Saturday, September 22, 2007


I'm not going to be at Labour conference this year. I went last year as a volunteer New Labour spin doctor, but Gordon Brown has got rid of spin so there's no need.

The big issue of interest only to members of the Labour Party (and even then, only to a minority, but bear with me) is whether or not there will be votes on Contemporary Resolutions. A contemporary issue is one that has arisen since the 31st July, and affiliated trade unions and constituency Labour Parties can propose resolutions. Resolutions which are passed become the policy of the Labour Party (though not the government). Gordon Brown is trying to abolish this, as part of an overhaul of how local Labour Parties can get involved with policy-making.

In recent years, conference has passed motions on renationalising the railways, against using the private finance initiative in the NHS, against foundation hospitals, in favour of letting councils borrow money to improve council houses and in favour of making company directors liable for the deaths of their employees. None of these have been implemented by the government.

It should not be hard to design a better system than this, which is a product of decades of fudged amendments to a system designed about eighty years ago. If the Labour Party were being established now, there is no way that anyone, whatever their ideological affiliation, would say, 'What we need is to make sure that every local party can submit a resolution, and then three quarters get ruled out because they discuss issues raised before the 31st July.'

But there are lots of different ideas about what change should involve. Should it mean making sure that the government doesn't suffer any embarrassing defeats on matters of policy? Should it mean ensuring that members can pass resolutions which are binding on the government?

There is also a lot of mistrust. Many of the same arguments used in favour of Brown's proposals were advanced in support of the 'Big Conversation' and 'Let's Talk', and many think that by definition any attempts to change current systems are aimed at preventing members from having a say about policy and cementing the dominance of the leadership. Meanwhile, others think of Labour Party activists as a threat, people who love turning up to meetings and passing resolutions denouncing the government, and nostalgic for the days when Labour conferences were week long showcases of how much people in the Labour Party hated each other and were not fit to run a whelk stall, live on national telly.

Each stereotype has some truth to it. Brown's proposals claim to be based on a more deliberative, consensual model of policy-making, while offering members a chance to vote once every four years on a 'take it or leave it basis' for the whole Labour policy programme. The proposals themselves, as well, show little sign of having been modified by the input from the membership. Meanwhile, Labour Left Briefing is circulating a critique of the proposals which contains an attack on the principle that local Labour parties should reach out and try to engage local communities.

Brown's proposals are going to go through, and no 'review' is ever going to bring back contemporary resolutions. But if they are to achieve the aims of improving the ways that members can be involved in policy-making and linking Labour with local communities, then the leadership has to recognise that sometimes grassroots Labour members know better than ministers, and sometimes ministers ought to change their policies when members and the unions are opposed.

Because for all the inadequacies of the structures of contemporary resolutions, the resolutions which conference has passed in recent years - on housing, on the railways, on the NHS reflect not just the pet obsessions of Labour Party members, but the views and concerns of many council tenants, commuters, NHS workers and patients - taking issues rooted in local communities. This year, conference will discuss resolutions on closing Remploy closures and low pay for women workers. These probably aren't issues which came up when Thatcher or Damien Buffini last popped round to number 10, but affect a lot of people.

If Gordon Brown wants the new process for making policy to work, then it will mean that some government policies which he supports will need to change as a result of the ideas and suggestions of Labour Party members. It's hard to imagine that happening, but it would certainly mark a new sort of politics.


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