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Labour’s internal democracy is in a woeful state and Ed must take responsibility

Ed MilibandThe announcements last weekend that Labour will be tougher than the Tories on benefits and that it will support free schools run by parents will have distressed most Labour party members, not to mention a significant number of Labour MPs, frontbenchers and backbenchers, who were also not consulted about the announcements. But coming so soon after Labour’s annual conference, the most serious lesson from these announcements is about the state of Labour’s internal democracy.

Although one “key element” of the Refounding Labourreform package” agreed last year was “a new power for Annual Conference to shape the work of the National Policy Forum via a ‘policy ballot’ which will identify key topics for in depth consideration and consultation“, the proposed topics from which delegates were permitted to choose carefully excluded any as controversial as these. And the power to choose such topics was this year quietly dropped.

However, in both cases, the national policy forum report – carried unanimously by conference – did refer to the issues following discussions at commission meetings based on submissions to them including through the Your Britain website. On social security policy, the Commission had been “consulted” about the content of the Leader’s speech on social security policy on the very day it was made by telephone conference and were permitted to not disagree with its content at a further meeting specifically on social security policy. Nevertheless, the report did at least express its:

concern at the negative rhetoric used by the Conservative Party to portray people who claim benefits.

I somehow doubt that the commission will be permitted to consider whether promising to “be tougher than the Tories on benefits” constitutes similarly negative rhetoric. On free schools, the education policy commission was able to be clearer on what is at issue this week:

It is a scandal that millions have been spent opening free schools in areas with a surplus of places, while children elsewhere face the reality of no school place. The Commission welcomes that Labour would put an end to the free schools programme (our emphasis – Ed).

The unanimous approval of Labour’s sovereign decision-making body for that is unfortunately irrelevant. Whatever Labour’s policy commissions are allowed to discuss, however, and even if their decisions are actually recorded and included in their report (which most commission members including national executive members to whom I have spoken is always an uphill struggle), it is the Leader or shadow ministers who make the policy. The latter only provided that it has received prior approval by the offices of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.

This is true even where the Leader has decided to back popular feeling within the party — such as bedroom tax. When the Leader decides to make a concession, it must be in his words and must be seen as his decision. So all the contemporary motions and an emergency motion on bedroom tax were ruled out of order in spite of the lack of any good procedural reason for doing so. It would simply not be good enough for the leader to welcome a conference decision on the issue. And social security and free schools are just two case studies in the contempt with which what minimal internal democratic procedures we are left are treated. There are others.

Take the privatisation of Royal Mail. Forty seven constituency parties had submitted a contemporary motion, most based on a draft submitted by the communication workers’ union (CWU) opposing privatisation and calling on an incoming Labour government to renationalise Royal Mail if the coalition government had actually succeeded in privatising it. Enormous pressure was put on the CWU and CLPs to withdraw their motions, or at least the part of it that referred to renationalisation.

When that failed, some CLPs were persuaded to agree a separate composite motion which excluded this reference in the hope that it would be passed and the other not. When it became clear that both would be agreed by conference, no call was made for the natiuional executive to oppose the composite moved by the CWU which did call for renationalisation. No-one spoke against it. And it was agreed unanimously. However, four days later Chukka Umunna announced that the Labour would do nothing of the sort (as the spin doctors had secretly briefed during conference).

It was a similar story on the renationalisation of the railways. As with Royal Mail, this is an issue on which the public strongly supports public ownership. The experience of the East coast line has shown that it is enormously beneficial financially. And it was known to have the sympathy of the then shadow minister, Maria Eagle. However, contemporary motions from the Transport and Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) and CLPs on railways were ruled out of order without adequate justification.  The TSSA was persuaded, rather than challenging that decision, to submit an emergency motion which was than itself ruled out of order. When conference overturned that ruling, it had to be debated. After a tremendous debate, it was of course agreed with no dissent. The following week Maria Eagle, one of the best performing shadow cabinet members and absolutely loyal to Ed Miliband, was mysteriously swapped with Mary Creagh whose move was described as a ‘promotion’. Will we hear any more of public ownership of the railways? I suspect not from Mary Creagh.

No press release was put out about either of these decisions. Not only do Labour Party members not have a voice in their own party, but the party itself doesn’t have a voice. The Labour Party’s Executive Director of Communications, Bob Roberts, though he is paid to “direct, shape and lead a unified and world class communications function for the Labour Party” and theoretically reports to party general secretary, Iain McNicol, actually does nothing of the sort. He sits in the leader’s office and manages the communication function for the Leader of the Labour Party – a brief which it seems includes manufacturing a new “clause IV moment” at the special conference on the party-trade union link planned for 1 March 2015.

Another way of looking at it is that Bob Roberts together with the two other Labour Party strategic directors who sit in the leader’s office, Torsten Bell (Policy & Rebuttal) and Greg Beale (Strategy and Planning), are the people who really run the Labour Party. You may have thought that this was the job of the general secretary, Iain McNicol, under the direction of the national executive committee. Not any more.

The process of centralisation that began under Tony Blair has actually continued under Ed Miliband. And so not only is the party is now more authoritarian than ever but it has no proper system of governance. The national executive committee was effectively stripped by Tony Blair not only of its functions in relation to policy but of all its real powers. When they had the temerity to appoint a general secretary other than the candidate favoured by Ed Miliband, a strategy board was imposed on him which effectively placed the Labour Party’s administration under the direct control of the leader’s office.

In his recent reshuffle, Ed Miliband has eliminated the excuse he may have appeared to have until now that he was somehow a prisoner of the “Blairites”. He now has to take responsibility for everything that is done under his watch. He has the Shadow Cabinet he has appointed using the powers he took from the PLP. He is responsible for what they do, and he is responsible for what the people he appointed to his own office do with the party they are paid to serve.


  1. John Reid says:

    The news that labour will be as tough on welfare as the Tories and back free schools, hasn’t distressed moat Labour Party members, it may have upset a few,who’ve rejoined in the last few years,or thought because, Liam Byrne was ousted and that that NEC is more left wing now than 5 years ago, that the Labour Party is swinging towards the left, to the point that there maybe away of Len Mcklusky to be able to oust progress our Blairites, but the majority of Labour Party members are happy that labour is going to tackle false welfare, and support choice for schools,

    Centralisation didn’t begin under Blair, Livingstone ran the GlC with a iron rod, and any move made by Labour under Kinnock ,to stop infultrating groups, from ousting members by block votes,

  2. David Pavett says:

    Thanks for that analysis Jon. I did not know all the shenanigans around Annual Conference but none of it surprises me one bit. A year or so ago I looked in great detail at Labour’s policy making process and read every document I could lay my hands on. It was perfectly clear to me that the process was a sham. In addition the so-called Policy Review process (which so far as I know has never reviewed a single policy) under Liam Byrne was a sham and has continued to be such under Jon Cruddas.

    I am unclear as to Jon Reid’s point. Is he arguing that these shambolic and non-democratic procedures are not a matter of real concern? Moreover I think that he is quite wrong about education. I can’t say what the majority of Party members think about education. If they rely in information provided by the Party then the answer would have to be “not a lot”. On the other hand I doubt that they would be less radical than public opinion and successive polls (there was one by YouGov a couple of months back) have shown that what most people want is the guarantee of a good local school and that the scramble for choice is produced by endless tales of local schools being crap. I have little doubt that if a clear case for bringing schools back into democratically enhanced local government were made the great majority would support it. The thing is that no such well-informed debates are organised by the Party. Democracy needs high-quality information.

    The Policy Commissions are a joke. I tried to find out when they meet, where their agendas and papers are published. No information was available. Last time I looked one couldn’t even find details of the members although it was being promised that this would go up on Your Britain (which is such a waste of time that I rarely look at it).

    So, yes, the Party’s democracy is in a lamentable state and its on Ed Miliband’s watch. It is no good talking about working for the many and not the few if a few leaders in the Party decide policy over the heads of its many members. Jon’s piece should be taken seriously. Ed Miliband are you listening? It is surely reasonable to expect an answer to the issues raised, from you or someone acting on your behalf. Tony Blair didn’t give a toss about democracy, he didn’t have the time for that when he had so many rich and powerful people to keep in with. We have the right to expect something better from Ed Miliband.

  3. Rod says:

    Don’t worry about it guys, just keep paying your subs, delivering the leaflets and getting the vote on election day.

    You’ll know it’s all been worthwhile when you’re rewarded with a thank-you email from Ed.

  4. Robert says:

    In the end the people will decide one god thing we may have a hung government and Miliband can then hand over Labour to a politician like Clegg.

    Maybe John can get Blair back although when John is around Blair keeps his ass to the wall.

  5. Sandra Crawford says:

    I attended one of Labours “Refounding Labour meetings, and a policy review meeting for LP members.
    I remember such policies as Land Tax, renationalisation of railways and utilities being popular, and measures to stop tax avoidance and evasion. I have yet to see any of these policies even being considered by the PLP.
    I was disgusted when I read Anne Blacks account of the Conference this year, which showed conference votes and constituency LP groups being ignored.
    The general direction of the PLP makes this even more alarming, the promise to keep to the coalitions budget in the first year, Tristram Hunts promise to keep free schools in Sundays Observer, and Rachel Reeves harsh line on the unemployed. In particular, the acceptance of Goves work is apallingly blind and the opposite of values of decency, never mind socialism and equality, if Seamus Milnes article is anything to go by.
    I am worried about the move of Angela Eagle, because she seemed tome to be on the right lines. At the Norwich local conference last year she was complaining about foreign ownership of our railways, with subsidies and profits going offshore, she seemed to be in tune with the public and Labour members suugeesting a leaning towards renationalisation. Her move suggests that the higher LP is still working for the global corporations and is still deluded with neoliberalism.
    All of Labours policies seem to be to keep the neoliberal structure and try to work round it by filtering a few crumbs from it. A tax on bankers bonuses, a temporary freeze on energy prices.
    This will not work.
    We cannot have a permanent economy reliant on finance and Chinese imports. We need a big change, and we need Labour ministers who are not too arrogant and indoctrinated with the Washington consensus to listen.

  6. swatantra says:

    Pity that naria Eagle has been shunted intom a siding.; she was in support of long term investmrent in HS2. Still wondering if letting the Leader choose his own Shad Cab team was such a good idea now. That way we could have got some bloody minded lefties with no experience, and no Responsibility into the Shad Cab, like Di Abbott. But EdM should heed the mood of the LP and not press his luck too much in ignoring their wishes. And he has to work out a new working relationship with the Unions, which were quite frankly taking up too much time of the Conference.

  7. Gary Elsby says:

    Let me get this straight.
    The Labour Party is against free schools, even though it is now Labour Party policy.

    Tristram Hunt is against free schools (if his abuse of their parents is anything to go by) but it form part of his flagship approach to schooling now he’s the shadow education minister.

    What chance Labour in 2015?

  8. John Reid says:

    Why would I want Blair back Robert when I backed Ed, regarding your other homophobic comment ,GFY

  9. Robert says:

    John your so funny mate … but your a joke me old mate, your so far to the right the Tories are wonder where your going.

  10. Robert says:

    What chance Labour in 2015 well the same chance labour had when Thatcher took over and won how many was it three four five, whoops no that was Blair.

    I mean I say open mouth when Reeves talked about hammering down on welfare, hammering down.

    Well he has to prove to the swing voters he able to swing. I have already swung.

  11. John Reid says:

    So your retraction for your homophobic comment is to say I’m a joke and on the right of the Tories, constructive criticism, can’t beat it.

  12. Jon Lansman says:

    David Pavett: to be fair, the party does publish the names of members of each commission in the relevant section of the NPF report which you will find here, and the is an appendix listing all members of the NPF.

    What you don’t get is their email addresses but you can contact you own regional reps through membersnet.

  13. peter willsman says:

    Jon lists the 3 senior officers,linked to the Leaders Office,that seem to have a lot to learn.Their names have been linked to the idiot idea to refer Falkirk to the police and to the other idiot idea that Ed needs a Clause4 moment against the Unions.If true,then they are partly responsible for Bro. Deans and others possibly losing their jobs,shuting down a huge plant and undermining the whole Scottish economy.Further down the line they may be responsible for our Party losing some £4 million a year in subs. from the Unions. We now have evidence of several party staff breaking their Code of Conduct and illegitimately interfering in the CAC election against Katy and myself.More information is coming in.It is unlikely the foot soldiers did this off their own bats.The question is who instructed them.We must hope the 3 aforesaid senior officers are not implicated.

  14. David Pavett says:

    @Jon Lansman.

    I am all for being fair. I did say “last time I looked”. But how would an ordinary member find this report? I know it is there (as your link proves) but how would the ordinary member just wishing to become acquainted with what is going on find it? It is not in the NPF section of the Your Britain and not in any obvious place on membersnet (as far as I can see). Even the simplest things like this take ages to track down. It is often easier to find documents on the Labour website through a general search engine than by using the website itself.

    As for the Policy Commissions, yes it is true that they are listed in the (not so easy to find) NPF report but then what about contacting them? And what about tracking their activities. Where are the projected meeting dates, the call for papers and agenda items, the reports of meetings and the papers considered. A far as I can see none of that is easily available (or available at all).

    So, being fair is right, but let’s also describe the farce of Labour Party democracy for what it is (a part of the story of which is told in your article above).

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