If Labour's leadership candidates are hoping to show the Labour Party as the open, liberating, empowering force on the centre-left of British politics - capable of listening, learning and governing any time soon - then they should demand to see the latest plans for the 2010 Conference in September. (I set out some ideas before the meeting here.)
The grid, which was laid round at yesterday's National Executive Committee, to put it kindly could be best described as a very early draft, an opportunity for discussion in its own right.
The 'powers that be' face a daunting challenge. A sudden upsurge in interest in Party membership (some 30,000 joiners since the General Election) is a spontaneous reaction to the ConDem coalition adding new income to help Labour's strained, but improving finances. They join members like me, the post-New Labour remainder, many of whom have endured years of being ignored, abused and plotted against by the Leadership and its praetorian guard of party officials and fellow travellers. Crudely, the fixers need to keep the brave newcomers and cynical diehards both happy and focussed on winning.
My pitch at yesterday's meeting was to ask for the Conference to be staged with the widest possible opportunity for debate. In Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) speak that means forget the set piece speeches. The current grid showed 22 such slots, excluding the Leader's Report - 85% for men (mainly white), many of whom will not be in the Shadow Cabinet by the late Autumn. To enable debate, I suggested that constituencies and branches need to be encouraged to table resolutions. Guidance will be issued in August, I was told. Too late as far as I'm concerned. Far too many members have just given up on having a say. HO doesn't even bother to acknowledge submissions, let alone provide an audit trail to answer the question: What happened to our resolution on .......?
The General Secretary should instruct staff forthwith to acknowledge all correspondence from branch and constituency labour party officers, and created audit trails - a modest investment in so-called 'customer relationship management' tools and staff training for the use of same would be a step in the right direction.
The guidance concerning subjects for debate, when it is issued, is likely to require then to be summed up in 10 words backed up with 250 words of detail, known in CAC speak as a 'contemporary issue'. There is another saga behind this. But I want to concentrate on that different Conference.
Then we come to another of the many hurdles in Conference organisation - the definition of 'contemporary'. If you are still with me this is very important, like Beecher's Brook is to the Grand National in steeple-chasing. The Labour Party's policy making process now know as Partnership INTO Power, as the Party is in Opposition, involves an election cycle rolling work programme. I tried to get agreement yesterday on the cutoff date being the Clause V meeting which signed off the 2010 Election Manifesto in mid April. ie anything that has happen since could be the basis for debate. But as usual, I was firmly slapped down. This time is was with a reminder that that was a CAC decision and it is not meeting until next month.
Finally, there is the question of how issues are chosen for debate. There is a Priorities Ballot, in which Conference Delegates cast their votes for the subjects covered by those issues ruled in order by the CAC. Under rule the affiliated trades unions can chose 4 and the CLP delegates can chose 4. Too many CLP delegates are not aware that the TUs agree their 4 among themselves, guaranteeing debate on their issues. As a result many CLP delegates also vote for those issues and waste their opportunity to broaden debate to eight issues. That could be avoided if , for example, the Priorities Ballot were conducted in two parts so that TU issues do not appear on the Priorities Ballot in the CLP section, thus avoiding confusion and guaranteeing eight topics on the agenda.
So if the Leadership candidates want an Annual Conference worthy of Labour as a renewed political force, they could do worse than agree jointly, whomever wins, that they expect:
1. debate to be optimised
2. set piece speeches to be limited to replying to debate (with the exception of the Leader's Report and the Deputy Leader's closing speech,
3. no backroom attempts to purge the agenda of difficult and painful issues, and
4. members' correspondence re policy to be dealt with in an open, transparent and professional manner.
and say so very publicly.