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Why Labour conference must be saved – and how to do it

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.

3 Comments

  1. David Pavett says:

    “…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”.

    The trouble is that it is not at all clear from Conrad Landin’s piece what he, or anyone else, would regard as conference being “a meaningful part” of the policy making process.

    The utter dullness of current Labour Conferences may be contrasted with the hectic activity to grab enough votes to get motions adopted at conferences of yesteryear but, on reflection, we have to ask how meaningful that was and whether a return to the old-style conferences would represent progress. Much though I see current conferences as pointless I doubt that such a return would be an advance. The real problem of Labour’s policy processes lies elsewhere.

    Conrad believes that “… the Labour party is not like any other party – we are a party based on a grass roots movement of activists and trade unions, not simply supporters of a Dear Leader on high”. Having made a study of Labour policy formation over the last couple of years I am afraid that this view is a romantic illusion that has no basis in the way the Party actually works.

    I agree that “…we need a democratic, collective body in the spirit of our values to provide our direction”. The question for me is whether a large annual conference based on speeches on policies that have received virtually no attention by the majority of party members, even active ones, can possibly do this. It is not just that “Conference may be large and rambling” but rather that it takes places in a policy discussion vacuum. I does NOT, in any meaningful sense “represent party activists and trade unionists in equal measure” neither does it “allow the people who keep our party alive to propose and vote on policy”. The suggestion that it does work in this way is a dangerous delusion.

    I think that Conrad takes entirely the wrong approach to discussing the idea (of Mark Ferguson and others) that the NPF should be the policy making body. His discussion is based on questioning motives rather than considering real possibilities. The body may well have been conceived in an effort to obfuscate party members but the issues is whether it can be made to serve democratic discussion or not.

    I have never been to Labour Conference – and I hope never to go – but I have spoken to many that are regular attenders. None of those I have spoken to have a clear idea of Labour’s policy formation structures. Few of them have ever read the documents of Labour’s Policy Commissions. Almost none of them have read the submissions from CLPs, members and non-members on the Policy Commission statements sent in for consideration by the NPF.

    Having read all the submissions to the last NPF meeting (all 400 pages of them) which were circulated 2/3 days before its last meeting I also wonder how many NPF members were able or willing to read them before their meeting. I even wonder if all NPF members had read the original policy statements from the Policy Commissions that were the basis for the NPF meeting.

    The thing is that currently Labour policy processes look like a deliberate attempt to avoid widespread participation. Few Party members and even fewer affiliated Party members have the slightest idea what is going on. If they had any idea then they would have erupted over the Policy Commission policy statements for this year’s Annual Conference. They are a disgrace. The Education and Skills statement is a model of evasion and lack of vision (plus going for the reactionary option when choices have to be made). Why has there not been more reaction to this? Because hardly anyone has any idea what is going on.
    So, that seems to me to be the real problem. It’s not whether we have an Annual Conference or not or whether the NPF or Conference should determine policy. It’s how do we create a situation in which a significant number of Party members are actually engaged with the policy process. The submissions on Education for the last NPF meeting, in response to a truly awful Education and Skills policy statement, included response from a dozen or so CLPs. What were the other 600+ doing?

    That’s the problem.

    That problem cannot be solved by a few speeches at Conference. It cannot even be solved by the adoption of this or that motion. The problem is that it is currently very difficult for the ordinary party member to understand the processes, to keep track of the current state of discussion and to comment in an informed way.

    That problem could solved using a combination of a small number of Party activists, web technology (including the appalling national website) and national coordination aimed at raising the level of debate. That is where I think attention should be focussed.

    I recently had a discussion with someone from the Fabian society to discuss a document I had written on Labour policy processes. He explained to me that deciding policy through democratic processes was a complete nonsense and that party policy had to be taken by the scruff of the neck and re-fashioned. I did not agree and our discussions ended at that point.

    My point is that neither the NPF nor annual conference can act as democratic vehicles if they are not reflecting and responding to arguments and opinions from all sections of the Party. Intellectually speaking the Labour Party is in a critical condition. I hope that it can be revived but it is pointless talking about the best means of deciding policy democratically without such a revival.

    As a lifelong trade union activist I have always been fascinated by the obsession of many on the left with annual conference (apart from break from ordinary routines, the drinking and other pleasures that they can provide). Generally they have been, in my experience, a concentrated expression of the best organised minority groups within the union with hardly any concern for the views of ordinary members. The Labour Party does not need to return to such a model. In the age of email, documents circulated as email attachments, the Internet and the web, we do not depend on great speeches to make up our minds. We need to think about real democracy in our current circumstances. Annual jamborees do not, as far as I can see, fit that bill.

  2. Spot on, Conrad. Conference can and should be a valuable mechanism for the grassroots of the Labour movement to have a say in the policy and direction of the party.

    You’re completely right to flag up the unnecessary award ceremonies and round-tables, which did little more than stifle democratic debate.

    I think there also needs to be a better way of selecting people from the floor to speak. The current contest of who can wave the most cuddly toy or colourful umbrella is a farce.

    Even when there are votes and debates, however, members need to be better informed about what they’re voting on (I found CLPD papers very useful in this regard). But, also, CLPs need to be better briefed in advance as to what their delegates will be voting on.

    PS- I think that David Pavett’s comment, ‘That problem could solved using a combination of a small number of Party activists, web technology (including the appalling national website) and national coordination aimed at raising the level of debate’ is really quite worrying.
    It will be a very sorry day when a small number of tech-savvy activists ‘co-ordinated’ (read: instructed) by the national party take the place of conference!

  3. P SPENCE says:

    The Labour Party provides little or no political education to members. Is there an education department, I think not. Does it have a publication arm or bookshop ( Internet only would do)?: no.

    Why does every CLP not hold a weekend educational for new ( and old) members each year, or something like it? And I don’t mean teaching campaigning techniques but political ideas and substantive policy. Why are new members not given a copy of the constitution?: try finding it online, it wasn’t easy last time I tried.

    The truth is that the leadership seek to largely exclude members from any role in policy formation which is not tightly controlled by the centre. Why? Because they understand that most members are old fashioned social democrats and antagonistic towards the neoliberal orthodoxy which for the last 20 years the PLP has cheered on behalf of. That’s why conference appears an utter waste of time to many members.

    Until MPs are held to real account by CLPs and subject to regular re-selection little will change. The parade of Oxbridge policy wonks dropped from on high is symptomatic of a shallow, undemocratic Party: it unimaginable today that a young Dennis Skinner would even get on a shortlist.

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