Save the Party … for Gordon Brown

JONATHAN TIMBERS finds the STLP heading up some depressingly familiar left wing cul-de-sacs.

Earlier this year, Barry Winter and I attended a Save the Labour Party (STLP) members’ meeting in Manchester at which Michael Meacher spoke. There were calls in the meeting for a leadership election. Meacher politely and gently explained that any attempt to replace Blair would be a pointless distraction, which would alienate many MPs and pigeonhole STLP.

He preferred to concentrate on the more fundamental issues of the powers of the prime minister, the resources and responsibilities allocated to select committees and the authority of conference and the NEC. It was important, he suggested, for STLP to focus on the democratic agenda rather than embroiling itself in internecine and largely futile power struggles.

Unfortunately, STLP is not heeding his advice, as I discovered when I attended a members’ meeting in Manchester on 18 September 2004.

To put things in context, in many ways STLP has kept to its agenda of campaigning for extremely reasonable changes in the constitution of the Labour Party. For instance, at the meeting on 18 September, it called for:

  • an elected chair (votes to be cast on the basis of one member one vote)
  • an annual general meeting to be held without the press in attendance at the beginning of party conference, so that members can vote on the annual report. The model for the meeting would be the type of AGMs held by companies and friendly societies or co-ops. The annual report would concern itself with the ‘governance and stewardship’ of the party rather than government policy. It would also be an opportunity to ask questions about the party’s accounts. The STLP hope that this will highlight the party’s reliance on donations from wealthy people and businesses rather than members and affiliates
  • an independent review of Partnership in Power with a view to improving member participation in policy formation and the running of the party
  • an emergency debate at conference on the state of the party following recent constituency and council by-election results.

While this agenda may raise some questions, I believe that these are worthy proposals that merit further exploration.

Trade unions

STLP also set up a website for party members attending conference, to bring together ‘left of Blair’ organisations (more of the anti-Blair fixation later). It hoped that isolated delegates would discover a link to supportive delegates and organisations. The site’s strap-line was: ‘Will there be more members campaigning eagerly for a radical third term?’. The address is www.labourconference

To set it up, STLP was given several hundred pounds by trade unions (notably the GMB and CWU). STLP chair Peter Kenyon explained that some of the big unions want to work with grassroots organisations to rebuild the party and head off calls for disaffiliation. He felt that union leaders want to retain their link with the Labour leadership and they believe that organisations like STLP can assist them.

This may be a shrewd assessment of the motivation of the unions for the limited support which they have so far provided. However, in my opinion, this is not the same as the trade unions uniting with STLP to renew democracy within the party, especially in the light of some of the traditional anti-democratic ‘backroom’ deals and ‘stitch-ups’ which have gone on in policy reviews and conference itself (most notably in the vote over the exit strategy for Iraq this year).

There is also apparently a burgeoning STLP/CLPD (Campaign for Labour Party Democracy) link, about which some ILP members, who recall the CLPD’s attitude to OMOV in the early 1980s, may have reservations.

State funding

STLP is awaiting a report on state funding which, it hopes, will resolve the issue of affiliations by removing them from the definition of donations. Within the group, I have the impression that there is a gut opposition to state funding, although this may have more to do with my dealings with Sue Press, who is on the national executive of STLP and a member of my Labour Party branch, than an accurate reflection of the position of other leading members, like Peter Kenyon, Gaye Johnson and Trevor Fisher.

The case against state funding seems to be that it may be used to sever the link between the party and the trade unions. The position on state funding, it was suggested, should depend on whether it allows the political leadership of the party to be held to account by a mass membership.

During the meeting, it was pointed out that STLP has done well in terms of activity and media profile given its limited membership (there had been no significant increase in membership since the previous meeting). There can be no doubt that the people involved in STLP are hard-working and resourceful, and most of them are acting in good faith. Trevor Fisher suggested that STLP should suspend operations during the general election campaign, but no decision was taken on this issue, although no one spoke against the proposal.

Leadership election?

The last part of the meeting concerned the Blair leadership. There was a resolution tabled by Frank McManus of Todmorden for a leadership election. Frank complained about ‘on the hoof’ policies, the declaration by Kofi Annan that the Iraq war was illegal, and the absence of WMD.

I spoke against the motion on the grounds that:

  • there is no significant support a challenge among the PLP as shown by Meacher at the previous meeting and Robin Cook’s statement in an Independent article on 16 August 2004 arguing that ‘Nobody is going to seriously challenge Tony for the leadership’
  • the unions would not support it, especially now that the government has promised them an education fund
  • most members do not support such a move, especially in the run-up to an election
  • there is no credible alternative leader from the left
  • there is no alternative socialist or even radical social democratic programme upon which to base such a challenge – far from it, socialist economics is in crisis, and work needs to be done from the grassroots on re-establishing an anti-capitalist culture of association
  • the likely successor is Gordon Brown, whose contribution to the privatisation agenda has been significant
  • any such move would be easily quashed and would only be an embarrassment – like the Benn-Heffer challenge in 1988.

In response, Stefan Chewski, who also runs a vigorously anti-EU organisation called The Link, which promotes very similar arguments to UKIP, asked why I bothered to come to STLP meetings at all. Through the chair, I made him withdraw the comment.

The remainder of his argument was:

  • such a resolution could be used to recruit members now (‘I could recruit six shop stewards if Blair went now’)
  • it would make it clear that there is a voice of dissent.

Other STLP members felt that it was key to put in a bid against Blair because of its symbolism. They were not worried that there was no apparent alternative, somebody would emerge. If we made waves, one member said, people would be activated. What people wanted to see were dynamic activists. Gaye Johnson said that there was a huge groundswell that Blair must go. Apparently, Claire Short believes that next year there will be a stalking horse. Trevor Fisher, who, previous to the meeting emailed activists warning against a leadership challenge, said that under the constitution of the STLP it could only support somebody else’s motion, not propose one on this issue.

Therefore, the motion that was eventually passed (with one vote against – me, which says a lot about my powers of persuasion! – and one abstention) read, approximately: ‘In the event of an emergency debate at the 2004 Labour conference calling for a leadership election, STLP would endorse such a motion on the basis of dwindling membership and the erosion of democracy.’

The ever-charming Peter Kenyon approached me at the end of the meeting and explained that he felt that Gordon Brown was probably the answer to the Labour party’s troubles, and that is why he strongly supported the motion. It was a generous act of singling me out for special attention because of my isolated position in the debate, but I left the meeting dismayed by its political confusion.

I hope that STLP continues to focus on its strength, which is raising the issue of constitutional change in the party in an open and level-headed way, and does not find itself misled by understandable moral outrage and personality politics into undoing all its good work by embarking on ill-planned adventures.