If the unions let Brown scrap the right of Labour's conference to vote against the party hierarchy, they would weaken democracy
Thursday September 6, 2007
He would, Gordon Brown promised in June, be a listening prime minister. The Blairite era of spin and headline-chasing, the message went out, was over. In its place would be a new spirit of engagement and dialogue with a population increasingly mistrustful of government and alienated from official politics. Brown was at it again this week, highlighting the decline in voter turnout and party memberships and pledging to embrace a "new politics" of civic participation. The political system too often "ignores or neglects the new ideas that flow from outside Westminster", he declared, announcing regular citizens' juries to investigate issues of public concern, as well as an all-party conference to work out why 40% of the electorate isn't voting in general elections.
But despite all this enthusiasm for giving people more say in political decisions, Brown has other ideas when it comes to his own party. Later this month, the prime minister wants to abolish the right of Labour's conference to vote against the government on policy. After enduring a string of conference defeats in recent years - from privatisation and pensions to council housing and agency workers' rights - Brown has lost patience with such public displays of dissent. Hoping to trade on his leadership honeymoon in the run-up to a general election, the prime minister plans to end the opportunity for unions and constituency delegates to vote on so-called contemporary motions, shuffling off controversial issues to private sessions of the machine-dominated national policy forum.
Far from being an arcane issue of internal party management, the move goes to the heart of the political alienation that Brown himself has expressed such concern about. All the issues on which the conference has seen off the party hierarchy in recent years have been ones which command majority public support. If he succeeds in convincing the Labour conference in Bournemouth to ditch its vestigial rights to vote on policy - completing the transformation of Labour's conference into a purely showcase event on the Tory model - it can only reinforce the growing sense that mainstream party politics is an elite-controlled racket, closed to genuine participation from outside or below.
Some around the prime minister have been putting it about that Brown regards this latest gutting of Labour democracy and union influence as his main challenge at Bournemouth - there's even been speculation that he fancies his own Clause 4 moment, in emulation of Blair's symbolic break with Labour's ideological past. That would certainly chime with his transparent attempt this week to court the conservative press and destabilise the Tory party by comparing himself to Margaret Thatcher and recruiting Tory MPs as advisers.
Praising Thatcher as a "conviction politician" who "saw the need for change" may have seemed a clever piece of positioning, but will have scarcely reassured Labour people already alienated by Brown's commitment to corporate feather-bedding and privatisation. After all, the problem with Thatcher's government wasn't just, as Brown said on Tuesday, that "there was a large amount of unemployment which perhaps could have been dealt with", but that it broke the back of whole communities, triggered widespread riots, wiped out a fifth of Britain's manufacturing base in a couple of years, ran down public services, and redistributed heavily from the poor to the rich. Many would welcome a Labour prime minister with convictions - but not those convictions.
The most recent noises from the Brown camp, however, suggest he's not looking for confrontation over his party reform plans, circulated under the creative marketing title of "Extending and Renewing Party Democracy". The prime minister and his lieutenants argue that the current system doesn't only lead to damaging stories of splits and leadership defeats every year, but delivers nothing for those who support the rebel resolutions: ministers routinely declare they will ignore them. Far better than such outdated "resolutionary politics", they say, would be for controversial issues to be dealt with by a souped-up policy forum, where things can be settled quietly in the Labour family. Then a full policy programme can be put to a ballot of all party members.
In fact, negative coverage of leadership defeats has been modest in recent years, perhaps because it's hard to paint as outrageous positions which are shared by the majority of your readers. Brown's reforms would mean the end of Labour conference sovereignty and the transfer of all policymaking to a closed forum, the majority of whose members are effectively under party hierarchy and government control and where the union share of the votes is 16%, rather than 49%. The take-it-or-leave-it members' plebiscite would be a meaningless rubber stamp. And while ministers have long rejected conference decisions they don't like, repeated defeats have clearly helped shift government policy on, for example, social housing and the pensions-earnings link.
For the unions, which have been the motor behind recent Labour dissent, Brown's proposals would mean the final relegation of their federal role to lobbyists-cum-cash cow. At a time when working-class participation in politics has fallen more sharply than that of any other section of society, you might think a collective relationship with organisations feeding in the concerns of millions of workers from outside Westminster would be an asset to be nurtured - and exactly the kind of link a prime minister worried about political disengagement would want to strengthen. But of course real-life social organisations have interests and views of their own that can't be switched on and off like, say, citizens' juries.
Some will point out that most of Labour's internal democracy was hollowed out by Blair in the mid-1990s, and dismiss the latest changes as mere funeral obsequies. But so long as Labour remains a party of government in a first-past-the-post system, its openness to political pressure is a matter of far wider social concern. The current plan would make it less open. The trade unions, who can block these changes if they choose, have started to signal that they're ready to negotiate. There is room for compromise, but if the unions were to trade away their own right to vote at Labour's conference, they wouldn't only be undermining themselves - but the wider interests of democracy as well.