Friday 21 September 2007

Remember the members

From Comment is Free:

I read Peter Hain's article yesterday on Cif and thought "God has it really come to this!" I admit to feeling anger but more so an immense personal sadness that someone who was such a fine radical as Peter had come to resort to such self-serving sophistry. Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon came to mind. The next steps on from this craven performance of justifying the leader's every contortion are confessions of guilt for crimes against the party and show trials.

Why such anger? Well, because so much is at stake - the last vestiges of democracy in a once great party that was founded to give democratic voice to those that were powerless and had no voice.

It may sound corny in a cynical age but literally generations of our people have given much of their lives to establishing and cherishing the Labour party because they believed what the party told them when they joined. When they received their party card every member, no matter how humble a position they held in the party, gained the right to attend their local party or trade union branch and seek to convince their fellow members to adopt a particular policy. If successful this policy could be pursued all the way to the party's annual conference with the aim of influencing the agenda of Labour in government.

Of course this process can look messy and at times is rumbustious, which appears to offend Peter Hain's sensibilities, but that is what healthy democracy looks like whether it's in the House of Commons or the conference hall.

Gordon Brown's proposals, set out in his Orwellian-titled document Extending and Renewing Democracy, remove this basic right of party members and trade unionists at party conference to determine the party's policy position on key issues of the day. Instead the delegates attending the conference will only be allowed to raise issues to be referred for subsequent consideration by the arcane centrally controlled structures of party policy forums, commissions and working parties.

Why is this being proposed? Partly it stems from a statement Gordon Brown made to trade union leaders last year when discussions were taking place over the need for legislation on trade union rights. At that stage it was made clear that if there was no movement by the government, the campaign for the restoration of basic trade union rights would inevitably spill onto to the floor of Labour party conference. Worryingly to some of us at the time, Gordon Brown responded by saying that under his leadership we can't have Labour party conference defeating a Labour leader in office on policy issues.

So this is not about in Peter Hain's consultancy-speak "engaging with the challenges that a responsible party of government must resolve" or "New Politics". It is straightforwardly the old question whether a Labour leader is accountable to the Labour party.

In recent years, one of the reasons for the exodus of members from the Labour party has been the implementation of policies to which many party members have not only been opposed but also have had no valid opportunity to have a say over and have been unable to hold the Labour leadership to account.

The ability of Labour party conference to decide by resolution the policy of the party on a number of key questions meant that at least there still remained some opportunity for members to participate in a process of direct democracy.

If allowed, democracy does actually work. The message to Gordon Brown is give democracy a chance and trust our members. Instead of trying to bounce the party into adopting these proposals next week when there has been virtually no time for a realistic consultation, I urge him to compromise and allow a proper consultation, a thorough debate and democratic decision making process, bringing a real democratic reform programme to next year's conference which will hold the party together. Please don't use this issue as some publicity stunt "Clause 4" moment.

If Gordon Brown obstinately refuses this compromise and forces his proposals through, could the last Labour party delegate leaving the Bournemouth conference hall turn off the lights please, they will be the lights of democracy.