Two key changes were needed to make good Ed Miliband’s promise of a change of direction at his election to the leadership. One was obviously a shift away from New Labour’s Faustian deal with neo-liberal capitalism and Blair-Brown’s accommodation with the banks, big business and Murdoch press in support of deregulated finance and privatised free markets. The second was the restoration of internal party democracy which had been squeezed almost lifeless by New Labour as both Blair and Brown sought to centralise their own power at the expense of the party.
Party conference was made into a showpiece for the leader’s speech. Decision-making on policy was first downgraded by Blair (either ignored or dismissed as the party’s policy, which was not the government’s policy, as though the government was an entity totally unrelated to the party) and then abandoned by Brown altogether (there would be no votes taken at all). In the run-up to Conference there is still far too little evidence of the former. But what is really worrying is the stitch-up that is now being attempted on the latter.
What is needed, and expected from Ed Miliband, is that on all key issues votes would be taken at Conference which, even if the platform didn’t win, would be accepted by the leadership, subject to the caveat in exceptional circumstances that where the leader felt he could not for stated reasons accept the policy as proposed, there would be further intensive consultation to reach an early compromise with the movers of the motion. That is the fundamental principle of a democratic party. Anything short of that makes party conferences into irrelevant and time-wasting talk-shops, with the fairly unedifying spectacle of 2,000 people gathered together in a facade pretending that what they say and do matters.
Sadly this basic democratic condition is not in view for the Liverpool conference, at least not yet. The whole package of measures deriving from the party’s year-long exercise ‘Refounding Labour’ is to be taken on Sunday afternoon in a short debate in which only a handful of delegates will have the opportunity to speak, with one single take-it-or-leave-it vote at the end on the whole package inevitably largely unread by delegates. The package doesn’t actually weaken internal democracy, but it doesn’t strengthen it either in any significant degree. Considering that 40 pages of amendments have been tabled and a 100-page revised rule book has been sent to delegates just 4 days before it is debated, this is not an intelligent or defensible way of re-launching a democratic party.