As the Labour Leadership, Treasurer and NEC election ballot papers drop, it's time to look inwards and ask is the Labour Party's internal organisation fit for purpose?
Since the contest started to replace Gordon Brown millions of words have been uttered, written and recorded about the direction of travel, New Labour versus old Labour, drawing lines under the past and moving on. Today we have been treated to vivid reminders in the Blair memoirs about why Leadership elections between the real contenders are healthy for our party democracy as well as the electorate. But little has been said or discussed about the Labour Party's internal organisation(s) which the new Leader will inherit.
Worse, we have had an ongoing conspiracy of silence about the absence of a Deputy Leadership election. Nor should we forget that if the Shadow Cabinet had had its way, the Leadership contest would have been done and dusted before the Parliamentary summer recess in a machine effort to shoe-horn in David Miliband. Paradoxically, it was the Party's National Executive Committee (NEC) that put a stop to a rushed Leadership contest; but then ignored the Rule Book regarding nominations for the Deputy . Admittedly, the General Secretary reported legal advice. However, that was shown subsequently to be non-existent. But the machine ground on oblivious. Nor did the NEC's appetite for a show of openness and transparency over the Leadership contest stop it from extending a dubious interpretation of the Rules to effectively exclude so-called leading left-winger John McDonnell from the contest.
Whoever is announced as the new Leader on Saturday 25 September should be asking her/himself whether the Party machine would function better if there were a broad and well understood consensus about the Rules, rather than infinite scope for scheming and manipulation. Statements from the candidates to date are not encouraging. Lots of warm words about openness and transparency, listening to members and the like, but a lack of necessary attention to detail to be persuasive.
Beyond the Rules, and the need to be guided by them if not bound, are a multitude of issues about organisational structures, personnel and finance. As reported previously, when elected to the NEC I requested among other things a copy of the budget and the latest management accounts. I was refused. Moreover, the NEC's Terms of Reference (ToR) were changed at my first full NEC meeting in November 2008. Of course, they were not changed by diktat. There was a veneer of democracy, namely a 'vote'. I recorded my dissent and stated publicly that I remained to be convinced the ToR were fit for purpose. Contributors to this blog have argued that I was seeking to engage in micro-management. Far from it, management accounts in large organisations are summaries of a budgetary and accounting system that, if well presented, highlight trends. A new leader could change the internal culture of the Labour Party at a stroke by demanding full disclosure on a confidential basis for all NEC members both of the budget, and the management accounts.
This should be done in the context of rebuilding the Party's finances to fight future elections, not on the basis of the requirements of the Electoral Commission, important though they are. The Labour Party of the future needs to establish a complete picture of money flows both local, regional and nationally. Currently head office takes no meaningful interest in the finances of its party units that generate less than £25K income a year, even though that amount is more than enough to fund local activity throughout the electoral cycle between General Elections.
It should not have gone unnoticed that Labour fought the last election without increasing its borrowing. This does not mean to say that one of the cogs in the machine, namely the General Secretary didn't try and turn in that direction. I don't blame him for trying. But the NEC said: No. Labour's campaign had to financed out of cash in hand and donation. Head Office has a very successful fundraising department targeting wealthy Labour members and supporters, as well as the trade unions. The latest donation figures from the Electoral Commission show over £10 million was given to the Party to help finance the election in Q2 2010. That was despite fighting the Tories and the Lib-Dems with 'loser' Brown as Leader. The election results showed where Labour had activists on the ground in sufficient numbers, it could hold seats, as it did, for example, in Islington South, Oxford East, Tooting and Westminster North against the national trend.
UPDATE SEE COMMENTS: I wrote: In the exceptional case of Oxford East, the seat was retained with very little printed literature at all. Antonia comments: It's nonsense. See my comment for my apology for possibly misunderstanding the level of printed literature distributed and its impact on the outcome.
I have already challenged John Prescott's pitch for the post of Party Treasurer on the grounds that he doesn't seem to have got the message - it's members that count, not money of itself. Of the leadership contenders, David Miliband is the most suspect of a 'filthy lucre fixation', with his boast that he has demonstrated his money-raising capacity. Sure, but was it ethical? The Labour Party still lacks an ethical donations policy. The Party machine from sitting MPs, the vast majority of the National Executive Committee, though Head Office and Regional staff appear frightened of members playing a greater role. Why? Because, they would have to be more accountable to them.
A new Leader could set the tone by quietly insisting that the whole NEC is on the platform for the Annual Report and Accounts, and insisting that delegates are entitled to ask questions of any NEC member. That could be done in Manchester in four weeks' time. With regard to staff, the contenders should take a particular interest in the Erith and Thamesmead ballot box tampering affair in 2009, as yet unresolved. Members will recall there was a high profile selection process featuring the young Georgia Gould, daughter of former PM Tony Blair's favourite pollster. She was seeking the nomination as Prospective Parliamentary Candidate. In controversial circumstances, the Labour Party high command decided to take control of the process and lodged the ballot box in Head Office. After the alleged 'break-in', the selection ballot had to be re-run via solicitors. An internal inquiry was instituted by the NEC, since then - silence. Unconfirmed reports allege that senior staff representatives have blocked DNA testing that might help the General Secretary with his inquiries.
That unsavoury episode underlines the extent of distrust between active members and party staff that has to be addressed if the Party is going to regroup successful to harness all the talents of its members and supporters.
I hope some of this issues will be touched on in the remaining hustings especially by my first and second preferences, not to mention the need for proper policy debates at Conference. Hence my headline '1st= priority'.