Politics vs. Bureaucracy: Notes From Party Conference

IN THEORY, the Labour Party Conference is where policies are formed, but the last three decades have seen it hollowed out into a PR opportunity for politicians, buttressed by tedious bureaucracy for everyone else. The continued success of Jeremy Corbyn poses a threat to this state of affairs, and this conflict – between the radical politicisation of his supporters and the stifling manoeuvres of party protocol – animated this year’s conference.

The central battle between the left and right wings of the party was over a package of rules brought to the National Executive Committee (NEC) by Tom Watson. The NEC is Labour’s administrative body, representing the different organs of the party, from unions and members to Labour Students and assorted socialist societies. Only six of the thirty-five positions on the NEC are open to election, but all were won by Corbyn supporters in the last round of elections. This meant a majority of one in favour of democratic reform – a necessary condition for Corbyn’s desire to transform the party into something resembling a movement.

Tom Watson’s rule changes proposed adding two new positions to represent Scotland and Wales. Whilst this seems reasonable, it was, in fact, unashamedly factional. The new positions were to be appointed by the (anti-Corbyn) leaders of Scottish and Welsh Labour, not elected by Scottish and Welsh party members. Northern Ireland (pro-Corbyn) was ignored, as was the suggestion for a seat representing LGBT Labour. This was, therefore, a power play within the party to tip the balance in favour of maintaining the status quo. Not even Corbyn is allowed to appoint NEC members, yet Watson’s rule would allow the leaders of Welsh and Scottish Labour, Carwyn Jones and Kezie Dugdale, to fill two seats at their own discretion. The result would be a NEC neither supportive nor representative of Corbyn’s mandate.

If the content of this proposal is objectionable enough – limiting the members’ ability to democratise the party – the second problem was the way it was presented: as part of a huge package of rule changes, which included some great initiatives (like giving Women’s Conference more power). Instead of voting on each change separately, these vastly different proposals were presented as one take-it-or-leave-it package. This meant the left was given the unglamorous task of spending each morning challenging the Conference Arrangements Committee agenda and trying to get them to disentangle the changes. If this sounds unbelievably dry and boring that’s because it is. The purpose of banal and opaque procedures is to smuggle through unpopular changes.

What was most shocking – for a relatively new member of the party like myself – was the way the debate over these rule changes were handled. Every morning people raised objections to having the package presented as a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, with things coming to a head on the final day. Those who wanted a fairer system needed a preliminary vote. Despite this being the 21st century, voting is still done by a show of hands. This has two flaws. First, whoever chairs the debate makes a visual judgement with no accountability. Second, all hands are considered to be equal – if you represent a union of half-a-million members your vote has the same weight as someone representing a local party branch of 200 members. The rulebook allows for a card vote to be called so votes can be properly weighted and properly counted. On Tuesday morning, speaker after speaker raised objections about the take-it-or-leave-it package and demanded a card vote – all were ignored by the chair, who decided the vote of hands was sufficient. (From where I sat it was too close to call.)

The power of the chair was wielded again later that day when the rule changes themselves were debated. There were far more hands raised than could ever have the time to speak but out of the seven chosen the chair managed to avoid picking a single voice of opposition. He did, however, manage to choose two high profile right-wing members who had spoken earlier that day. This meant the debate took place without anyone hearing the opposition’s case.

In the end, the NEC rule changes were passed as a bundle and without a single dissenting voice being heard. This means it will be extremely difficult for Jeremy Corbyn to transform the party into a grassroots movement. It is also a slap in the face to all the enthusiastic new members who hoped that the Labour Party could represent their values. Petty factionalism and resistance to democratic change are powerful forces within the Labour Party as much as in society at large. Throughout the conference, every time someone mentioned socialism there would be a standing ovation – but we shouldn’t confuse the rhetorical freedom the left-wing now has with real change within the party.

There was a silver lining to Tuesday’s result. Minutes later, conference passed the Sheffield Heeley CLP amendment, a rule change which states, ‘Conference has the right to refer back any part of a document without rejecting the policy document as a whole.’ Whilst this might have come one conference too late, it is a significant defeat for the right and means the left can challenge policy in future conferences. The other success was Momentum’s The World Transformed, the controversial fringe event dubbed the ‘conference within a conference’ by the right and one of the biggest gambles the group took. Not only did they pull it off but they did so in style, with a gorgeous venue and visitors brimming with enthusiasm. The level of debate was above and beyond the intellectually vapid fringes of the main event and was described by commentators as one of the most exciting signs of the new direction of the British left.

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