Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Lost in translation

What’s the purpose behind the talk of party reform, asks Tony Robinson

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As a member of Michael Meacher’s
commission on Labour party reform,
I want to respond to some of the more disingenuous words that have appeared in Progress over the last few months. ‘We need to work harder on greater engagement of all party members,’ says Anne Snelgrove. ‘Political activity is being changed by
the changes – economic, social and technological – in the world about us. And we have to change again with it.’
So says Tony Blair.

It’s clear this new wave of proposed reform is offering us modernisation. More websites will be created, we’ll receive more emails from the party and more MPs will visit constituencies to explain government policy. And who could argue with that? But this glut
of modernisation may conceal other changes of which we should be
more wary.

A cynical observer might translate Snelgrove’s remark that ‘it is time for
an honest debate about how we balance conference’ as ‘cut the union vote’. Similarly, Blair’s call to ‘open up the party to supporters and levy payers’ and ‘change the way we organise’ might be interpreted as ‘turn Labour into a British version of a US party, with professional politicians supported by rallies of fans.’

This translation may be inaccurate. But the dilemmas currently facing many Labour MPs – on the schools’ white
paper, for example – demonstrate how important it is for people to understand what reform involves and why it is necessary. Indeed, before Labour embarks on any reform, the clear articulation of its purpose must be
a first priority. And that should be as
true within the party as on the floor of the Commons. So what sort of purpose should lie behind any reform of party structure?

The Meacher commission has yet
to present its findings, but the voices coming from its focus groups give us
a clue as to the kind of party members want. They share a passion for equality, justice and tolerance, and are eager to do something about it. They understand the need for party unity, but feel they should be heard when their opinion differs from that of the leadership. They recognise that being a professional politician is
a difficult job which requires compromises, but want the policies their party creates to be central to government policy. These aspirations seem modest enough, but I doubt whether they’ve been truly digested by many of those currently orchestrating party reform.

Let me give two examples. The last round of the National Policy Forum was generally agreed to have been less than satisfactory. Most members felt excluded from it and thought it over-bureaucratic and over-centralised. Consequently,
a number of changes have been made
to its practice. But none of them get
to the nub of the issue.

Membership will still be limited
to a small coterie elected in an arcane fashion at conference; policy documents will still be rigidly controlled by party staff and government departments; and, at the end of the process, if any scintilla of policy remains with which the government is still uneasy, it will doubtless ignore it as it did over the social housing issue. Is this ‘greater engagement of all party members’?

As for ‘an honest debate about
how to balance conference’, is it
a coincidence that it’s only when the trade unions vote against government policy that their collective vote becomes a matter of concern? A few years ago, Ken Jackson’s AEEU used its entire block to vote against Ken Livingstone’s nomination as Labour’s London mayoral candidate. I don’t remember our current wave of reformers being particularly exercised about the democratic issue involved.

The logic behind the show of unity orchestrated by the party hierarchy
at conference and the NPF is that,
unless we all agree on every single
issue, the electorate won’t vote for
us. But the Meacher commission
has heard far too many examples of disaffection at grassroots level caused
by this control.

The government is currently embarking on some of its most controversial policies yet. Reform that excludes those who dissent will only encourage a further drift away from
the party. When fighting elections, emails and websites are all well and good, but without activists on the ground we are nothing.

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Tony Robinson

is a member of Labour’s NEC

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