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A right royal mess

Peter Kenyon reflects on how the Labour Party needs to get a grip on the British constitution and its implications for democratic socialism

British Prime Ministers can exercise powers verging on the absolute. Britain's electoral system for electing members of parliament first past the post appears to be a dominant factor in enabling the accumulation of powers. The bigger a political party's majority in the House of Commons the greater the scope for a Prime Minister to rule the roost.

Labour in the mid-1990s was so desperate to get re-elected it allowed its newly-elected Leader Tony Blair to abandon shadow cabinet meetings six months before the 1997 General Election. Collective decision making and accountability were simply discarded in the interests of regaining power. It was a mistake which will haunt the Labour movement, if it can recover a sense of identity, after the next General Election, for at least a generation.

'Tony wants' became the mantra. 'Sofa government' replaced the tedium of prepared papers in advance, debate, and recorded decision-making. The results are increasingly apparent. In addition to an illegal war, ill-conceived partnerships with the private sector, unchanged Tory anti-union legislation, wanton greed has infected too many Labour representatives in both Houses of Parliament - Commons and Lords to enable the current Labour administration to effect significant constitutional change.

As a republican, I see no prospect of ending this state of affairs by calling for the dissolution of the monarchy. Nor is there much merit in changing the voting system to some form of proportional representation. As a member of Labour's National Executive Committee I have made myself unpopular by deciding to publicise my concerns about the way the Labour Party is run, to the extent that at the July 2009 NEC meeting the chair allowed the proceedings to degenerate into a 'kangaroo court' with me in the dock facing unspecified charges. My account can be read in Tribune, 14 August 2009. I have a letter from Cath Speight, the chair of Labour's ruling National Executive Committee, dated July 21, stating: I want to clarify the instruction the NEC agreed to ask you to comply with today. It was not an instruction not to blog; it was an instruction not to use your blog to make comments that undermine the NEC, and the NEC's governance structures and procedures, particularly in relation to the finances of the party.'

This descent into farce arises from my questioning of changes made to the Labour Party National Executive Committee's Terms of Reference shortly after I was elected last July. Changes were undoubtedly necessary after the discovery barely six months earlier of massive unsecured loans taken out in the name of the Labour Party without even the knowledge of the Treasurer, Jack Dromey. The fact that this could have happened highlights the rotten state of the Labour Party's own governance arrangements as were. Are they any better now? I stated publicly on my blog after changes were proposed and agreed at the November 2008 NEC that 'I remained to be convinced'. The proposed changes were not the result of an open and considered debate in the NEC. It doesn't work like that. Proposals appear without any account of their provenance. The changes raised serious issues about the status of NEC members. I sought to get legal clarification and was defeated. The settled view of my colleagues on the NEC is that I should shut up. Even close colleagues on the left take the view that as far as the Party's finances are concerned the affiliated trade unions will bail out the Party, so I shouldn't worry about my personal liabilities.

That is to miss the point arising from the comic opera that is now the Labour Party NEC. It has been hijacked by the Leadership and its allies. There is nothing new in that analysis. What I am seeking to do is flush out the actual status of each NEC member as it might be deemed in law. Political parties are not constituted bodies in law, and to that extent are unregulated. However, IMHO and that of some other party members, does not mean that some members of the NEC can behave as a law unto themselves. To that end I have secured a meeting with the Party Solicitor and NEC officers. That is scheduled for 21 September the day before the next NEC meeting and less than a week before Annual Conference 2009, the last before the next General Election.

In the meantime no debate has been planned to take place inside the Labour Party about anything that will have any bearing on its re-electability. We are sleep walking into electoral annihilation. As for the finer points of the British constitution, it brought to mind a verse from the Gondoliers, composed in 1889 well before the founding of the Labour Party itself.

Oh, philosophers may sing
Of the troubles of a King;
Yet the duties are delightful,
and the privileges great; But
the privilege and pleasure That
we treasure beyond measure Is
to run on little errands for the
Ministers of State.

If W.S. Gilbert had clocked the constitutional powers of ministers a hundred years before Blair, why is it taking us so long to fathom the right royal mess we are in?