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The state of party conference: fixing, stage management and interior decoration

Labour conference last week was as frustrating as ever. Stage management is thriving: new decor, billowing flags, ever changing sofa arrangements. Orchestrated panel discussions on the sofa and lectures from American philosophers still take precedence over delegates. Much effort is still made to control what gets onto the agenda, and who gets to speak. It is the constituency parties that bear the brunt of this – though Unite and other unions  were clearly resentful about it too this year – and we consider why it happens and how to end it.

But first, credit where credit is due: General Secretary Iain McNicol and Director of Governance & Services Emily Oldknow are obviously making a real attempt to eliminate interference by party staff in political decision-making. It’s a big job to change the culture of a large organisation and so we welcome the fact that our sources reported, for the first time in years, that regional officials made no attempt to influence delegates at “regional delegate briefing meetings”. Well done!

Unfortunately, old habits do die hard and we still had reports of covert activity by some staff. In the South West, for example, a regional official told a delegate that she was wrong “to vote against the platform” on the first of repeated efforts by the conference arrangements committee to sideline constituency proposals. Similarly, in Yorkshire, a regional official, anticipating further resistance to these efforts, encouraged a delegate to loudly support the platform. We are happy to provide Iain and Emily with the names of the officials and delegates concerned.

As the bad old ways are stamped out, the biggest obstacle to internal party democracy is stage management but there is a difference between stage management and direct political interference in elections, selections, and decision-making at conference. The latter is a corrupt abuse of the position of Labour party staff, encouraged under successive New Labour general secretaries but now banned under Iain McNicol. You might argue that some form of stage-management is inevitable in the age of 24-hour media coverage, but it has happened in the way it has because party staff have been allowed to usurp the role of elected committees.

Once upon a time, the conference arrangements committee used to control every aspect of conference: the location and operation of every camera, every aspect of the conference backdrop, every detail of the agenda of conference. Bill Morris, former General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union (now part of Unite), once said that the most powerful position he had ever held was not at the TGWU, nor at the TUC, Bank of England, or BBC, but as chair of Labour’s conference arrangements committee. Whatever you decided happened without delay. Under Neil Kinnock, however, and even more so under Tony Blair, the power passed to the spin doctors.

It is up to the elected members to reassert their control. And it is up to constituency parties to make sure that their rights and interests are energetically represented — which is not what Rachel Reeves and Seema Malhotra have been doing. Trade union representatives (who occupy five out of seven places) must also assert themselves. It is they, not party staff, who should make decisions about how conference time is used and what party rules mean. They have shown themselves willing to overturn staff recommendations on some issues this year, but very rarely when it comes to constituency party proposals.

The national executive suffers from a similar problem. It has, for example, allowed its residual policy role to be usurped by the Leader’s policy staff — now integrated with the party’s own policy staff under the leadership of Torsten Henricson-Bell (Director of Policy & Rebuttal and previously director of Ed’s office) – he had much to do with blocking any real return to party democracy emerging from Refounding Labour.

With an annually rotating chair, and a weak committee structure, the executive lacks any effective political leadership of its own. Those who do hold committee chairs are all trade union representatives — Diana Hollland as Treasurer chairs the Business Board, Andy Kerr of the CWU the Audit, Risk Management and Compliance Committee, Mary Turner of the GMB is the co-convenor of the Joint Policy Committee (chaired by Angela Eagle who was effectively appointed by the Leader). Jim Kennedy of UCATT is perhaps in the strongest position as Chair of the Organisation committee. None is the senior officer in their own union, nor is, individually, likely to want to make a stand against the Leader. Of the CLP representatives, only Ann Black is allowed to chair anything – the Disputes panel – a far cry from the days when CLP representatives Tony Benn and Eric Heffer chaired the Home Policy and Organisation sub-committees. Only Ken Livingstone has the stature to act as a credible counter-weight to the phalanx of NEC members on the Leader’s payroll.

If these elected committees are to assert their authority, it will take concerted action by trade union and constituency representatives working together.


3 Comments

  1. Peter Kenyon says:

    Until Comrade Watson lays down his AK, ’twill be ever thus

  2. Robert says:

    Never mind, at least it looked good, and it’s all about looks standing up when asked clapping when asked, and laughing when told. Glad I do not bother anymore

  3. Patrick Coates says:

    I would like to thank the people who run the membership service for the party, happy xmas to all.

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