Save the Labour Party is one of a number of initiatives that have emerged to challenge the Labour Party leadership’s politics and practices. BARRY WINTER joined 30 other members at its public meeting and AGM in Manchester on 29 November last year.
Tony Lloyd MP
Tony Lloyd expressed concern about the lack of young people in the party. Attracting young people, he says, is the only possible means to transform society. If we don’t occupy the radical space, the BNP will move in, he said. He made a comparison with France, where the decline of the French Communist Party left space for the National Front.
Lloyd said there is widespread disillusionment across the party and this creates an opportunity. STLP and others could provide a bridge to disillusioned members, even though we are numerically small.
He argued that the trade unions will play the biggest role in turning the party round. Lloyd chairs a trade union group and reported that meetings are taking place to develop a programme of change. The trade unions set up the Labour Party as a party for change, he said. There are no single, simple answers, however.
Lloyd referred to an USDAW pamphlet on Labour’s achievements. The chair, Trevor Fisher, had criticised the pamphlet in his opening remarks, but Lloyd said it had merit. The real issue, he said, is that the government could have done better, it could have achieved so much more. He compared Blair’s achievements unfavourably with those of the Attlee government.
Lloyd called on the meeting to mobilise for change, to redefine the soul of the party and its democracy.
One speaker suggested the Parliamentary Labour Party should give a lead, and Lloyd said that there is growing resistance in the PLP. However, he pointed out that the PLP today is inhibited by the spectre of the 1970s and the party’s civil war. Moreover, the PLP can’t do anything without the support of party members.
Pat Buttle, the left wing candidate for president of Usdaw and a member of the union’s executive, declared she wanted to get the party back. She then made a quick-fire critique of the Usdaw document on the party’s record in office. She said that we need to be organised in both the party and the unions. “Go back and organise and let’s regain our party. This may be the last chance that we’ve got,” she declared.
She also said trade union branches need revitalising. There is some recognition that the trade unions do not really practice participative democracy in their own organisations and are heavily reliant on delegation. The TGWU have set up a ‘community branch’ in Calder Valley so people who work elsewhere in non-unionised workplaces can meet locally to share experiences, and have the backing of a trade union in their workplace. This at least creates more favourable conditions for a branch to operate.
Michael Meacher MP
Meacher said that the government had had an unprecedented opportunity in 1997. With the opposition in disarray, and with the biggest ever majority, “we could have done anything”, he claimed. Instead, he said, “we have blown it.”
We now need to table the issue of party democracy because the levers of accountability have been weakened or disconnected. The party has undergone subtle changes to its rules, and we need to put in place mechanisms that allow the grass roots to influence policy.
The leadership is out of touch, he said, and there needs to be more dialogue within the party and with the leadership. For example, there is a 5:1 majority in the country against GM foods, yet the government still supports it.
We are still basically a trade union party, he said. The National Policy Forum needs to be combined with decision-making processes. There are no channels through which members can influence the party’s decisions. The leadership distorts what is taking place – at the party conference, for example, they indicated that party members supported them on foundation hospitals. This was not true, although a lot of delegates were pressurised into supporting the leadership.
Meacher believes the country is run by an autocracy to a degree that we have not seen since the Middle Ages, with too much policy made at the top. There are good reasons for democracy – no one person can have omniscience, and no-one can continually make judgements that are right.
Meacher argued that the majority of the public share our values or social democratic views. They want better public services and greater social equality. Yet inequality is now worse than it was under Thatcher and he can think of no worse indictment of the present party leadership.
He asked what needs to be done to restore conference as a forum for making decisions. He argued that we need to challenge:
- the Prime Minister’s patronage, which is immense. Blair has more choice here than either Henry VIII or George Bush. It makes for a single line of control, not least the whipping system in parliament where some pretty unpleasant things take place. We need a system where all major appointments are made by an independent commission. The cabinet should be elected by the PLP and so should membership of the select committees.
- how decisions are taken in the UK. Here there is no bigger issue than Iraq and we need a full enquiry on how the war happened. The PM cannot simply nullify an issue of such overriding national interest. He can’t be allowed to be both judge and jury.
- the way parliament works. We need more powerful and better-resourced select committees. Members of parliament employ three or four people to help them. US senators have staffs of 30 to 40.
- the argument for state funding, along with the corrupt honours and donations system. State funding relieves the political class of any accountability to its supporters. It would remove the trade unions’ influence on the Labour Party.
- current democratic practices. A vote every four or five years is hardly democracy. Unpopular measures like top-up fees indicate the limits of the present political system. We should have a debate on whether to have more regular referenda (which he favours).
Meacher concluded by saying that the total absence of party democracy is the crucial issue. Tony Blair has sidelined the NEC, pays little attention to conference, and has undermined cabinet government. We need to demand a Commission for Party Democracy. The leadership will refuse but it is now on the defensive.
Questions and discussion
Several speakers made emotional calls to get rid of Tony Blair, linked to demands for a change in the party’s direction. One speaker claimed that the recent change of leadership in the Conservative Party had revitalised it and the same could happen for Labour.
One speaker offered to move to Sedgefield and devote her energies to deselecting Blair. Another declared: “We have a cuckoo in the nest.”
At this point I was ready to leave or at least contemplate setting up an organisation to save the Labour Party from the people who want to save the Labour Party.
Michael Meacher made a skilful response to the clamour for removing Blair which seemed to silence them. It could be said that he mildly chided those members of STLP who wished to focus on removing Tony Blair by encouraging them to adopt a wider political perspective.
He said that while he would very much like to see Blair go, it can’t be done. The party rules make it impossible to challenge him while he is in situ as prime minister. In any case, his supporters are well organised and well funded.
“Who is the alternative?” he asked. Gordon Brown, he noted, is also a control freak.
Meacher argued that what matters is not the personalities but the policies. A change in personnel will change very little. We need to build a base to challenge the leadership and a lot needs to done before such a challenge can be made.
He argued: “Don’t be reckless but just keep going.” We need a set of principles and to press for them in the party as the basis for change.
STLP began informally in February 2003 at a meeting convened by Trevor Fisher (following the AGM of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy). It established its constitution and rules in July 2003, and appears to have emerged from the demise of Labour Reform.
It aims to promote genuine democratic participation in the Labour Party and seeks a review of the party structure to ensure that the key decisions are made by the members (including the affiliates). It wants to restore to the NEC the power to promote the political agenda, and to give it effective control over the organisation and finances of the party.
It has 110 members, according to acting STLP secretary Gaye Johnson, comparable she says with “other similar bodies that have been much longer established”. It also accepts representation from constituency parties. Her report refers to contact with Bernard Crick, the retired academic, who says that “a new multi-organisational forum, aiming to reform new Labour, [is] in the offing”.
In spite of its small beginnings, STLP has been very active at conference and elsewhere making its voice heard. It is establishing a regional structure and intends to hold fringe meetings at regional party conferences (and in Scotland and Wales).
One of the key motions adopted at the AGM, moved by Trevor Fisher, called for a broad-based Commission on Party Renewal which aims to examine the decline in party membership and the “alienation” of the party’s core supporters.
Clearly, STLP is but one of several initiatives taking place in and around the Labour Party to challenge the politics, policies and anti-democratic practices of the party leadership. It is, perhaps, organised more by the grass roots than some of the other groups, although the membership appears to be less coherent politically that those who are guiding it.
STLP’s conversations with Bernard Crick suggest that there are efforts to bring the various organisations and campaigns into some association. Given the disparity of views, that will be difficult but the result could be interesting. The last time this happened was in the 1970s and ‘80s when there was a series of confrontations (and eventually damaging conflicts) within the party.
Tony Lloyd’s comments suggest that there is a desire in the parliamentary party to avoid something similar happening again. Conditions are very different this time, but much will depend on the reaction of the party leaders as well as the political perspectives that emerge at the grass roots. It may amount to very little but, if it does get off the ground, the ILP has a constructive role to play in these developments.
STLP’s website can be found at http://savethelabourparty.org.