What Tony Blair started, Gordon Brown will finish. And that includes winding up what remains of democratic procedures inside the New Labour party. The principal victims will be the trade unions, whose substantial voice at the annual conference will be reduced to a whisper. As for the conference, the final touches are being made to a plan to reduce the event to an annual rally, with no votes from the floor on anything significant. The changes are outlined in a document currently out for “consultation” inside the party. According to the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), which campaigns against New Labour inside the party, under the proposals:
- the right of each Constituency Labour Party (CLP) and affiliated organisation to submit a contemporary resolution for debate and voting at conference would be abolished
- the policy forum process would be subject to even greater centralised control by cabinet ministers and the inbuilt government powers of veto on policy proposals strengthened
- one member one vote ballots on policy would not allow members a say on policy alternatives, but would be restricted to the occasional “take it or leave it” votes on the entire party programme.
If implemented the proposals would mean that:
- party members and trade unionists would lose the right to bring forward any kind of policy proposals to be voted on by conference
- 99% of the remaining votes still permitted at conference would be on “take itor leave it” proposals from the leadership
- all the formal powers that conference once held to determine party policy would be transferred to the leadership which would only have to “consult” with the policy forum.
The LRC’s response says: “The proposals from the leadership are not just an attack on Labour Party democracy, they are a very serious attack on democracy itself. If implemented, the proposals would finish off annual conference as a serious political event. There would be only the most tenuous link between the political life of CLPs and affiliates and the policy making process of the party as a whole. Under these proposals Labour Party conference would become the least democratic annual gathering of any major political party in Britain. The proposals represent an attempt to destroy the Labour Party as a democratic political organisation based on the labour movement. Instead of a broad based party grounded on the participation of organisations with roots in the communities and workplaces, Labour would be reduced to the status of a US style political party. It would be nothing more than a narrow political machine populated by members of the professional political elite.”
Currently, affiliated trade unions can bring forward motions and are entitled to 50% of the vote on a given resolution. This itself is a substantial reduction on the pre-Blair years, when the unions could muster a majority. John McDonnell, the backbench MP who unsuccessfully sought to challenge for the leadership, has pointed out that that the plans were a "kick in the teeth" for trade unions who loyally nominated Brown. The termination of the influence of the trade unions in the party they founded over a century ago is an historic moment. It brings to a close the period of history when workers through their unions were able to exert some degree of influence on Labour governments. In practice, this ceased to be the case under Blair in the mid-1990s, when the union leaders voted for the abolition of Clause IV of the party constitution relating to social ownership. New Labour’s proposed changes will seal the exclusion of the unions from the political process and reinforce the disenfranchisement felt by millions of voters. The Blair-Brown governments are capitalist business regimes and as such have no interest in democracy or the aspirations of working people. If the union leaders can’t understand this, and commit themselves to participating in the creation of political alternatives, they understand nothing.
Paul Feldman, communications editor