A HH:MM:SS countdown to the Labour Party Leadership announcement adorns its website. A gradual swell of pleas for unity can be anticipated ahead and after the declaration. The political fight has to be taken to the Tories. Who could disagree? Livelihoods of millions of people whether in or out of work for whatever reason are under threat from the ConDem's mismanagement of the budget deficit.
All the more reason to expose and seek to heal a long-standing rift over how the Labour Party itself is run. Rift? What rift? It's between the democratic centralisers and the democratic socialists. There was a time, it is said, when Party staff served all sections of the Party. No longer. Throughout Tony Blair's period in office as Leader, Party staff were deployed to serve the Leader; and with increasing ruthlessness. Remember the fiascos over the leadership of the Welsh Assembly, and who should run in 2000 as Labour's candidate for London Mayor?
The lingering stench of democratic centralism continues to pollute the Party as was all too evident at this week's pre-Conference National Executive Committee. A prolonged campaign of interference in the rights of Labour Party members in Tower Hamlets to select their own candidates for public office reached fever pitch with a mini-hysteria led by Acting Leader, Harriet Harman, her husband, Jack Dromey, aided and abetted by NEC chair Ann Black (seeking re-election on the self-styled Grassroots Labour slate) and the General Secretary Ray Collins. Swift action by the new leader to replace Collins and other HO staff has been called for on Left Futures. That's easier said than done. There is a deeply engrained democratic centralist culture espoused not just by Labour Party grandees and HO staff, but supporters at every level of the Party. John Harris in the Guardian on Wednesday caught a facet of this culture in his Comment piece Labour's right will roar back. He asked:
What has happened to the party's right? Most of its remaining number are clustered around MiliD, and aside from the odd pop at "Red" MiliE, keeping shtoom. But do not be fooled: they are as fired up as ever, and preparing for a return once the membership gets back to leaflets and balloons.
Note Harris's appreciation of members as sentient beings. The centre-left has no coherent vision or message for members disenfranchised in constituency parties frozen in time by the National Executive Committee awaiting the outcome of a ConDem government boundary review, which will take years. The machine's dogged resistence to parliamentary prospective candidate reselection needs to be recognised for what it is - a sitting MP's insurance scheme. I'm a Chartist. I support annual parliamentary elections as the most effective means of holding our elected representatives to account. But given recent experience the least Labour could do is reintroduce compulsory reselection. Where there is no Labour MP, CLPs should be encouraged to come up with not just consituency, but branch development plans. These should link fundraising, local/national campaigning and political education to fight every parish, town, district, local and regional government seat. Alliances can be forged with community groups. It is a mammoth task. The new Leader should seek a rapid start on this work.
In doing so s/he will have to be mindful of what the NEC is actually proposing at Conference in Manchester. To encourage local initiative (not), it is proposing a rule change to oblige all party units to transfer any property it holds in trust or owns into the name of the Labour Party. It is sequestration in defiance of the wishes of countless benefactors dead or alive. Why? To bolster the national Labour Party's balance sheet increasing its assets at no financial cost. I doubt my ability to organise a sufficiently vocal protest to get the proposed Rule change withdrawn. But if the new Leader wants to send a clear message to members s/he could useful insist at the NEC meeting on Sunday that sequestration is deferred pending an open and transparent consultation.
As I said at the NEC on Tuesday soundings undertaken by the outgoing Treasurer Jack Dromey were utterly cynical. They took place over the summer holiday period between the second half of July and 17 September. Worse, sound reasons for having a coherent property policy are being used to cover up the scandalous breakdown in financial governance arrangements of the Labour Party without the lessons being fully aired, understood and addressed. In the absence of proper budgets and management accounts, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that I should not trust HO with my membership subscription, let alone a bequest .
In the quest for change in the Party, relations between Leader and individual member and political levy payer/affiliate awakened by the 4-1/2 month long campaign have to be built on further. Reform of policy-making and encouragement of debate taking on the Tories should not be confined to Westminster but extended to everywhere people live and work. Here there is an opportunity to rebalance the Party's federal structure. New Labour squeezed the affiliated trades unions' representation on the National Policy Forum - to around 1/6th. But it left the TUs holding a disproportionate number of NEC seats - 13/33 who continue to fulfil a praetorian guard function for the Leadership. That compares with just 6/33 for constituency reps. TU representatives also hold the whiphand on the NEC organisation committee. Those whom I have encountered in my two year term on the NEC are temperamentally unsuited to managing discipline in a voluntary organisation. Put simply they have forgotten the need for carrots. Sadly, they have abandoned any regard for natural justice as evidenced in former MP Ian Gibson's deselection last year, and latterly over Tower Hamlets. There should be equal representation of affiliates and CLP representatives on the Organisation Committee, and in the coming year it should be chaired by a CLP representative.
A really bold Leader would tackle the representation of women in the Party's structures head on. An opportunity to set a 50% minimum for elected places in the Shadow Cabinet was lost on Tuesday thanks to the sisterhood. Acting Leader Harriet Harman failed to secure the votes in the PLP ballot. The NEC failed to hold the PLP to account. When I questioned the status of the PLP inside the Party, i was told by self-professed equalities champion and General Secretary Ray Collins that standing orders were outside the scope of the Rule. Not true, every CLP and local government groups SOs have to be approved by the NEC. When I protested NEC vice-chair Norma Stephenson moved next business, which was promptly adopted by NEC chair Ann Black. There are sound reasons for the PLP to be brought explicitly within the scope of the Labour Party's Rule Book when it comes to Party policy and financial governance arrangements. A thoughtful Leader on Sunday morning would ask for a rethink and suggest that the PLP SO changes should be put to Conference with an NEC recommendation for immediate adoption of a minimum of 50% elected places for women. Then a political education programme is needed to both encourage women to stand as Labour candidates, and branches and constituency parties to choose them.
Finally, there is the question of accountability of the Leadership. The Party hierarchy has already fixed an indefinite term of office, contrary to Rule, for Deputy Leader Harriet Harman. Nomination papers for Leader and Deputy Leader should be issued each year. The democratic centralists have ignored this since 1997. If the new Leader wants to reconnect with members s/he should insist that nomination papers are sent out. it gives every member the chance to say: "You are doing a great job, I will renominate you" or "Hang on, you are not, I will nominate another member of the PLP". The democratic centrist fear chaos, and bizarrely are proposing a Rule change in Manchester. That has been described by Left Futures as a "wreckers' charter". If that is intended to stir up effective opposition, it is to be applauded. But not at the expense of securing a commitment from our new Leader to be accountable regularly to the membership as well as the electorate.
After seven years of campaigning for membership and our critical importance getting Labour's messages across on the doorstep, I hope our new Leader will not just put the Blair/Brown years behind, but the democratic centralist practices that prolonged them beyond the electorate's patience.