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The View Outside Labour’s Bubble

2:29 pm - September 22nd 2008

by Douglas Johnson    

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A Blairite acquaintance languishing at the Labour Conference reports:

Conference is generally quite upbeat and behind Gordon. My less confident attitude hasn’t been too popular!

This just before another text asking me whether I’d seen yesterday’s poll in the Observer confirming Labour’s impending electoral annihilation. These delegates know how dire the situation is, and yet they refuse to act against it. A conference packed with loyalists.

Compare that with a confirmed socialist’s verdict:

Last night I went to a party, drank four glasses of free champagne and compared dresses with important political ladies for a set period of time before going outside to smoke with the other interns and attempt to throw up my own lungs in a paroxysm of horror. What on earth happened to the Labour party? What happened?

(I spent the rest of the evening shouting about the RMT to Boris’ transport minister and attempting to get people to stand on chairs with me and sing ‘the red flag’. I’m not sure I’ll be invited back.)

At every event they’re edging closer to coming out and admitting that Labour has abandoned the grassroots. Peering out from their glittering Westminster bubble, even the chummy delegates and media flunkies here in Manchester are starting to get a little bit worried. If they don’t mobilise, if they don’t involve the communities and do more to address the needs of the people who vote for them and buy their newspapers, the number of expensive dinners on their horizon looks to significantly dwindle.”

There we have it; “Labour has abandoned the grassroots.” Conference exists in a gossipy bubble which bears little relation to the outside world; ministers grandstand on stage to choreographed applause. And the only reports which make it out are of that gossipwho spoke to whom, where, when and how that won’t make any difference anyway as they’re all so scared the party will come crashing down around their ears. A far cry from the political extravaganza Diane Abbott recalls from her earlier days.

Party conferences exist as the democratic interface between the membership and the hierarchy. Members spread out across the country can’t play a daily part in a centralised national party; but they can ensure its accountability at regular, democratic meetings. They use Conference to vote on policy, and on those to articulate it, and the party should remain true to its membership.

Except that patently doesn’t happen at Labour Conferences anymore. The grassroots and delegates have little or no influence on most party business. They vote on motions, they vote for committees of now-questionable potency – and they listen to speeches. They have no means of holding those speakers to account, as they’re appointed by the leader.

And they have no realistic means of holding that leader to account, given the tortuous process whereby sufficient MPs must first squabble and acquire signatures before the general membership is even consulted. Power has accumulated into the hands of a small party elite, and that elite has gradually closed off any paths by which it might be challenged; leaving the grassroots with nothing.

Even sheer physical protest at this strangulation of internal democracy is difficult. At any time that matters, the Conference floor finds itself carefully managed to the point that even MPs cannot register their views. My friend (a minor staffer, for the sake of as much disclosure as he’ll allow me) informs me Siobhan McDonaugh attempted to lead a walk out of Brown’s opening speech; but her seat had already been surrounded by party staff to reduce its effectiveness to naught.

Labour Party loyalists inform disillusioned progressives that we must support this government, however much we hate it, or face a decade of Tory rule. But when we loathe so much of what that government has done, and have so little chance to influence it, what, really, is the point? The death of internal democracy signalled the death of Labour’s membership; there’s little point signing up to an organisation whose pronouncements you just can’t control. The party would do well to realise that if it ever wants its mass support back.

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About the author
Douglas Johnson is an angry London student, socialist and member of the Green Party. The bulk of his anguished ravings can be found at Scribo Ergo Sum, which he edits.
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Reader comments

It’s just such a contrast with the Lib Dems. I mean, yes, we’re a comparatively minor party, and yes, we have Liberal in the title, but ANY delegate can speak at our conference, and there’s no real gulf between Our Glorious Leader and the plebs…

It’s this, more than anything, which has convinced me that the Labour party won’t recover from the current malaise. Sooner or later the remaining grassroots are going to realise that there is no point clinging to the melting iceberg. The partisan in me hopes it will be later, because then the damage will last longer. I don’t want to see that authoritarian bunch of bastards back in government again any time soon.

“What on earth happened to the Labour party? What happened?” It’s been like this for years. Where has the “confirmed socialist” been since 1994? As early as 1985, Kinnock was approving moves to centralise policy making power away from conference. It abandoned its grassroots a long, long time ago. Now, the only difference is that the rest of the country is sitting up and taking notice at how little Labour have to offer the electorate in these torrid times. The grassroots may once have had the power to grasp the leadership by the scruff of their necks and steer the party back into populist waters – but that article by Abbott was reminiscing about party conferences over twenty years ago.

Labour’s electoral humiliation in 1983 saw fit that no longer would the party be ruled by its members, if it ever was. The project to “modernise” Labour began in the 1950s, as early back as men like Dalton: today’s stage-managed rallies are but the inevitable result of a historically-strong tendency. All long before our time, of course: but anyone with a passing interest should check out The Unfinished Revolution by Philip Gould to see how the party was transformed.

But, as much as it pains me to say it, there is plenty that Labour could offer to the electorate…membership involvement or otherwise. It is not like the Labour party nor the positive aspects of its administration have totally run it’s course and that the only option is to go Tory because you can’t possibly get any more out of the ideologies that have driven Labour to where they are.

Ask members what they want or not, the problem is that whatever the route taken they have stopped trying. I’m sure some people are just weeping with joy at the idea of a year more of free nursery places, but really was this the *best* that Brown could come up with leading up to a conference which many largely believe to be his last chance of salvaging anything?

To clarify what I’m saying above… I’m not sure the members that exist in the party know what the hell is going on anyway, I refuse to believe that a party with a switched on membership would give a “standing ovation” to Brown given his key role in our current economic troubles (either through not planning enough for the future, or by simply lying to us) and that they would not have made more of an impact indirectly on policy direction. I think the membership are wandering as much as the leadership are. From the head of the snake all the way to the tail the party do not know what they are going to do next, that’s why John Cruddas has to resort to borrowing recent Lib Dem policy announcements to try and steer at least some direction other than right down the waterfall.

One does get the impression he spends most of his time alone in a darkened room, pretending his government isn’t falling apart around him, his only activity being to sack those that want him to do something other than sulk. Perhaps it is a lack of ideas: the policies that Brown would’ve liked to have been remembered by, such as SureStart, tax credits, the minimum wage, probably took him ten years to develop whilst Labour were in opposition. In his headlong rush to replace Blair at the top, he must’ve realised when he got there that he didn’t have any actual plan as to what to do next, or what policies would define his term of office.

And yes, the free nursery places, whilst a good policy idea, clearly seem like a last, desperate stab to show that he is doing something with the power of the PM’s office.

“I’m not sure the members that exist in the party know what the hell is going on anyway, I refuse to believe that a party with a switched on membership would give a “standing ovation” to Brown given his key role in our current economic troubles”

To be honest, I suspect the audience that gave the ovation was probably mostly made up of party staffers who’d give a Labour PM an ovation if they’d just ripped the head off a baby. I agree that most of those members still with Labour might not have much of an idea what to do about Labour’s troubles – but Conference, especially something so stage-managed as the main conference hall, really can’t be taken as representative of the whole membership.

He’ll more be remembered by failing to control the housing market as he promised, by introducing student loans and top up fees, and for the biggest blunder of trying to cover up that he was planning on taxing the poor more to pay for middle class tax cuts.

Rayyan’s right about tracing the roots of Labour’s malaise. New Labour began under Kinnock, not Blair. The expulsions in the 80s, followed by changes to Conference meant that the move to a market-friendly, Murdoch-pleasing party was well underway long before Blair finally ditched Clause 4. I was one of those threatened with expulsion in the 80s. I left before the buggers could have the pleasure of kicking me out. I haven’t been surprised one little bit since then at Labour’s descent into political, philosophical & moral turpitude. New Labour was always an intellectual & economic sham, designed to appease the City & kid the grassroots into believing that Thatcherism was over; the fat cats whooped their delight & what remained of the faithful were told just to be grateful that the Tories had gone.

I think we should take note of IDS’s infamous ‘the quite man is turning up the volume’ speech at the tory conference.

He was gone 2 weeks later.

So will Brown.

As a grassroots member, I am pleased if it is actually true that party staff take steps to try to prevent MPs from staging walk outs during the Leader’s speech. This strikes me as obviously sensible.

More generally, the model of having a national conference at which resolutions get proposed, composited and then agreed or not agreed according to whether a handful of trade union general secretaries support them or not (and then ignored or not ignored depending on whether government ministers supported them) wasn’t a very good one thirty years ago, and is even less suited to this century than the last one.

The Lib Dem conference might allow any member to speak, but according to one of their parliamentary candidates, not a single person who spoke at the housing debate about eco-towns even mentioned social justice – the discussion was dominated by nimbies campaigning against new housing in their area.

There have been reports on some of the very interesting discussions that have been taking place, for example on Sunder Katwala’s new left blog and elsewhere – it’s not all just been ‘gossip’.

We do need to think about how to reconnect Labour, and the left more generally, with the grassroots and think about new ways of involving more people in the way that policies are made. But there’s no point looking back to some imaginary Golden Age, and any of left of centre party which aspires to be in government does have to consider the very real challenges which come both with holding annual conferences in the age of the 24 hour media, and also how to balance the views and priorities of members and activists with others when coming up with policies.

There are others apart from members of the party whose views matter? Another difference from the Lib Dems then. We might take various different things into consideration when deciding as members what policies to propose and support, but we don’t get overridden by nebulous “others”.

These delegates know how dire the situation is, and yet they refuse to act against it.

It is all very easy to “realise that something must be done”, but quite another thing to work out what that something should be.

I might point out that the reason Labour Party internal democracy was squelched in the first place, was that what the Party grassroots wanted done, and what the electorate wanted done, were so often wildly different.

Policy being made by Conference, i.e. thousands of grassroots members, is surely more democratic than it being cobbled together behind closed doors at the behest of a few? Perhaps if Labour had let its members have more of a say, it wouldn’t be in such a pickle now. And as for 24 hour news media: if the two big political parties stopped treating their conferences like stage-managed circuses designed to boost short-term performance in the polls, and instead refocused on using Conference as an opportunity for the membership to exert influence over the leadership, the news media would stop covering it and cover something else instead, with no harm done to the party’s external perception.

The way the media acts these days is largely due to parties pandering to it, without realising that with a bit of courage, they could instead take control of the news cycle.

“I might point out that the reason Labour Party internal democracy was squelched in the first place, was that what the Party grassroots wanted done, and what the electorate wanted done, were so often wildly different.”

I have read The Unfinished Revolution by Philip Gould, and whilst I can see where you draw your analysis from, I think it was an unwise strategy to “squelch” internal party democracy in response to the more radical voices within Labour holding sway. Yes, in the long run it yielded electoral victory (albeit many many years after Kinnock first started his squelching) but it led to a loss of identity. Political parties should of course meet the electorate on their own terms, and strive to represent their concerns at all times, but they must also summon the courage from time to time to say that which may be initially unpopular, or outside the box, or (dare I say it) radical.

Labour owes its existence to such outside the box thinking as was displayed by the post-WWII Attlee governments. “These are the times that try men’s souls” – and it’s time we saw someone willing to lead public debate rather than cower behind it.

“There are others apart from members of the party whose views matter? Another difference from the Lib Dems then.”

The Lib Dems, according to their own analysis, suffered at the last election from having lots of policies which some members cared passionately about but which lacked a certain kind of wider appeal – from extending animal rights to goldfish to relaxing rules on who could buy pornography.

But it is not just that it is electorally essential to take into consideration views from people other than party members.

The debate on housing and eco towns is a good example. Lib Dem members, and Lib Dem members able to attend and speak at or help shape policy at Lib Dem conference in particular, tend to be relatively well off, and the debate and policy which was passed reflected this – lots of anti-housing development campaigners spoke, but not a single person who is trapped in overcrowded accommodation or who is homeless. Fine if you want policies to appeal to property owners rather than those in the greatest need, but not so good for social justice.

I’m with donpaskini…

Why should people who are not Labour Party activists care how much influence Labour Party activists have? Most people probably think that they are a bunch of freaks who should be kept as far from power as possible.

Possibly the Party would have been better off, if the Conference had had more influence, but anything is possible. Is there any reason to believe this possibility to be true?

And if Conference really did influence policy, the media would almost certainly pay more attention to it – because people would be more interested in it. Whether people would like what they saw is another matter.

In the meantime, the only thing that everyone in the Party can agree on is that Something Must Be Done. But what the Party needs is an answer to the question: What Should Be Done?

“Lib Dem members, and Lib Dem members able to attend and speak at or help shape policy at Lib Dem conference in particular, tend to be relatively well off”

I’m supporting a family on less than £10,000 a year in a back to back. My other half, also of this parish, is currently seeking employment. Although I consider myself relatively well off, I don’t suspect that I am who you had in mind. And I repeat, any delegate attending conference can shape policy. You want to take your assumptions elsewhere?

Also, are you saying that the Labour party DO take into account the views of homeless people? In which case I humbly submit that you are talking complete bollocks. The labour party takes into account the views of those who pay for it – i.e. big business and (less often these days) the unions.

18 – ‘tend to be well off’, not ‘every single person who attended is well off’.

My ‘assumptions’ are that there are many people who can’t afford to go to a five day conference in Bournemouth – I don’t imagine that you would disagree with that. There are some advantages to making policy by having members decide them at a conference, but one of the disadvantages is that some people are more likely to be able to have their say than others, depending on their economic status, and this has an effect on the policies that get decided. It’s not a problem unique to the Lib Dems, but it is a big weakness in the way they make policy.

I’ve already said that I don’t think the way Labour decides policy is very good. It’s actually a really difficult and important question – how can left of centre political parties decide (for example) their housing policy in a way which gives an equal voice to people in housing need as to anti-housing development campaigners? Neither Labour, the Lib Dems nor the Greens have managed to achieve this.

Don, people who aren’t working or have casual jobs find it lots easier to get time off than, say, thinking of no Norfolk Bloggers in particular, teachers.

I went for free as a steward. There were a fair few of us who did this. Sunny could have gone for free on a media pass, if he’d have thought on. There are lots of ways of doing conference without paying for conference.

housing… travel.. eating?

i spent over a hundred bucks going to Manc off my own back, and thats after staying at a hostel. And eating all the food at the Fabian events. Heh. And getting my alcohol at the evening parties.
Its still not cheap!

If you’re a steward, you get expenses. You don’t need to pay for food if you attend enough fringes.

Add to this the fact that lots of local parties will subsidise places for their members (although this is not something I have personal experience of).

I still don’t get why anyone would bother to go to Labour conference, though. If you can’t affect anything, what’s the point?

17 – “Possibly the Party would have been better off, if the Conference had had more influence, but anything is possible. Is there any reason to believe this possibility to be true?”

At its best, there are examples from the past of conferences successfully challenging and changing the leadership’s ‘line’. Two examples, both from quite a long time ago:

In 1945, delegates at Labour Party conference voted to end the national government and make sure there was an election – which led to Labour’s landslide election victory (the leadership wanted to keep the national government going until the end of the war).

In 1948, at the Democratic Party convention in the USA, delegates voted for a policy platform which committed the party to a much stronger policy in favour of civil rights (the leadership opposed this because it didn’t want to antagonise conservative Southern Democrats). This policy helped Truman win the 1948 election.

Sometimes activists are better at sensing when the time is right for new, bold measures than the leadership of a party, and any party which wants to be successful would do well to have some way for that to happen. Other times, however, the activists are well out of step with public opinion and a party’s supporters in particular and letting them make the policies is a recipe for disaster.

Blimey, ‘support Labour for the one thing they did in 1945’ won’t make me vote Labour in 2010, and I’m even less likely to be swung by something a different party did in a different country.

Frankly I don’t think Labour is doing too badly. A quick piece of micro-surgery to get rid of David Miliband will either kill the patient or set it on the course to recovery.

All this talk about the Labour bubble is because there is a cancer eating at the heart of it. But cancer is treatable. Brown must force a confrontation to demonstrate his control over his position and because Miliband is identified as the treacherous individual, one of them must walk.

Brown should sack Miliband before the next cabinet.

I’m with don, I don’t actually think that laying the floor open is ever a good way to make good policy. It’s a way to make sure people feel included and to shape a party around the views of those able to do the shaping, but there are no guarantees of successful work being done.

By contrast Labour let a load of out of touch desk clerks do their policy making and we’ve all seen how that works out, so I hardly describe that extreme as any better than letting the membership have a say, less so because the likelihood of a lackey coming up with something meaningful rather than “buzz-wordy” is slim as far as I’m concerned.

The only thing I’ve heard in recent times that’s made sense is the citizens forum, or whatever they’re calling it. And it’s a Tory headed idea in this instance. It means people get their say on where they want direction, it also means those that know what to do with direction (supposedly) run with it and realise the potential. I’m guessing it will get talked out of Parliament by some back bencher, but at least it’s an example of showing how there can be active listening and participation…rather than just an oaf sitting in a chair continuously restating how much he and his administration are listening, honest.

Let’s also remember how undemocratic Labour actually was back in the 1980s when it was dominated by serial meeting attenders. People like Diane Abbot fought tooth and nail against one-member-one-vote because they did not want ordinary members to have the final say. Wards could not even mandate delegates to the constituency parties. This came out really strongly during the Benn – Healy battle for the deputy leadership with Benn picking up all the votes of the activists but Healy winning every trade union which balloted its membership (apart from the NUM). I remember my ward balloted the membership – who voted for Healy – but our delegate to the constituency still voted for Benn.

But anyway the idea that activists attending a conference should be able to mandate a government on what it should do is rather dubious. It is accountable to to the electorate as a whole and, anyway, I do not think that certain detailed economic policies can actually be decided in this way.

Jenny, without wanting to dismiss the Lib Dems you can only afford to be so democratic because you are nowehere near being in government.

thomas: Don’t think anyone was saying support Labour for something they did in 1945.

So Conor Foley thinks that Labour was “undemocratic” at the grassroots level in the 80s. Excuse me, but that doesn’t accord with my experience as an activist at that time. Far from denying ordinary members the final say, the activists campaigned for measures such as the reselection of MPs because it gave members that involvement. The only ones who had anything to fear from it were careerist MPs, many of whom buggered off to the SDP, & the Denis Healeys of this world. What is truly revealing, however, is his dismissal of “the idea that activists attending a conference should be able to mandate a government on what it should do”.
In other words, sod the delegates who’ve travelled to the conference & sod representative democracy. That’s the way Labour conferences have gone over the last 20 years.

And did you support or oppose one-member-one-vote?

Conor, at the time I opposed one member, one vote, believing that the relationship between the ward & the CLP, via the ward delegates, was sufficient. I no longer hold that view. However, it was noticeable that the old right wing of the party didn’t come up with OMOV until the proposals put forward by the left found resonance among the membership. Moreover, your comments about the unsuitability of conference to decide policy makes me wonder why you invoke the one member, one vote issue all these years later.

I remember OMOV discussions when I first joined the Labour party at the age of 15. I was instinctively on the left at the time (I attended my first meeting to vote for the Briefing slate for the GLC elections), but I thought it was a weakness of the left at the time not to seek a wider franchise. It was Diane Abbot’s reminisces about the halcyon days of the 1980s that made me think about the issue again.

In those days the leading lights of the left were people like Patricia Hewitt, Harriet Harman, Margaret Beckett, Clare Short, Chris Mullin, David Blunkett, Chris Smith, Jack Straw, etc – while David Aaronovitch and Peter Mandelson were still in the Communist party.

OK people change their minds as they get older and there is no shame in that, but the in-fighting of the 1980s – for which all sides bear some responsibility – kept Labour out of power for 18 years. I think that the iron-discipline of New Labour in the 1990s was partlly a reaction to that experience.

On who should have the final say on government policy, well, obviously that has to be parliament. That is the basis of the British democratic system. People vote for individual members of parliament and they hold the executive to account.

I strongly agree with mandatory reselection of MPs, and that is a way of ensuring that they remain accountable to their local party, but the idea that a government should be automatically be bound by a vote of its party conference is deeply problematic. If the Tories win the next election would you say the same rule should apply? (think capital punishment, immigration, Europe, repeal of the HRA, etc.)

Outside of Manchester few people except the die-hard supporters

(22 Jeenie Rigg:” I still don’t get why anyone would bother to go to Labour conference,
though. If you can’t affect anything, what’s the point?”-how sweet of you not to
understand how corruption and influence peddling works)

will listen to Labour again until after they have been removed from power and the current placemen and mediocrities have been well and truly purged. Sad but true.


Yes, that is exactly where donpaskini is coming from and why I can’t agree with him when the best examples he can provide come from another era.

I think there is some confusion floating around about where exactly to draw the line of the role of a conference between policy formation and policy approval.

A conference should really be the practical and formal culmination of the policy-making process which avoids both accusations of it rubber-stamping pre-approved top-down diktats and of last-minute spur-of-the-moment compromises or coups from the floor. It needs to be the summation of an on-going and continual year-round engagement between members, leaders and the public. It needs to be carried out as a matter of course as a basic duty of party constitution. Confering ought to be the greatest ambition and activity undertaken by all as a basic manifestation of our equality – one which feeds into any combined campaigning efforts. It is what we practise on these threads.

Currently it seems LC is in a perpetual state of confering, producing voluntary motions to agree and carry forward or dismiss (with varying degrees of vehemence and ferocity). This is both a strength and a weakness. In some areas this has produced a concert of opinion, in others it has degraded into chat. Sometimes debate has risen the level of discourse to purposeful intent, elsetimes it just drifts.

Now I’m not a believer in the noble pipedream that LC can turn into either an online think-tank or a well-spring for a new political movement, but nor should it remain a hub of commentary and debate. I think there are new niches to be carved out where LC can find itself at the vanguard of directing realignments through collborative campaigning.

So how we learn to apply the conclusions advanced here is something which does need further discussion – could it mean editors drawing up a central LC manifesto of issues and positions, or perhaps is this best avoided? My feeling is that a form of conscious consensus-building is helpful, if not necessary, but this raises the question of how to go about doing so. So understanding the differing roles, purposes and functions of each of the party conferences is absolutely fundamental to deciding which are the best parts of each model and how to apply them for ourselves if LC is to continue to grow in influence.

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