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Support an elected Labour Party Chair

The two leading candidates for Labour’s Leadership, brothers Ed and David, have spoken in favour of an elected party chair. Jon Cruddas and John McDonnell are also understood to be in favour. This is a proposal which the Left should advocate with enthusiasm so a proposed change to party rules is appended to this post.

David Miliband argues:

We should create the new position of an elected Party Chair, focused on building the organising and campaigning strengths of the Labour Party. Tony Blair invented the role but appointed who it would be. This isn’t right. In the era of new politics if we are to have a Chair they have to be elected and focused on party campaigning strength.

This was very much the role John Cruddas argued was needed and said he would play in his campaign for the Deputy Leadership. Ed Miliband presents it rather differently, talking of strengthening the party’s voice and distributing power:

New Labour gave the party a stifling culture when it came to debate, a stifling culture when it came to disagreement and a stifling culture when it came to hearing the voices of the party members. We’d have avoided a lot of the problems we got into if we hadn’t had the centralising culture that, ironically, we attacked Old Labour for. That has to change. That’s why I favour an elected party chairman. People say it’s dangerous because it’s giving power away. Too right it is.

Both functions are important and inter-dependent – creating a mass campaigning party and giving back to the membership real involvement in policy-making.

Traditionally, the party chair was the longest serving NEC member, holding office for just one year. Then, Tony Blair invented the new post of Party Chairman (sic) in the 2001 Cabinet re-shuffle without any consultation, apparently modelled on the Tory Party Chairmanship and, in accordance with the Tory practice, appointed by the Leader. Roy Hattersley at the time said it was a “bogus title” transferred to Charles Clarke, the first incumbent, “by stealth”. The role was ill-defined but under Blair was essentially about imposing the Leader’s wishes on the Party.

The Party Rule Book still makes no mention of this post.  All references to Party Chair are to the position elected by the NEC each year – normally the longest serving member of the NEC by rotation but a recent exception was Christine Shawcroft, regarded as too Left wing to hold the post.  This latter post is sometimes referred to by the Labour website as “Chair of the NEC”. All this serves to underline the subservient position of the Party, the NEC, and the General Secretary to the Party Leader in recent practice.

The introduction of a party chair elected by the CLP and affiliated membership would establish a counter-weight to the Leader and increase the chances of genuine debate within the party, the protection of the party’s role versus that of the centralising leader.  Frequent re-election, and restriction on the number of terms of office, should ensure opportunities for reviewing the direction of the party without the need to challenge the leadership although procedures for the accountability of the leader are still important.

The creation of such a counter-weight is not a substitute for progressive reforms to the internal democracy of party structures such as the NEC and NPF but additional to it.  It would be a safeguard against a new incoming leader seeking to impose their views on the party through further erosion of the party’s democratic structures and/or weakening the union link, but it is not a panacea in all circumstances – its success will depend on the effectiveness of those elected.

The post of party chair could be seen as equivalent to those of the First Secretary of the PSF in France or the Chairman of the SPD in Germany, distinct roles from those of candidate for the Presidency or Chancellorship and from the leadership of their respective parliamentary parties.

The absence of a post designed to provide a counter-weight to the leader has not prevented there being strong tensions in Labour Governments – that between Comrades Blair and Brown being the outstanding recent example.  The party needs a structure, nationally, which replaces destructive with constructive tension, enemies with critical friends.

DOWNLOAD Election of Party Chair rule change

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