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Labour Democracy – real or imaginary?

All the leadership candidates argued that party members needed a great voice in party decision-making. Today, Pat McFadden (who may yet lose his shadow cabinet place and the chair of Labour’s national policy forum) asks for submissions from party members to what he calls “a review of our policy making process”. Have we been here before? Is this yet another cynical exercise in New Labour newspeak? There are plenty of party bureaucrats who, like Pat, want to strengthen  the centre’s grip even further – by preventing CLPs proposing textual amendments to policy statements, for example. So will Ed make it happen?

In the campaign, Ed’s line was:

I do think members should have more say in policy making. Sometimes we looked as if Labour felt as if it was in government despite its members, not because of them. We need a living breathing party of which people are proud to say they are members and proud to call their own. We did many good things in government, but we also got things wrong – things like the 10p tax – which perhaps we could have avoided if we had listened to members.”

But the party’s website still tells you the bad old system is “a huge success”

which is designed to involve all party stakeholders (including members, local parties, trade unions, socialist societies and Labour representatives) as well as the wider community in shaping party policy and support the relationship between the party in the country and the party in government.

Real member participation would be based on the following principles:

  1. A real voice for individual and affiliated members:  Constituency parties and affiliated organisations must be able to submit their policy proposals into the process, have them considered and see the outcome.  They should have the ultimate possibility of having their ideas put to a vote at conference – in the form of an alternative option or an amendment to a policy document.
  2. A rolling policy programme:  The party programme should be a genuine rolling programme, continuously updated rather than updated in a discrete, 5- yearly, once-in-a-parliament exercise. In the last round, the party failed to update its economic policy to reflect the credit crunch – that must not be repeated. The policy-making process should be overseen by the national executive which comprises directly elected representatives. The national policy forum’s programme of work should be planned by its joint policy committee and approved by conference.
  3. The party’s manifesto: The party programme should feed into the party’s election manifesto in a transparent fashion (as it does in Scotland and Wales). Last time, the manifesto consultation – although it involved widespread consultation – completely by-passed the party’s policy-making structure.
  4. A democratic national policy forum: There is widespread cynicism about the national policy forum. However, a representative body, smaller than conference, which meets away from the media’s gaze, could play a valuable part provided that it is democratic and inclusive, and considers policy options from all sections of the party and strands of opinion. Before decisions are reached on final documents, sufficient time must be allowed for members to properly digest all proposals and consult those they represent – the chaotic procedures of Warwick conferences have not been an improvement on the former compositing process. Where consensus cannot be achieved, alternatives should be voted on and any option that commands the support of 20% of NPF representatives should be presented to conference for consideration.
  5. Conference sovereignty: Party conference should remain the ultimate decision-making body on all matters of policy, campaigning, finance and organisation – there is no better way of bringing individual and affiliated members together in a parliament of Labour. On policy matters, this means it should be able to amend policy statements, or reject parts of them, and to respond to changing events by considering policy motions prioritised for debate. Constituency parties and affiliated organisations should be able to submit motions on campaigning, finance and organisation as well as rule changes.

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