Many of us believe that the 13 years of a Labour Government corresponded with the diminution and subsequent demolition of democracy within the Labour Party. The introduction of Partnership in Power (PiP) ended meaningful debate at our Annual Conference as party policy making was shunted off stage right into the National Policy Forum (NPF).
While the thinking person knew this, the Party wished to maintain a veneer of democracy at our Conference and so provided the world with the meaningless spectacle of hand-picked members reading nauseatingly partisan speeches prepared by party workers. However PiP 1 did still allow us to discuss contemporary issues, with each CLP or affiliate having the opportunity of submitting a single motion, but only if they had not already submitted a rule change earlier in the year. How crazy is this? Aren’t most people involved in politics interested in both changing rules and debating current affairs, not it would seem if you are a member of the Labour Party?
We all tried very hard to beat the party machine over the ensuing years, but the Gauleiters’ control of the Regions continued to grow, so that even if a motion made its way onto the floor, the Regional officers so blatantly and therefore successfully abused their positions that, time after time, policy positions that would seem to any sane individual outside of the Party to be perfectly normal would be voted down.
However one issue and one issue alone refused to go away, and the outright absurdity of the Labour Government housing policy was not able to be swallowed even by the most compliant of Blair’s puppy dogs. So year on year, housing was discussed at Conference and year on year the Government lost. For those of you who may have missed the nightmare of the last 13 years of party dictatorship, Blair and Brown wanted to privatise social housing by providing council tenants with bribes to vote yes in stock transfers. So much for the choice based agenda in health and education – oh yes of course that was for the middle classes, so that’s alright then. The oiks in council housing neither need nor deserve choice.
So on the back of GB’s glorious coronation in 2007, Gordon decided that our policy making process had been malfunctioning a little too frequently, and he had no intention of being the leader who could not win internal party elections. His big idea for all of us was to abolish debate at conference in its entirety. And sure enough, the TB flag wavers jumped ship and started all over again, this time scowling for Gordon, and at the 2007 conference we all voted to replace motions with 10 word statements, which if selected in a priorities ballot would then go to the august body, the NPF, for further consideration. Did GB not realise any Tom, Dick or Harry, party member or otherwise, could already send in the very same 10 word statement to the relevant policy commission for consideration, somehow the finer points of Party democracy were to be lost on our leaders.
Despite our contempt for the new system (GB’s great idea was for a 3 year trial period only, trial would suggest a review at the end of that period Gordon?), our CLP continued to bang on about council housing and would you believe, so did many others, and so instead of passing motions, conference endorsed our ten word statement for government to commit to a massive council house building programme. Our ten word statement winged its way to the relevant policy commission’s recycling bin and there it would have remained unless we had not requested that a CLP representative attend a meeting of the policy commission in order to progress the contents of the 10 word statement. Had Horsham CLP not insisted, another part of the recently set up machine of democratic obfuscation would have simply melted away.
So the Chair of Horsham CLP along with others who had also sent in 10 word statements on housing were invited to a meeting of the sustainable communities policy commission. What an eye opener this turned out to be. We were going through a bad period politically and Gordon had brought back Margaret, and while I voted for her as leader of our Party back in 1994, it was clear from the start that her understanding of and commitment to issues around temporary accommodation stretched no further than membership of her local caravan club.
The abuse of our Party democracy had now reached a new low: not only did the commission refuse to discuss the substance of our ten word statements, they failed to grasp why we wanted to return to the reason for our attendance, i.e. to discuss how we progress party policy in a direction which embraced our ten word statements. Instead the session was spent listening to Mags explaining all the wonderful initiatives being put in place to protect home ownership. The meeting was chaired by Michael Cashman MEP – I used to jump for joy when his TV character stuck two fingers up at the Tories’ section 28, but, since holding office within our party, he has been a gut-wrenching disappointment. New Labour lacks manners and Michael was so wrapped up in himself that he came across as both rude and arrogant. Surely Michael, as chair, you should have made all of the visitors welcome and encouraged us all to discuss the many pressing housing issues raised at conference? The sustainable communities policy commission is held up as a model commission, heaven help us!
So no progress resulting from our first experience of Gordon’s ten word statements. Not content with this level of disappointment Horsham CLP sent its next delegate to conference with another 10 word statement, this time on funding a massive council house building programme – and yes conference once more liked our 10 words, so we were back on the policy merry go round. Would you believe it, the talk of the conference was about the excellent work the sustainable communities policy commission was doing and how far we had all progressed and how could other commissions learn from its success – b****ks!
Housing ministers come and go and briefly Caroline Flint replaced our Mags, not a bad swap as it turned out, and while her star was in the ascendancy, so was housing. She had provided NPF Rep Carol Hayton with a written assurance to deliver a level playing field for council house funding at Warwick 2 (well done Carol, Alan, Lesley and all from Defend Council Housing) and her tenacity suggested that she was prepared to deliver. Her tenure in this job though, was short lived, as she was quickly sent to Europe before arriving in Siberia.
Fast forward to Labour’s last housing minister John Healey, not since Nick Raynsford had a housing minister received such good press, and it has to be said that I felt that he did understand the issues, and would probably like to have done something about it. On our second and then third visit to the policy commission I began to think that the group were beginning to recognise that they had a job of work to do, and had a part to play within the democratic structures of our party, that being said, only Jack Dromey as a member of the commission ever really tried to relate the concerns of the CLPs and the substance of the 10 word statements in terms of outcomes from the commission. And then Gordon went to the country and lost.
So, have we been served well through Partnerships in Power version one and two? The answer from anyone who wants to be part of a policy process that is integrity-driven, transparent and meaningful, is a resounding no. Have we made progress in the field of social housing despite the inadequacies of the policy making process? Yes we have, but progress has been woefully slow, and our response to the affordable housing crisis has been too little too late. Is the way in which we discuss and formulate policy within our party satisfactory? Clearly the answer to this is a big fat no, but so long as those with power are so hell bent on misusing it, then whatever system we adopt will be abused.
We are all to blame, the NEC, CAC, Government ministers, party workers and members: so many have felt it more important to be part of something, in the hope that we might get recognised and become part of something more, than to assess whether what we are part of is worth abandoning our integrity, humility and sense of humanity. Why have so many within our party found it so easy to lie, cheat and abuse fellow party members, for what is often nothing more than a chance to be part of the backdrop to the leaders speech or to be canvassed for by the local Gauleiters as the favoured candidate in a regional election.
The current policy making process is pointless and consumes large amounts of time, money and energy and produces very limited outcomes, and if the NPF was abolished very few members outside those who are both party and NPF members would notice. This is not a left verses right rant but an appeal for our Party to recognise what is right and what is wrong and to learn to treat each other as if we were comrades within a workplace and not as we do now, as the oppressed and the oppressors.
David Hide is a member of Horsham CLP and a 10 word statement policy commission veteran. The NEC was due to undertake a review of Partnership in Power before Conference 2009 but it was agreed to delay it for a further year and is now not expected to report until 2011.