Extending and Renewing Party Democracy

The Labour Party are looking at the way that we do business. Gordon Brown has produced a paper, Extending and Renewing Party Democracy, which we have started to look at locally and which we’ll submit our thoughts on before the end of the consultation period in the middle of September.

The paper makes 7 proposals, some of which are about the internal structures we have to make policy – the National Policy Forum (NPF), Joint Policy Committee (JPC) and Partnership into Power (PiP) all get several mentions – but frankly I’m not sure I have any opinion on whether or not the JPC should:

take on an enhanced executive function in relation to the operation of the NPF and the PiP process, meeting every two months.

There are three proposals that did catch my eye and I thought I’d share my early thoughts on them in the hope that you might want to help me think about this stuff too.

Changes to the ability to bring forward motions to conference

The paper suggests:

A new contemporary issues process through which party units would be able to submit issues, following proper consultation, for consideration in the priorities ballot at Annual Conference. Each issue that succeeds in the ballot will be debated at Conference and be included in a work programme in the relevant policy commission.

This would mean that constituency parties should loose the right to bring forward “contemporary resolutions” – i.e. issues that have arisen just prior to Conference and not been discussed by the parties policy commissions and NPF that year.

Not perhaps of great interest if you’re not a member of a political party, but depending on your position within the wings of my party either a reasonable compromise for the extension of power that we as party members are promised, or a serious assault on the grass roots ability to hold the leadership of the party to account.

Personally I understand the desire to cling onto motion based politics; it was at the heart of the education I got as a party member and allowed us to express our passions in a timely manner. Motions taught me how to stand up in a room full of people and express an opinion that I knew some of the people in that room wouldn’t agree with. It taught me what little I know about public speaking, and was a thorough education in the arts of political organisation – caucusing, the art of a decent amendment, and when to inflame and to placate your opponents.

All excellent stuff, but let’s be under no illusions that any of the motions that I debated ever changed a single thing, it was politics at its most futile. It seems to me to be even true of things that should have been controlled by the policy of the organisation passing the resolution.

And I suspect that conducting our politics that way was unhelpful in engaging beyond the political world. When politicians and political activists are seen to be putting more energy into debating things they can’t affect than tackling the priorities that they can it puts others off becoming involved.

So in the end I think I can live without motions at Conference.

Policy Forums

The paper proposes:

A commitment to give greater support to local Labour Parties in holding Policy Forums and creating a duty on the NPF to better consult, engage and involve party members in policy discussions.

I think this is to be welcomed, it is a recognition that the Partnership in Power process didn’t quite ever get delivered. A lot of the party meetings I go to have excellent policy discussions, whether that’s about health, energy, education or foreign policy and while I don’t always agree with the views of others I have to say that by and large the views expressed are based on a deep knowledge to the subjects under discussion. Not all that surprising when you’ve got nurses, doctors, teachers, scientists, business people and former diplomats giving their views.

What hasn’t been so good has been the way that we capture the debate and feed it into the national process.

Local policy forums could be a way of doing that and to broaden the discussion as well.

I know there are lots of Labour Party members who never come to a meeting, fearing that they will be deadly dull, that they’ll draw them into having to do a delivery round or worse. Policy forums properly organised and supported might mean that we could draw deeper into our members knowledge and allow us to have a deeper conversation about policy.

Or we might even go further.

Support for local parties to better engage local communities

The way I read this chapter of the paper is that we would be encouraged to involve a much wider group of people in our policy thinking. The paper says:

Local parties should work to foster greater community engagement in Labour’s policy discussions through the holding of local policy forums, ensuring the views and priorities of local people and organisations are reflected in policy submissions.

Again this seems broadly sensible to me, the caveat I’d have is about how to prioritise the views of members of the Labour Party and those from outside the party. It would seem strange to me if we didn’t listen to the priorities of our communities when developing policy. How we do that and how we ensure there’s still a value in being an member of the party is the question.

So, while I support the delivery of more policy forums and a more concious attempt to bring in voices that are outside the party (but which aren’t hostile to the aims of the Labour Party), I do so with open eyes.

These things will take resources, money and people, that might otherwise be spent on more direct campaigning.  But I think that’s worth doing, as I’ve said before we need to rethink the way we do politics and this may be one of the ways we can do that.

About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
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2 Responses to Extending and Renewing Party Democracy

  1. John Humphries says:

    In the past, I’ve often felt that debating politics by motion and amendment was unnecessarily limiting, usually rather tribal and sometimes even borderline Aspergers for the proceduralist tendency.

    For people who are just used to exchanging views in ordinary conversations I think its also incredibly ‘clubby’ – where the only people who know the rules are members of the ex-student debating club and the branch trade union activist club. As a result, I reckon we probably loose out because lots of people never volunteer their 2p worth because of the funny rules of debate.

    Mind you, it is also helpful to get some quantitative measure of how we all feel about particular matters and that for me is the real thing in favour of doing the Motions thing at conferences. Sometimes its still important to be able to show the real weight of numbers in what ought to be a mass party.

  2. andrewkbrown says:

    Hi John, nice to hear from you!

    I’d have thought that the weight of numbers stuff would still be possible with a debate on a contemporary issue. What won’t be available is the bit at the end of the motion which tells the government/leadership what it should do as a result of the motion being passed.

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