It was never going to be easy to make Labour, what its activists and supporters have always wanted, into a truly democratic party. Blair bequeathed a party in which the Cabinet was given its orders, the PLP was ignored, the NEC was neutered, and Conference had no role except as a setting for his own speech. If Conference was insubordinate enough to come up with a different view, it was told that that was the party’s view, quite separate from the government’s view.
Turning that around after nearly two decades of democratic centralism was always going to be difficult, but Ed Miliband rightly set his sights to do it when he proclaimed: “I do think members should have more say in policy-making……..We need a living breathing party of which people are proud to say they are members and proud to call their own”. Absolutely correct. But Refounding Labour, the mechanism designed to deliver this objective, has turned out not to be it.
It is true that a real effort is being made by the new General Secretary, Iain McNicol, to dispense with the previous control-freakish culture within the party apparatus. But that has, at least till now, only gone so far. It is true also that the revanchist Blairite attempt to reduce trade union influence, notably by cutting union voting shares at Conference, has been defeated. But at the same time the proposed democratisation of the policy-making process has been distinctly disappointing. What is needed is a policy-making model as follows:
* a rolling party programme, with a planned programme of revisions each year,
* party organisations able to submit a limited number of amendments to policy commissions, which should include all National Policy Forum (NPF) in various commission groups,
* amendments either accepted, rejected, or where opinions divided, commission would submit majority/minority options to NPF,
* policy commission reports then presented to annual NPF meeting which would choose between options, but an option which won more that 25% support would be presented to Conference as an alternative position,
* Conference then votes to determine its position in each area, which is then accepted as the party’s policy unless, in exceptional circumstances, the leadership insists it needs further discussion on particular aspects of a policy, where a further report would then be made to the NEC within 3-6 months of progress towards reaching agreement and a final report then be made to the next Conference.
The final package of Refounding Labour measures is certainly flush with the language of empowering members, but after the apparent intervention of party staff it still falls well short of the model above. It would be helpful if there was a re-think in the time still left before Wednesday’s deciding debate and votes.