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We, the members

Peter Kenyon reviews the 2005 Party Conference season in the wake of further falls in party membership, the loss of 4 million Labour voters and signs of stirring in the bowels of the Labour Party.

Back to Brighton for Labour, Blackpool for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, while the Greens kick off the 2005 annual party conference season in Lancaster. These are the mainstream political parties seeking to secure and maintain popular support in, arguably, a leading modern democratic state.

For anyone interested in what they are going to discuss, all you have to do is go their website home pages. All that is except for the ruling Labour Party. The Tories don’t actually publish an agenda, but at least you can find out what the main themes to be discussed are. The Greens and the Liberal Democrats both publish details of their procedures and timetables for proposing resolutions and amendments. Simple benchmarks, but they are indicative of whether or not democracy features in practice in the structures and processes of their constitutions.

The issues run much deeper in the two mainstream mass membership parties, insofar as they have extensive local party organisations. The Conservatives are immersed in their own internal machinations over how to select their leader. Tory members of their local associations are being invited to deny themselves any meaningful role in future. Cue: tribal gloating in the ruling Labour Party. That might be tolerable if Labour members were actually allowed to have a say in renewing the mandates of their own Leader and deputy. But the Rule Book has been ignored studiously for the last eight years, by Party officials, the conference arrangements committee (CAC), and the majority of delegates to Conference.

The Rules don’t provide for an annual election when Labour is in government. But they do require an annual nomination process.

However, we, the members, being first and foremost British, don’t like a fuss. Rules are made to be broken. Who cares about agendas, resolutions and minutes, protocols, rules of engagement and all the other paraphernalia of sound governance and accountability? We want to move on, get things done, modernise, and make things more efficient. Except when we go to war, a train or plane crashes, companies sack workers without notice, siphon off the pension funds, a loved one is mown down by a drunk driver or an innocent Brazilian gets shot by the police on the tube.

And it’s not just we, the members who tend to worry in those circumstances. The military, civil servants, and true parliamentarians, not to mention the judiciary, who also care passionately about rules of engagement, protocols and the rule of law. That’s what makes the remarks of the Chief of the Defence Staff (retired) about the second Iraq War, Lord Butler in the House of Lords last autumn and the ongoing media interest in the Attorney-General’s advice to the Cabinet so fascinating.

Yet so far no one has managed to translate this into an issue of over-riding public concern that demands an enduring political response. The leading politicians of all political parties are too preoccupied with maintaining and advancing their electoral standing that principled politics have all but been abandoned. Some commentators attribute this to globalisation and the relentless progress of the multinational corporation. While the rest of humanity faces a daily struggle to fend for itself, care for children or ageing relatives, friends and neighbours genuinely don’t have the time to worry about these issues, except when systemic failure affects us directly. Yet the themes of successive mainstream party leaders’ speeches at Party Conference over the past two years have been about reconnecting politician and public. Labour Party leader Tony Blair stated in his 3rd British General Election victory speech that he had “listened and learned”, and then proceeded on a legislative programme that is further and further divorced from Labour values.

A loss of four million votes at the polls, 47 seats in the House of Commons and the creation of a critical mass of marginal constituencies do not appear to trouble a Leader who has already announced his intention to stand down before the next British General Election. But that is not how the situation is seen in the Labour Party either in Parliament or the Party on the ground. Labour backbenchers have won a number of skirmishes with the Leadership since May. More independently minded backbenchers have been elected to the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) Executive. Angela Eagle, MP for Wallasey and former minister, saw off by one vote the Blairite candidate to represent the PLP on the National Executive Committee. The most coherent expression of loyal dissent from the membership was registered at the Labour East regional conference at the end of June, a month after the British General Election. A statement prepared by the Regional Board in the face of stiff opposition from the Regional Director (line manager – the Labour Party General Secretary, not the Regional Board), set out four key issues to be addressed with membership at the top of the list.

It is the absence of bog-standard (apologies to Alistair Campbell) accountability in the Labour Party that is most worrying. Canny national officials under the un-elected chair of the Party, Ian McCartney, have spotted the collapse of the party’s campaigning capacity at constituency level. The Party’s website includes opportunities for people to sign up as supporters and members. (Why anyone should give money to a political party as a supporter with no rights to have any say in that party’s governance, is a mystery to those who pay membership subscriptions. Or perhaps not, in the absence of any quality assurance by the national or regional parties of local organisation. But people do and the Labour Party is apparently happy to sign supporters up and not give them any say.)

This initiative is being paralleled by a competition to identify the constituency labour party (CLP) that signs up the most members before Conference – the so-called Prescott Challenge. This follows eight-consecutive yearly falls in Labour Party membership and the abandonment of any commitment to mass party membership since the current Leader was appointed Prime Minister in 1997. Total Labour Party membership held up at just over 200,000 at the end of 2004, according to figures submitted to the Electoral Commission, under the disclosure rules required of all major political parties put on the statute book by Labour to clean up British politics. The idea that anyone should have to answer directly for that state of affairs is simply anathema to Party bosses.

At the time of going to press no information concerning the stewardship of the Labour Party by the current Leadership and the rest of the National Executive Committee ie an Annual Report has been sent to any CLP or Conference delegate, let alone an individual member. Company shareholders are treated much better. They get notice of meetings weeks in advance with copies of an Annual Report and detailed agendas. A call for a formal AGM out of the gaze of the cameras made by Save the Labour Party last year was rejected by the CAC. If last year’s Labour Party performance is a benchmark no CLP will have any opportunity to review the whole Agenda or the Annual Report before Labour assembles in Brighton. Delegates are “on their own”. Rules requiring the CLPs are represented by a woman in alternate years means that some CLPs are not represented in the absence of sufficient women delegates. A simple remedy to ensure some representation by doubling the number of delegates per constituency to two (one man:one woman) has been routinely opposed by the body which should be accountable to the membership – the Leadership and the National Executive Committee.

There are two stark facts that emerge from the data the Labour Party is obliged by law to provide to the Electoral Commission: it is unable to recruit and retain members and it is increasingly dependent on rich individuals to keep it financially solvent.

Whatever is eventually set out on the agenda, it is unlikely that there will be any discussion around those issues.

What is needed is an independent body of inquiry into accountability, party and parliamentary democracy, comprising a representative cross-section of party members. It needs to raise enough money to pay for unimpeachable research to discover the aspirations of members, past and present, whether those expectations have been met or not, and if they left the Party why and under what circumstances they would be induced back. In particular, it needs to also look at the politically active but party unattached. We need to know why the mainstream political parties, the only known institutions in our democracy capable of securing electoral support to govern at local, regional and national levels, are finding membership recruitment and retention so problematic.

This work would be best done with a groundswell of support from large numbers of individuals, as well as Labour Party and trade union branches.

Work on this project has already started. If you want to support its work contact: Peter Kenyon - peter.g.kenyon@btinternet.com.