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Contemporary motions at Labour conference: explained in full

Every year, CLPD secretary and former NEC member PETER WILLSMAN issues a delegates’ guide to Labour conference. This will be serialised on Left Futures over the coming weeks, and is recommended for first-time delegates. Here, Peter explains “contemporary” policy motions coming before conference.

Labour Party conference will consider two types of policy motion: “contemporary motions” and “emergency motions” – which can be submitted by constituency Labour parties (CLPs) and trade unions.

Contemporary motions, can be submitted by CLPs until 12 noon on 21st September – emergency motions cover events that take place after this date. This means that it is not too late for constituency parties to decide to submit a contemporary motion.

They must be on a subject that has not been substantively addressed by the party’s national executive committee (NEC) or national policy forum (NPF). In the past this has meant that the motion must relate in some way to something occurring after the end of July. They must be on one subject only.

Each CLP can send one contemporary motion provided that they have not already submitted a rule amendment in 2012. The heading of the motion should be expressed in 10 words or less (usually with up to 250 words of back up).

Contemporary motions on party organisation and campaigning are just as valid as those on policy issues.  This was clearly spelt out in the Partnership in Power procedures agreed by Conference in 1997, where it specifically referred to the possibility of motions covering “issues that are not substantively addressed in the organisation and campaigning work of the NEC”. However, in recent years the Party’s senior officials seem to have forgotten this and have been resistant to such motions.

In the past head office has issued a special form for contemporary motions, and it was recommended that this is returned by recorded delivery.  But the process may now be entirely electronic, although the Constitutional Unit at HQ will make arrangements for any CLP Secretary without access to a computer (0207 7831334). The motion is sent electronically by email to the Assistant conference arrangements committee (CAC) Secretary but should be followed by a signed hard copy on the special form if there is one.

The time allowed for choosing a contemporary motion is very short.  In many CLPs the executive committee (EC), or the officers, are empowered to agree the motion.

Before Conference the CAC makes its decision as to whether each motion is judged to be “contemporary”.  Usually the CAC contacts the CLP Secretary with its decision a day or two before Conference opens. It is likely that CLPs will be able to lodge an appeal directly to the CAC on Thursday 27th September.

Those contemporary motions that slip through the CAC’s nets and reach Conference will be grouped into subjects and published in CAC Report 1, available on Sunday morning at delegation meetings, from the Party stand and when delegates enter the Conference Hall.

These subject headings then go into the Priorities Ballot, which will be held on Sunday, probably between 1.30pm and 4.00pm.

The ballot opens before Conference opens, and therefore delegates are prevented from overturning any controversial decisions by the CAC in relation to what are, and what are not, valid Contemporary Motions.  Thus, for the first time ever, the CAC is not accountable to Conference in respect of a major part of its decision-making powers.

Following pressure from the rank and file, and a successful rule change from several CLPs, supported by the unions, the procedure used to calculate the result of the Priorities Ballot has been changed. It is now guaranteed that the top four motion subjects voted on by the unions, and the top four subjects voted on by the CLPs, will be debated.

So, for example, if the CLPs and affiliates both vote for three of the same subjects, with a fourth subject that is different, then there would be five debates on contemporary motion subjects.

Thus, if CLP delegates want to make maximum use of this rare opportunity to control what conference debates, they should seek to ensure that eight subjects are chosen – four by the Unions and four different ones by the CLPs. This means that CLP delegates must not vote for any of the four favoured by the Unions – to do so is to waste your vote. To vote for four separate topics is in no way against the interests of the unions – their four chosen topics are guaranteed to be debated.

The four subjects that the Unions will choose are known well in advance of the Priorities Ballot – the Unions vote as a block to ensure they get the four they want. On the Sunday morning, before the Priorities Ballot takes place, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) will tell delegates which four these are. This advice will be given at CLPD’s rally on Sunday morning and in the Sunday edition of CLPD’s Campaign Briefing newsletter, handed to delegates outside the conference centre each morning.

The delegates involved with the successful motions emerging from the Priority Ballot – announced at the end of the Sunday afternoon session – will be requested to attend meetings, probably on Sunday evening. Every delegate must attend, unless they are given permission by the CAC to be absent.

At these meetings delegates will meet the relevant NEC Policy Commission co-convenor and shadow ministers to discuss how the subject could be taken forward.  Speakers to propose and second the subject on the Conference floor will also be chosen. After debate at Conference the subject is sent to the Policy Commission for deliberation over the next 12 months.  Reps from those organisations involved with the subject should be invited to these deliberations – that is the best practice established by some commissions.

At the Sunday evening meetings the various motions are usually “composited” together into one or more composite motions, which are the motions voted on by conference. At this meeting each organisation has equal standing. The delegates alone are in charge of compositing and decisions are reached collectively.

Don’t be bamboozled by ‘helpful’ officials or shadow ministers.  Don’t allow material into a composite that contradicts or negates other material – be alert for wrecking tactics.

Contemporary resolutions are very healthy for the Labour party, which must practice as well as preach democracy. Yet in typical paranoid fashion, they are usually considered trouble-making.

The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy has prepared several draft contemporary resolutions for CLPs to consider. They are on renationalising the railways; anti-racism; housing; the NHS; and opposing cuts to pay. There is strength in numbers, and CLPs must unite to ensure that there is as much debate as possible at conference. That means CLPs putting forward a strong united voice to the compositing process, and voting for different topics to the trade unions in the priorities ballot.

These are being circulated to CLPs in the next few days, and are also available on grassrootslabour.net or by phoning CLPD on 01865 244459.

Peter Willsman’s complete guide to 2012 annual conference can be found here. Peter has uniquely represented constituency Labour party members on all four of the party’s internal committees.

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