What does Party Conference say about us?
Mark Ferguson has kicked off an interesting debate over at LabourList about Party Conference. Let me start with where I agree with Mark. Many of his substantive criticisms of Party Conference being nothing more than a glorified social gathering with little real role or power in deciding the course the Party takes are, of course, totally correct. Party Conference hasn’t had a central role in deciding Party policy for a significant amount of time. However, rather than being something that we should observe and nonchalantly shrug our shoulders over, it is something we should lament and mourn. The erosion of the role of conference is a significant symptom of the disconnect between both the Party membership and the leadership (who regard the former as potentially naughty children who under no circumstances should be let near the sweetie jar). It is also a significant symptom of the disconnect between the Party and the wider electorate. In so many ways it encapsulates the cynical view of core Labour supporters and values as something to be manipulated and managed by an all-seeing bureaucracy.
The ‘normal people who are into politics’ who Toby Perkins refers too in his reply are the living, organic link between the Party and the wider world. As members, we are the heart and soul of the Party, we are also its emissary’s in the wider,increasingly a-political and atomised world. The very fact that we are treated with such thinly-veiled contempt is exactly where this Party has gone and exactly why we are lashed to the opposition benches while this government pursues a scorched-earth policy, dismantling the country piece-by-piece. This is why Mark’s prescription, to abolish Party Conference in a seemingly casual and off-hand manner is utterly wrong. It would be a crushing below against an already critically enfeebled inner-party democracy. It does nothing to address the very real problems that he himself so eloquently identifies.
Rather than pronounce the patient DOA, we need to be looking at ways to revive them. Its time to look at wide-ranging and radical reforms of how we do business as a political Party. This is not something that will come for the Labour leadership. No matter how many platitudes they mouth, nothing will change their basic hostility to the Party membership. It is something that will have to be imposed on them by Labour members coming together in a common cause, across the inner-party ideological divide, under the banner of Party democracy.