Democracy – threat, opportunity, or damp squib?

Ann Black reports on compromises and conflict on party democracy

This year’s conference went well, with popular announcements on childcare, workers’ rights and renationalisation and a composite on Brexit which satisfied almost everyone at the time.

For insiders the focus was on the Great Democracy Review.  Debate started badly when delegates complained about receiving 35 close-typed pages of text just hours before kick-off, including last-minute NEC proposals on reselecting MPs and electing the leader which would pre-empt more radical amendments scheduled for later. As a consequence 91% of CLP delegates rejected the agenda set out by the conference arrangements committee, and business only proceeded because 98% of the unions outvoted them.

Momentum had collected 50,000 signatures supporting universal open selections and a lower threshold for leadership nominations, but compromises brokered between key stakeholders fell far short of their demands. On MPs, an open selection would only be triggered if at least one-third of party branches or one-third of affiliate branches called for one. For the leadership, candidates would now require 10% of MPs/MEPs plus either 5% of CLPs or three affiliates, including two trade unions and representing at least 5% of affiliated membership. Both are relatively sane: open selections in every seat could not be completed until 2023, and CLPs now have real power in determining which candidates get onto the ballot.

Although Momentum changed tack halfway through and urged delegates to support the compromises, two-thirds of CLP delegates still voted against the NEC, but union votes ensured that both were carried. While Tony Blair always dismissed the unions as ‘producer interests’, seeing constituency representatives as the authentic voice of the people, the unions now provide a modicum of stability in turbulent times.

Less attention was given to a raft of other changes. Some are good: removing the ‘contemporary’ requirement for conference motions, and adding a disabled members’ representative to the NEC. Others less so: filling NEC vacancies through by-elections, rather than promoting the runner-up, will leave CLP places empty for months or cost between £70,000 and £300,000 to fill them. A high price to ensure that the bloc with 60% of the vote retains 100% of the seats.

At constituency level equalities officers now have voting status on the executive committee (EC) and job-sharing will be allowed for most positions. A shift in management from the EC to the general meeting has led some to ask if the EC can even book rooms without asking the GM first, but hopefully the rules will be applied flexibly and sensibly.

However 90% of the review is still to be implemented, including a replacement for the National Policy Forum, changes to local government structures, and interlocking networks of regional and national committees and conferences for women, BAME, LGBT, disabled and young members. This year the relatively simply process of filling the new National Constitutional Committee places took five drafts and many hours, which does not bode well for the technical challenges of putting the rest into rule. The NEC and party staff will have time for little else.

Full reports on the democracy review are at https://www.annblack.co.uk/reports-of-meetings/

Ann Black

Ann Black Oxford CLP and NEC at time of writing