Running the Rule over the Labour Party Conference

Diary of an ex-Corbyn foot soldier (October, 2021) 

Dictionary definition of “foot soldier”: “…a dedicated low level follower…” 

Running the rule over the Labour Party Conference

Contents:  

(1) Back to College – the Electoral College

(2) The main changes to the Party Rule Book: 2021

(3) Rule changes and the direction of the Party

(1) Back to College – the Electoral College

Anyone seeking a more detailed account of this year’s Labour Party conference rule changes may consult the Conference report, when available, or,  in the meantime, they can, as I did, go to the excellent source for an overview: “Every-Rule-Change-at-Labour-Conference-2021-What-it-Means-and-How-it-Passed.” This was written by the hard working Elliot Chappell and Sienna Rodgers in LabourList (1 October, 2021: available on LabourList’s internet site).  

I was not a delegate to this conference and did not receive the full text of motions nor was I party to the debates, so I’ve relied heavily on LabourList for this diary entry – opinions on the factual reports being my responsibility, as they say. 

Corroborative information was gleaned from delegates, shared on the excellent “Labour Grassroots” daily coverage of conference;  and “Arise: Labour Conference Report back”;  “Novara Media” ; this year’s “TWT” (The World Transformed— annual political festival since 2016) on line meetings; individual delegates whom I know – and other miscellaneous sources, including one or two which I dare not mention for fear of proscription. (Now, isn’t that a sad reflection of the state of play in the Labour Party at the moment?)  And – a spoiler  – from what I’ve seen or heard over the conference and the ongoing postmortems – it’s only going to get worse before it gets better. Much worse.  

Does that make me feel like leaving the Party? 

It has crossed my mind. But to go where? To build a new socialist party?  I’ve done my time in dingy rooms above pubs talking to maybe a dozen others on a good night. Because that’s where you’d be starting from, that’s the reality. 

Now, if, say, the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs (or a substantial portion of it) plus a number of affiliated trade unions were to propose such a move. That would get my attention.  

What is clear to me after this conference is that there are tens of thousands of liked-minded socialists in the party. How can we hope to build a party from scratch in this FPTP Brexit land if we can’t fight our corner in the largest democratic socialist party in Europe?

One thing I heard at a zoom meeting last week clinched that decision for me: that if only a small number of the 150,000 who left the party in despair in the last year or so had stayed on Dave Evans, Acting General Secretary, would not have kept his job. But as a result of him retaining the job more will be pressured to leave, especially from the left, unless he drastically changes his attitude – which I doubt. 

A huge positive in the present situation is knowing there is a vigorous, well rooted leftist social media network developing out there, telling it as it is, unlike the mainstream media.  Without it, how would we know about the dirty war being fought via the party bureaucratic machinery to marginalise the left of the party, with which the main stream media, by its silence, colludes? 

We wouldn’t know about – as most people reliant on the MSM don’t – the countless elected delegates that were suspended so that they couldn’t attend conference. The hundreds who got letters just prior to conference who were told unspecified “security” issues with their conference paperwork meant they could not attend? All that would go unreported. 

And look at the wonder of TWT,  forged in the white heat of the Corbyn renaissance, its influence growing serendipitously – no little thanks to the Covid driven social use of zoom – to becoming a real force for political and cultural change? And more: most of the great events are now up on the internet, to be enjoyed at home and abroad. Recommended: “The Socialist Campaign Group of Labour Party at TWT The Big Tent.” 

Hearing from that wonderful intake of ethnically diverse, mostly female 2019 entry MPs will warm the cockles of your heart. Guaranteed. Jeremy and John McDonnell are there to level up the age profile.

*

We will now proceed to looking at the main rule changes introduced during this year’s Labour Party Conference and assessing their likely impact on party democracy.  

But we’ll start with a proposed rule change that never made it to the Conference agenda after days of internal wrangling amongst the constituent parts of the Labour Party: the plan to reintroduce the Electoral College. 

I believe the reason for this is that, in retrospect, the row over the Electoral College will be seen as having set the tone for this conference, and may become a measure of Keir Starmer’s progress, or otherwise, in re-forging the party in his own – or his mentors’ – image.  

It read like pre-conference “false news” when rumours emerged in the days just before conference that the Starmer leadership, advised by Blairite “Grandees,” was going to propose a return to the “Electoral College” system of Party leadership elections. 

Under the Electoral College system, looked at as it would apply to the party as now constituted, a third of the votes would come from affiliated union and affiliated societies membership, representing millions of members; a third from the 450,000 general membership – and a third from a mere 199 MPs. 

Now, that is not what Ed Miliband had in mind when he commissioned Lord Ray Collins to present a report on the democratic deficit in the Labour Party when he was party leader. “The Report on Labour Party Reform,” commissioned and published in early February 2014 was circulated immediately for a Special Conference the following month. 

*

Imagine that !  A specially convened delegate conference with a single item agenda and a user friendly policy discussion document. With a month to discuss and debate it at local level beforehand. Compare and contrast with how the proposed rule changes were processed at this year’s conference, when delegates were overwhelmed by the quantity of documentation thrown at them, and the limited time available to come to grips with it. 

It’s the difference between a meeting convened to make a decent attempt to reach the best consensual decision, in the 2014 example, and pushing through a pre-planned outcome in this year’s conference. 

Press the link (CAC Report 2) on the LabourList piece on conference rule change, cited above, to see the crammed agenda of policy and rule-changing motions to understand the point being made.  

“It’s time to make ourselves the party of equality,” said Ed, Labour Leader, back in 2014, proposing the move away from the use of the undemocratic “electoral college” for leadership elections. The proposal to drop it, he said: “.. would result in the biggest transfer of power to members and supporters in the history of the party.” 

One well known Labour activist and writer was to opine: “Last summer few people thought he would be able to get his party to vote in reforms on this scale with a majority of almost 90%. But he did it.…the very fact that Miliband has got them through, in the way he has, is a mark of leadership.” (Andrew Sparrow, Guardian, 1 March 2014.) 

So, after all that, what are we to make of Miliband’s support for, or acquiescence in Keir Starmer’s proposed re-introduction of the electoral college sprung on everyone at the last minute ? 

A very public slap in the face for Miliband, one would have to say; to be compounded shortly after by Starmer on a popular television station disowning a Labour commitment to bringing energy companies into public ownership, only days earlier enunciated by Miliband, as Energy spokesperson (and, of course, it being one of Starmer’s “10 Pledges” when seeking the Party leadership, less than 18 months ago.)   

(2) The main changes to the Party Rule Book: 2021                                                      
Note: “Card vote” is required by rule with policy motions where at conference it may be difficult to arrive at a decisive result by a show of hands, or where the motion proposed concerns a Rulebook change, and is, thus, binding. (We’ll return to what constitutes ‘binding’ 

Card vote 4:  Membership Rules  

This is the first rule change that jumps out at me – as someone who has argued at length in Labour Affairs and elsewhere about the Labour Party Rule Book not being fit for purpose in a democratic socialist party. 

“New members are subject to a period of provisional membership during which time their application for full membership can be rejected ‘for any reason which the general secretary sees fit.’”  This is huge and I’m amazed there hasn’t been any public reaction to it, not even on left wing media.

Andthis was voted by 57% – 43% ? Worse, in my book, the largest chunk of the vote was from trade unions. 

Think for a moment of a workplace comparison: “New employees are subject to a probationary period during which their application for permanent status can be rejected for any reason the Human Resource Manager sees fit.” What? The subjective judgement of one person? No second chance? No consideration of mitigating circumstances? No appeal? No discussion?  

Of course, employment exists where this type of rule can be invoked, and bad employers have long exploited their “probationary” employment contract clauses. But, such a clause wouldn’t be tolerated in any half-decently organised job. Nor, let it be said, would a reasonable HR manager invoke such a clause, even if it still remained in some pre-existing hand-me-down disciplinary procedure he was obliged to work with (as I’ve often seen in US multinationals in Ireland.)  

So, can anybody explain to me why arbitrary, authoritarian rules like this get into the Rulebook of what is a predominantly trade union based democratic socialist party ?  

Card vote 6: Party Meetings

The main point of interest here is the introduction of a political education and training officer role in local parties, though that should read “re-introduction.” I was a “PEO” (political education officer), in Mildmay branch of what was Islington Central  and, as it happens, my current branch is looking to create the same role, though what it has in mind is more of an organiser of visiting speakers.

But, my question here is: whose asking?  What is the motivation for reviving this role? Is it to empower or to control? Based on how we’ve seen free speech interpreted in the last year and a half of Starmer/Evans leadership I can envisage the role being seen as an ‘agency’ directly accountable to the leadership, not driven by the members.

The other part of this rule change, connected, I suspect, with the above, is the withdrawal of the right of a branch to affiliate to any group – think JVL  (Jewish Voice for Labour) if you’re looking for an example – or a motive.   

Again, a scary 60% – 40% result, making you wonder where people’s heads are at – or, is it down to the process, the way in which the decision was reached, as discussed above?

Card vote 15:  Snap Parliamentary Election Candidate Selections

“Stats for Lefties” sees this as a big step forward for Party democracy.  True, it takes away the excuse for “parachuting” in the leadership pick for a vacant seat. However, in practice it could be a different matter: three reps from the local party, chosen by the local EC on a 5-person selection panel along with one regional executive committee and national executive committee members, which looks about right. However, it all depends on the dynamics of the relationship between all these levels, which often hasn’t been too great of late, arising from an ongoing purge of left wing members. But long needed: “parachuting “ in parliamentary candidates, either by left or right, has caused a lot of bad blood in the past.

The vote was close enough for such a motion: 53% – 47%.  The mainly trade union affiliates were against – albeit by a small margin 28% – 22%.  I’m looking forward to learning the rationale behind the union vote on this rule change. Lack of representation of trade union delegates to CLPs,  perhaps? 

Card vote 16:   EQUALITIES AND HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION

I don’t feel free to comment on the EHRC- mandated process for dealing with all complaints arising from breaches of the Equality Act’s “protected characteristics” (also referred to in Card vote 17). I’m only going to say I’ve heard much criticism of how this vote was carried out, and how a vote against was framed, from the beginning, as antisemitic.  

Doubts have been expressed about how “independent” the body set up to supervise this is likely to be since members are going to be appointed by the General Secretary, who is not in any sense “independent” in relation to this process. Again, perhaps, that will come down to the professional ethics of the lawyers and others involved.  But it shouldn’t be left to chance. 

Ultimately, one way to approach this is with an independent review mechanism which would give the body some transparency and acceptance. This would lift it out of the danger of coming to be seen as merely a stage in a disciplinary process, not part of an educational and transformative process, which it ought to be.    

Card vote17: Disciplinary Procedures

It includes a requirement that those taking legal action against the party must in future go through an NEC process beforehand. Members resort to the pursuit of natural justice through the courts because of the failure to obtain it through the disciplinary procedure of the Labour Party. Now they will be obliged to go before the NEC on the way to meeting its legal representatives in court?  If this is an accurate read on what has been proposed, this could throw up some interesting legal conundrums.  

I would be in total favour of this new rule if, instead the NEC “process,” it involved some sort ofattempt at mediation – something favoured by Sami Chakrabarti and the former Labour GS, Jenny Formby.   

Indeed, if asked what a democratic socialist disciplinary procedure looked like, it would have such a stage built into it – with concomitant commitments made, such as acceptance of education or counselling to bring about behavioural and attitude change instead of the punitive approach of the current Rulebook. 

As part of this rule change now involves adding new “protected characteristics” to the existing Rulebook list, punitive sanctions become even less efficacious to expedite behavioural issues and bring about meaningful individual – and host organisational – change. This is particularly relevant in an organisation  such as the Labour Party, which is implicitly committed to transformative change at both these levels. 

The rest of this depressing rule features the usual suspects of current Labour disciplinary procedures: “automatic termination”; “exclusion”;  “suspension” – all with the stress on punishment rather than behavioural improvement. And, without the slightest mention of an appeals procedure ? 

And yet: the total vote in favour was 62% .  

Card vote 19:“Getting Labour Election Ready” 

The main changes:

The proportion of MPs required to nominate a candidate for the Labour leadership is doubled to 20% minimum. With self-identifying socialists being a minority of MPs in the democratic socialist Labour Party (true!) this attempts to make it less likely that socialists can attain party leadership into the future.  

Also to be raised, is the threshold needed for a “trigger ballot” allowing for an incumbent MP to be put through a new selection process in the event of an impending election. This is to move the party in the opposite direction to mandatory re-selection of incumbents in each parliamentary period, a long-held democratic socialist principle – and the norm in Republican as well as in the Democratic parties in the US, for example. 

*

(3) Rule changes and the direction of the Party

One of the big stories of conference was the withdrawal of “The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union” from the Labour Party in retaliation for the expulsion of their President, Ian Hodson, on the pretext of having shown solidarity with other party members who had been indefinitely suspended. But as Ian explained, this wasn’t the sole reason the union, a founder member of the Labour Party came to that decision.

“We have a real crisis in the country,” Ian continued, “and instead of leadership, the party’s leader chooses to divide the trade unions and the membership by proposing changes to the way elections for his successor will take place.

“We don’t see that as a political party with any expectation of winning an election. It’s just the leader trying to secure the right wing faction’s chosen successor.” (Statement released 28th September, 2021). Of course, in the process a valuable left seat was lost on the National Executive Committee.  

If Labour valued the Bakers Union for its long years of support, or for being in the front line of improving the working lives of the lesser paid today, a way around any perceived problem like that could easily be found. 

But we have to seriously consider Ian’s charge that Labour is, at this moment, all about securing a right wing successor – and the general thrust of the rules changes bear this out.

Moreover, John McDonnell also saw the attempt to revive the electoral college approach to labour leadership elections in much the same light when he spoke to the “Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs at the “The World Transformed” Rally on the last night of conference. 

He berated Keir Starmer for dumping his narrow obsession with rule changing on this crucial Labour conference which found itself in the midst of a perfect storm of a multiplicity of major challenges for Britain. And, at a time when the focus should be on challenging the false Tory pandemic/post-brexit narrative in a country with millions slipping down into serious levels of poverty and hopelessness.

Here is a different take on Starmer’s conference: “It’s the day after Labour Party annual conference and I’m still smiling broadly just thinking about what has been achieved during the week, and how it has taken Labour on a big step towards to being the party it should be. And a party ready for government.”  

“We went into conference with the doubters whispering that Keir Starmer hadn’t got what it takes to lead, and Momentum boasting that they had 55% of delegates and were going to sack the general secretary.

“But at ‘Labour to Win,’ we went in cautiously and quietly optimistic because our network across the country had worked their socks off to elect excellent CLP delegates and provided us with accurate intel so we could map the likely balance of voting strength.”

This is Luke Akehurst writing, NEC member and leading light of “Labour to Win,” one of the chief pro-Starmer rank and file organisations. In his long article there are only a couple of references to labour party policy: it’s all about the bureaucratic fight against the left. In this article he delights in Dave Evans ratification as General Secretary and sees this as a mandate for his modus operandi. 

The fact the left can be credited with winning much of the political debate is of little consequence to him: he knows the conference confirms the right’s increasing control of the party machinery andinherited regional structures. 

He knows that votes to tighten the right’s control over the machinery of the party is binding while votes on policy issues, like the New Green DealPalestine and Aukus are not: hence the Party Leader and Shadow Front Bench can publicly disown them within hours of  the conference agreeing  them, as, indeed, we witnessed this year on the  three issues listed above, and  perhaps more brazenly than usual this year, as if saying loud and clear: ignore the membership, we’re the Labour Party.

You ask: “Can they do that, Mick?”  My response: “Well, they just fecking did!” 

Perhaps you harbour some vague idea in your mind that the conference is the policy-making body of the Party and the NEC, on behalf of the members, carries out the policy between conferences? 

Most union rule books say something along those lines. 

Mine reads: “(Unite) Rule 12.1 The supreme policy making body of the Union shall be a Policy Conference held every 2 years….”

(Unite) Rule 14.9.9(The EC) may decide  questions of policy which may arise between Policy Conferences and which have not been decided by a previous decision of such a conference.  Any substantive policy decisions made by the EC to be ratified by the next scheduled Policy Conference.” 

I’m sure the first copy of the old T & G rule book I received over 40 years ago was less wordy than that, but therehas been a gansey load of rule revisions since then, mostly from the many amalgamations that ended with “Unite.” Now look at the role of the Labour Party conference in the Rulebook:

Chapter I, Clause II: “The Party shall give effect, as far as may be practicable, to the principles from time to time approved by Party conference.”  

Get it?  “…as far as may be practicable…” Plenty of wriggle room there for those who don’t want to have their hands tied by the democratic policy making of delegates who incur great expense of time, money and energy, often travelling great distances to have their say.  

To conclude: Luke Akehurst’s is a self-serving, myopic and delusional view. It’s driven by personal rather than political ambition: the pursuit of position to grow the individual’s career rather than the necessary socialised power to turn Britain’s existential crises about.     

But it sustains his section of the Labour right. The Tories. And the death grip of the Few over the Many.  It’s what we’re up against.  As the oft-quoted Tony Benn might have said, if he were born a few miles to his West – and said here with much affection for, and solidarity with all fellow foot soldiers in these difficult times: “Cop yer selves on and feckin’ toughen up!”  

Michael Murray: murraymicha@gmail.com; FaceBook: Michael Murray London

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