Refounding Labour – A critique
Refounding Labour is part of an important and necessary process of change that Labour needs to go through following its General Election defeat. It is therefore right that the whole party see the report at every stage and therefore has a chance to comment on it and contribute to the process of making it a success. It’s a document that provokes mixed emotions, in me at least. If you get into the nitty-gritty there is some really good stuff in it, however, there is also some deeply worrying stuff and overall there is a concerning lack of real progress being made on extending and deepening Party democracy. So, let’s take a look at the proposals which broadly fall into three categories to my mind.
Where Refounding Labour really and genuinely impressed me, as it stands, is in mainly the areas that might well be termed structural. The thrust of the proposals are too loosen the structural rigidity of the Party and that is a good and necessary thing. It is, high time, default structures for local Labour Parties were removed from the rule book, a practice which is a unnecessary straight-jacket for local parties looking to grow in very specific contexts. It also looks like serious moves are underway to make our Party meetings better and more focused and promising proposals are contained therein to involve and encourage the involvement of more women, ethnic minority and LGBT members
In terms drawing the trade unions deeper into Party life there is similarly a lot to praise in the document. The requirement for local parties and trade unions to meet at least once a year is progress as is the suggestion that trade union representation could be provided for within newly formed cross-constituency co-ordination forums (to replace LGC’s and County Parties). It is also proposed that trade unions are given a extra place on the Young Labour National Committee. However, we need to move away from the mentality that the only time we meet the unions (and the unions meet us) is when its election time. In that regard, perhaps more than once a year would be a better suggestion.
Also, it looks like the serious (internal) communications issues we have are being taken seriously. MembersNet which currently is neither use nor ornament, is slated for serious reform and renewal. At the moment, internal comms is not much more than a occasional email and if we are really lucky (or the Party is particularly desperate for money), a letter and that isnt really good enough. Candidate contracts are also good (if not stunningly ground breaking) as they let both candidate and local Party know where they stand and what is expected of them. The position and responsibilities of the leader is also going to be better defined but that rather leads onto the next category….
Several proposals show that we have a long, and I mean very long, way to get some serious Party democracy returned to Labour. For example, I found the proposal that the ‘multiple vote’ problem in the electoral college be fixed by restricting everybody to One Member, One Vote particularly risible when it seemed to imply that was going to be a particular sacrifice for MP’s and MEP’s (because we know who they are, apparently). Given that the electoral college gives their vote a twelve tonnage (and more) weighting compared to the rest of the Party I fail to see them losing much sleep over this loss. I personally remain a passionate advocate of One Member, One Equal Vote.When it comes to advancing Party democracy, Refounding Labour starts to become really rather disappointing. Mainly because well there is not much of substance in it; that which is there does little to address the deep-seated issues and in some cases makes them worse. For example, I am not inclined to agree that the leader should have the unchallenged right to barge into any party meeting as he or she pleases.
Nothing much is done about the fact that Party Conference is far from being at the “apex of our internal democracy” and the production of policy is still going to be vested in the National Policy Forum and Joint Policy Commission, neither of which are going to be reformed in any meaningful way. Something of a contradiction exists here at the core of the document. In other areas, it talks of establishing a duty for local parties to reach out to the public but, what is the point, if those local parties cannot submit policy motions direct to a sovereign conference? All those brilliant local groups that CLP’s contact will have their policy-making impact reduced close to the sum of zero by the lack of the CLP’s input into Party Conference.
Also bad is the things that are ominously left out of the document, like the issue of vote weightings at conference has been effectively shelved, prior to further discussion by the NEC. Watch this space, finally, we move onto the downright ugly.
The ugliest, and most unacceptable part of Refounding Labourwas, for me the registered supporter scheme. Nothing is, in principle, wrong with recruiting a periphery of supporters who are not willing to join. What I actually object too is recruiting them and then giving them the same rights as a affiliated member of the Party (ie, a trade unionist, for example) in leadership elections. This is pretty insulting to trade unionists who after all pay money to the Party (in the form of the political levy); there is no indication currently that these supporters will have too. It is also a crafty way of further diluting the influence of trade unionists in this crucial area of the Party’s internal life. This runs counter to the thrust of the rest of the document which is trying to involve them more, not less, within the Party.Similarly, members should be insulted and affronted that these supporters will be allowed to attend conference as a visitor, as any member would. Incidentally, as a slight aside it is good news that the requirement of being a member a year before you can attend conference is being considered for the chop – however, the point remains that the supporter category will end up undermining the role and rights of affiliated and full Labour members. For example, it is simply wrong that existing members be asked to subsidies the membership of people whose only prior commitment was to sign a bit of paper. Registered Supporters, it is proposed will be allowed to join at lower rates. Times are hard enough and subs are high enough without imposing this extra burden on our hard working members. Finally, there is an indication that CLP’s would be obliged to hold one policy consultation event for registered supporters. Obviously, this should again be a completely unacceptable dilution of the members role.
My view is that these proposals should be entirely dropped or else Registered Supporters should be people who are registered and can be involved at the level of being able to attend local meetings and participating at that level but have no other real rights. If they then join, they should join at the same rate and in the same way the rest of us do. We have a situation where individual trade unionists and members of this Party have had their rights and freedoms curtailed quite enough without creating a two-tier membership ontop of that.
Overall, It would be unfair to claim Refounding Labour, as it stands, is a disaster but it isn’t brilliant either. It does show us how much progress we need to make if we are to have a truly democratic internal culture and practice, one which is necessary for us to both return to government and when we are in government to ensure we do not make the mistakes we have made previously when in power.