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Compass and party democracy – good intentions misdirected

On Friday, a letter appeared in the Guardian which argued that the party needed to change and be refounded, power should be handed back to the membership and the NEC should commit to a programme of bold and radical reforms that would re-democratise the party and devolve power away from the centre. So far, so good. The letter was organised by Compass and the signatories, such as Jon Cruddas, Lisa Nandy, Tony Robinson, Neal Lawson and Professor Jonathan Rutherford, were mainly people who have been closely involved with Compass, and after a lengthy and divisive debate about recruiting members of other political parties, it is welcome that Compass is turning once again to key issues within Labour.

However, the letter went on to argue:

These reforms could include restoring an elected party chair; giving members a direct vote on prioritising policies for the manifesto; giving members much more say over policy development through reform of the national policy forum; re-empowering conference as a body that both debates and votes on policies; and allowing party members to call for internal party referendums.

We certainly wouldn’t quibble with re-empowering conference and reforming the national policy forum.

On creating  an elected party chair, I have argued in favour of such a post here but there are some real practical issues of concern: how should they be elected, how are they held accountable, do we need a deputy leader as well as a party chair? Compass seeks that “the chair of the Labour Party should be elected by a one-member one-vote ballot”: we’d oppose that if it excluded affiliated members but a postal ballot of 3 million plus would be an expensive exercise that you wouldn’t want to hold too often. In the interests of accountability, election of conference might be preferable basis. Frequent re-election, and restriction on the number of terms of office would also be highly desirable.

But is there really a role for both a deputy leader and a party chair – the truth is probably not and that is why Ed Miliband has abandoned the idea. Given that he and his brother’s support for the idea during the leadership was more about winning the support of Jon Crudass than high principle, its time has probably passed. And there is a real danger that an elected chair would be a substitute for the genuine engagement by rank & file members in policy formulation and for the re-establishment of the power and authority of the national executive between elections. Far better to rely on a representative executive to hold the leadership to account between conferences than any single individual.

Most problematic, however, are the proposed exercises in direct democracy. Firstly there is the issue of involving affiliated as well as individual members as above. Second there is whether the proposals actually transfers power from the Leadership to the membership. What Compass is proposing in detail, as outlined in its publication Transforming Labour is first:

Before a general election we believe there should be a process by which all Labour Party stakeholders are given the opportunity to submit their ideas for the manifesto, followed by a one-member one-vote ballot of Labour Party members on their top ideas for inclusion in the manifesto.”

It may sound attractive at first, but what point is there in an extensive democratic (albeit through elected representatives) machinery for policy-making involving party conference and the national policy forum if the policies which emerge do not form the basis of the manifesto. Of course there’s a role for encouraging direct submission of ideas by members, but writing a party manifesto isn’t shouldn’t be and like picking the hit in X-Factor.

Then Compass proposes:

There should be a mechanism for holding Party referendums as part of the formal policy-making and constitutional renewal process; any referendum question receiving the support of at least 5% of all Labour Party members should be put to a one-member one-vote ballot.

Firstly, how do you establish that 5% of members support a proposition without first holding the referendum which their support would trigger? If we have referenda at all, there should be a trigger that is not separate from the normal policy-making machinery (i.e. conference, the policy forum, national executive etc). And, because it is a cumbersome and blunt instrument (you only get an answer to the question you ask in the precise way you ask it), it is a mechanism which should only be used very occasionally and for something of major strategic importance – as in the country at large.

What a shame that Compass did not include other points raised in its report instead such as its commitment to this:

Incumbent MPs should face an automatic formal mandatory reselection process before every general election.

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