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Party & Unions together – the way to win

This year’s Annual Labour Party Conference should commence with the important step of restoring the right of CLPs and the affiliated trade unions to submit contemporary resolutions for voting at Conference. This may be modest, but it is significant. Conference should be the party’s internal, annual parliament, where we can debate all the key political issues facing the Labour movement and society at large.

In recent years, we have submitted to the preoccupation that democratic debate appears divisive to the electorate outside the party. But this significantly underestimates the maturity of the electorate.  Voters watching us know that the issues are important, and that there are always choices about which policies should be pursued.

What is truly repulsive to voters is the presentation of politics as a simple issue of efficient administration, where policy issues are of such supposed complexity as to require a stitch up behind closed doors. The party has lost five million voters since 1997.  Four million of which were in the course of Tony Blair’s premiership.  This contradicts the myth that the politics of ‘the project’ was in tune with the abiding wishes of the electorate.  Whoever wins the election for Labour leader, now is the time for a new engagement with party members and a broader electorate.  This can only be achieved by a clear and compelling debate leading to appropriate decisions.

Live debate on current issues makes for enthralling and engaging viewing.  Politics matters desperately, and it is not difficult to present our conference as an important event in the calendar. Unfortunately, for the most part, our conference has been turned into a tedious reiteration of ministerial virtues, and a parade of selected activists delivering officially approved rhetoric.  This has been both unwatchable, and damaging to the development of the party. So we must review our internal structures to meet the needs of the members, including the welcome addition of many new members.  This surely means more serious and considered debates which will actively direct the policy of the party leadership in opposition to the coalition government.

With the introduction of one member one vote for constituency delegates, we can expect a more reliable and critical role from the national policy forum.  We must similarly establish a new urgency to the constituency structures of the party.  One clear lesson of the general election result is that it makes a huge difference to have a constituency party that is engaged with its community, and offers party members an active outline for their convictions.  This needs to include the right of constituency parties to choose their own candidates, in a timely and effective manner, without insistence on loyalty to a few fashionable prejudices, or a particular leader.

Equally, there needs to be a commitment from the leadership to fight the proposals by the coalition government to break the collective affiliation of trade unionists to the Labour party.  We cannot have the constitution of the Labour party being determined by its enemies.  The trade unions contribution to Labour must be valued.  Yes we can, and should, utilise all the new methods of communication and information technology to get our policies across.  But the alliance between trade unions and constituency activists is the guarantee of the strength and significance of Labour’s message actually being delivered to the electorate.

This article also appears in Campaign Briefing, pubished by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, which can be downloaded here.

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