Labour party conference ain’t what it used to be – that much is certain. It’s been a matter dogging the left blogosphere for some time But it’s got particularly heated in the past few weeks, with Mark Ferguson of LabourList arguing that HQ should jettison the event from the party calendar.
A few weeks on, and the debate has become a little more mature. Labour MP Toby Perkins may think it’s all about networking (I feel a little queasy) and his frontbench colleague Emily Thornberry has told London Labour delegates that it’s like a great big family party. Both enjoy it and think it’s worth hanging onto.
But for several weeks there was an elephant in the room: the fact that if Labour party conference was restored to a meaningful part in the policy making process, then we probably wouldn’t be having this debate at all.
Before continuing, it’s important to establish that Labour conference has always been a different matter altogether to the Tories’. For the party now in government, conference has never been far off the sort of party conventions we see in the US – more of a rally.
But the Labour party is not like any other party – we are a party based on a grassroots movement of activists and trade unions, not simply supporters of a Dear Leader on high.
It’s telling that while the Tory party chairman was always a leadership appointment, Labour didn’t have such a position until the Blair years. In fact, even now, don’t let anyone tell you Harriet Harman is chair of the party – the rulebook will tell you it’s Michael Cashman of the NEC.
Being an active movement, we need a democratic, collective body in the spirit of our values to provide our direction. Conference may be large and rambling, but it represents party activists and trade unionists in equal measure, and should allow the people who keep our party alive to propose and vote on policy.
The case for a proper party conference was eventually made in the New Statesman by Neal Lawson of Compass. Unfortunately, it was clouded in a romanticism for cold B&B basements, chips and shouting matches; and exhibited alongside contradictions-in-terms like “responsible capitalism”.
In response, Mark Ferguson made the recently-fashionable call for a more powerful national policy forum (NPF), as an alternative to “more votes at conference”. Few could argue to improving one of the most confusing and bureaucratic policy processes known to man and womankind, but it is foolish to see this as an end in itself.
We must not forget that the policy forum was introduced as a method of limiting democracy within Labour, rather than empowering the grassroots. Supposed guarantees about conference being able to amend its documents have never been honoured. It can’t meet when it wants to. Votes are avoided at all costs.
Ferguson believes that if we ironed out the ruptures, it would still be preferable to a powerful conference. He is apparently shocked that only 25% of his readers are attending annual conference in Manchester this year – is it really that surprising that most Labour supporters (many of whom won’t be members at all) could take the time to attend such an event every year? And is it really a tragedy that all of them can’t?
One might also ask how many of his readers know the date of the policy forum’s next meeting, let alone how many will be attending!
In further tweets, Ferguson argued that the policy forum “is – or should be – more representative of the party than conference delegates”. Well, you could have fooled me. Party conference is far from perfect, and CLPs will often struggle to find delegates, as the LabourList article argues. Of course I can only speak from my own experience, but most of my fellow delegates at Liverpool last year seemed like fairly ordinary people – or at least the sort of people you’d see at a GC meeting.
Meanwhile, few would dispute that those who can dedicate a large amount of time to attending NPF meetings, and reporting back to CLPs, are not the mainstay of our membership. Those who stand a chance in these elections must be active across a whole region – no small feat in say, Scotland. Is it churlish to speculate that the best representation will be of those with parliamentary ambitions?
People may moan about the publicness of conference, and its huge size – but with less people and less scrutiny, shady deals (that may never be honoured anyway) with ministers and party staff are more likely. And while they may be in the interests of the individuals concerned, the rest of us are probably too plebeian to so much as hear about it.
His suggestions for making party conferences shorter and over weekends are good ones – but put two and two together from his article and all you’ll get is the leaders speech and sod-all else.
There is a simple way to start making party conference – and the Labour party – a worthwhile, democratic body, and save a load of money in the process. Make conference shorter by all means, but not at the expense of democracy.
Lose the “round table” discussions which patronise delegates by suggesting that there is a better class of activists to hear the opinions of – those handpicked by party staff. These can be defenestrated to the fringe zone, where they belong. Lose the celeb appearances, and get prominent figures to present awards at GCs rather than using these as an excuse to interrupt debate.
And dare I say it, need every damn member of the shadow cabinet make an autocue address, when democratically selected delegates are limited to three minutes?
All the razzmatazz that warrants abolition is silently justified on the basis that the public prefer it to endless bureaucratic motions. But isn’t it a bigger embarrassment to subject TV viewers to the boredom of a roundtable on local government; or an evident obstruction to democracy?
With all the time left over, even within a shorter programme we can have more votes at conference – and meaningful ones. This year, conference will consider two rule changes (from Bridgend and Islington North CLPs) which would mean a few more votes at conference – and less chance for activists’ ideas for policy to be kicked into the long grass.
If you’re really bothered about saving party conference and making Labour vibrant and democratic, support these grassroots reforms; and don’t be content with tinkering with the policy forum, or an annual piss-up.