DAVID CONNOLLY ponders the latest examples of new Labour style democracy.
With the best will in the world it is difficult to take Philip Gould seriously. Anyone who has read his book The Unfinished Revolution will know that his political starting point is a deeply felt hostility to the Tories. He is genuinely desperate to keep them out of office for a generation.
The tragedy is that in his desire to do this he feels compelled to maintain the new Labour electoral alliance at all costs, uncritically reflecting the right wing prejudices of certain parts of the population so that it becomes impossible to separate his own politics from that of conservative middle England. He is seemingly unaware of the political irony of what he is doing.
As a pollster Gould may well be the best in the business. But as a political thinker and political strategist he is a non-starter. If, as he wrote in his infamous memo to Blair, “the new Labour brand is badly contaminated … undermined by a combination of spin, lack of conviction and apparent lack of integrity” then he is obviously one of the people who must bear some responsibility for this state of affairs.
When he writes, “we must move from third way to one way” he has become a not very funny parody of himself. And when he seeks to “win a daily mandate” he has given himself a futile and impossible task.
But if Gould is important it is only because Blair has made him so. He reflects Blair’s approach and, underneath the big rhetoric, this is fearful, manipulative and technocratic.
Democracy, new Labour style
Speaking of manipulation, the latest meeting of the National Policy Forum was held in Exeter in July. Journalists were banned from the discussion sessions so the party managers were able to “spin” the message that the leadership was accommodating the wishes of the members’ representatives.
Indeed, unlike the NPF’s meeting in Durham last year, some concessions were made to the constituencies. There will now be alternative positions put to the Labour Party conference in Brighton on House of Lords reform, New Deal for schools, rail safety and Surestart. But all amendments are cast in terms that seek “evaluation” and “review”, and carry no cost implications. There was little support for more radical amendments from the Grassroots Alliance.
After quite a few teething problems Labour’s new policy making machinery is now working as it was always intended to, giving the impression that the leadership is tolerant and listening without ever putting it in danger of losing control of the process itself.
How could it be otherwise when the proposers of amendments at the Forum are not allowed to speak in support of their motions, whereas both ministers and coordinators of Policy Commissions are allowed to speak against those amendments they don‘t like. This is democracy, new Labour style.
Defeat, or not defeat
It passed with little comment, but the defeat of Mark Seddon in this year’s National Executive Council elections was remarkable for three reasons. First, he wasn’t really ‘defeated’ at all, coming fifth with 32,502 votes, almost 2,000 more than seventh placed Christine Shawcroft. But the rules say the top three women must be elected, so Christine took Mark’s place, which is a strange expression of the democratic principle.
Secondly, the printers “accidentally” missed out most of Seddon’s election address from the booklet sent to Party members. The little that remained gave the impression that Seddon displays a can’t-be-bothered arrogance. It surely cost him more than the 616 votes that was his losing margin. Quite how no-one at Millbank spotted this blunder has not been explained but I hope he received a suitably contrite letter of apology.
And thirdly, the two candidates who topped the poll were the actor Tony Robinson and Labour’s former general secretary, Lord Tom Sawyer. Those with a long memory may recall that when the NEC was restructured we were told that the constituency section would allow ordinary party members to be elected – clearly, it obviously helps if you’ve also been seen on TV from time to time.
Not that it matters these days anyway, the NEC’s role is now so limited that the elections are of symbolic importance only.