a month or so and maybe go to the pub for a chat afterwards. That is our history, which is what we are. Most of us are not very spectacular people, and do not claim to be; we have jobs and responsibilities, of one sort or another, which means that we cannot or would not devote ourselves to politics full-time, even if we wanted to. Perhaps the elite, the powerful, the friends of the well connected, regard us as irrelevant. Thanks to television and the tabloid press we have lost our usefulness as a way of communicating with the masses. Who needs us when they have got Breakfast with Frost or Alastair Campbell and Andrew Adonis writing the words that need to be put in the mouth of the leader.

Can we hold a party together based on "great deals" and periodic ballots? The party does not need "great deals" it needs Big Ideas, which are different from the warmed over neo-liberalism which is on offer from those in charge. Not just the people you would expect, but former 'left-wingers' such as Alastair Darling and Stephen Byers, who were more socialist than thou in the 1980s (when it cost nothing and paved the way to a parliamentary seat) but now peddle the most reactionary views on, well you name it.

The structural integrity of the party is being threatened. Once the 'New Labour' elite have given the party a makeover, which means that everything is decided from the top-down and there is no room for realistic criticism, that is it. The first post-modern party is born. It does not have any members, or at least none that you would notice. It does not have any policies, except those defined by the latest focus groups. Its leaders are people who have never had jobs outside the charmed world of politics and politicians' hangers on. Welcome to my nightmare.