Conference and crystal balls

Ann Black reviews Labour’s Democracy Review

 As I write, I have no idea how the 120 recommendations in the party democracy review will be presented to conference. Some translate into specific rule changes, others less so. I also do not know if conference will be able to vote separately on individual proposals, or just Yes or No to the whole package. So what follows is mid-August speculation.

Electing the leader is clearly on the agenda, with a recommendation that where there is a vacancy, candidates would require nominations from 10% of MPs/MEPs or 5% of MPs/MEPs plus 10% of CLPs or 5% of MPs/MEPs plus 10% of trade union-affiliated membership from at least three unions. This will be carried. The events of June 2016, following the Brexit vote and the failed leadership challenge, left many members with a deep distrust of the parliamentary party. Last year conference reduced the percentage from 15% to 10%, and this now gives a formal role to other stakeholders.

Registered supporters also look set to stay, and people would have at least two weeks to sign up as members or supporters after the timetable is set. Longstanding members are still unhappy with “the £3 people” getting the same rights as the £50 a year people, and want a period of commitment before being entitled to vote, but those arguments are lost. It should be noted that registered supporters were actually introduced by Ed Miliband, with opposition from the left and enthusiasm from the right, and the NEC itself waived the qualifying period for leadership elections in 2007 and 2010.  But either way it is better to have these in the rulebook rather than haggled out in seven-hour NEC meetings with candidates themselves voting for their own advantage.

I do, however, hope to avoid by-elections for every vacancy on the NEC. In the constituency section OMOV elections would cost six-figure sums, and there have been as many as three vacancies in a single year, mostly benefiting runners-up from the left. It would also ensure that the 62% of members who voted for Jeremy Corbyn in 2016 would currently retain 100% of the places. Tony Blair never quite eliminated all dissent, and it would be ironic if Jeremy Corbyn were now to succeed. As an alternative I would support elections by single transferable vote to give the runner-up greater legitimacy, and I am happy for the unions, who can fill vacancies quickly and cheaply, to make their own arrangements.

And political diversity matters, as much as any other dimension. Here there are many good points about empowering women, ethnic minority, LGBT+, disabled and young members, but the answer is, too often, another committee. The review says, rightly, that members want the party demystified, with simple booklets explaining how it works, and then constructs interlocking cat’s-cradles of mind-boggling complexity. I remain to be convinced that these will produce greater external engagement. And while the review recommends dismantling the national policy forum, it does not outline any intermediate structures connecting half a million individual members with an NEC policy committee of maybe 20 people. I assume this is still work in progress.

Conference will also discuss rule changes in two areas where the review is silent. The first seeks to guarantee at least one woman in the leadership team, agreed in principle in 2011 but never carried to a conclusion. The second is selection and reselection of MPs and parliamentary candidates, covering a range of points on which the NEC has not, as yet, taken a position. And finally, on policy, I believe that this year’s conference must have a full debate, with meaningful votes, on Brexit.

Ann Black

Ann Black Oxford CLP and NEC at time of writing