Quite why I had been asked to go and have a chat with Tony Blair in Downing Street two or three years ago, I do not remember. However, I do recall him asking me if I was enjoying being a member of the National Executive Committee. There didn’t seem a right answer to that but, given the friendly gambit, I said that it was all very well, but the Labour conference hadn’t managed to alter or push through a single policy change since he, Tony Blair, had become leader. That wasn’t quite true. The day after Blair had sneaked his famous line about abolishing Clause Four into his first party conference speech as leader, in 1994, a foolhardy Glaswegian by the name of Jim Mearns strode to the platform and led the revolt that presaged Blair’s defeat the following day.
But Blair’s response was telling. He looked at me as though I were mad. The idea that the Labour conference could change policy and contradict its leaders belonged in the history books.
In recent years, Blair and Gordon Brown have been defeated only three times, and usually at the behest of the trades unions; the constituencies were tamed long ago and their strength diminished by a vanishing party membership. Barbara Castle, the “Red Baroness”, first led the charge over her beloved state earnings-related pension. She upstaged Brown at a Tribune rally: his speech had been interrupted by wild applause, but when he looked around it was the advancing baroness, and not his oratory, which had them standing in the aisles. The diminutive Castle then took to the conference platform and wowed the delegates. She won the vote but lost the battle. There was to be no reprieve.
A couple of years later, John Edmonds, as general secretary of the GMB union, won a conference vote for a review of the Chancellor’s private finance initiative. We are still waiting for it. Last year the conference, again led by the unions – and this time backed by the NEC – threw out the foundation hospitals policy. Blair announced he would press on regardless.
There is nothing new about Labour conference decisions being ignored. But the conference was once truly the “parliament of the Labour movement”. The platform was regularly overturned, often many times in a week. Today’s Blairites, often the Bennites and Trots of yesteryear, cut their teeth in the machinations of composites and card votes. They were determined that new Labour would never suffer such ignominy. They forgot that sometimes, what was once referred to as the “rank and file” had a better handle on public opinion. Had Denis Healey, for instance, gone along with the Labour conference when it objected to IMF-inspired public spending cuts in the late 1970s, Jim Callaghan might have stayed the course a little longer.
Over the coming weeks, the annual ritual of predicting conference defeats and major reversals for the leadership will begin in earnest. It keeps us all very busy, but invariably turns into a damp squib. Putative rebellions are talked up by Downing Street and some in the magic circle on the basis of the handful of submitted “contemporary resolutions” still allowed to the unions and constituencies. Some of these resolutions are then mysteriously ruled out for “not being contemporary”, last-minute deals are cobbled together to fob off the unions and hey presto, peace breaks out again. This autumn may be different – but it is not likely to be so.
Various devices keep conference rebellions in check. There is, or was, the infamous “speechwriting unit” that I once chanced upon, busily churning out turgid prose for eager-to-please, on-message delegates, usually of the “parliamentary hopeful” school. There is the simple expedient of allowing ministers to ramble on at the rostrum and eat into valuable time. Slow handclapping countered a particularly soul-destroying filibuster from Paul Boateng, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in September 2002. Even the conference chair took fright, but no longer had a red light to flash in front of Boateng. This warning system that a speaker’s time was up had been long since abolished, for fear that some dungaree-wearing delegate might stage a public rebellion and refuse to cut short a harangue.
In a deft move aimed at silencing activists and trades unions, the party long ago adopted a new policy-making process called Partnership in Power. John Birt is said to have had a hand in advising some of new Labour’s brightest and best on the benefits of “command and control”. Command was handed to the leadership; control was given to Labour’s National Policy Forum, which will meet later this month. This 150-strong forum is elected by the party conference to oversee Labour’s “rolling policy programme”. It can amend policy docu-ments drawn up by individual policy commissions, generally presided over by ministers. In practice, it amends little – and Labour’s conference delegates cannot amend at all. They simply vote yes or no. Which brave soul would dare vote against the government’s entire economic policy?
For some years I have been a member of Gordon Brown’s Economic Policy Commission. I suspect that the ever-courteous Chancellor finds the occasional meetings a trifle irksome. Except over the private finance initiative, there has never been substantive dissent. My own record does not stand much examination: the last time I turned up at Downing Street for a meeting it was the wrong day, and I found myself among a group of people I didn’t recognise. I asked them when they had joined the Economic Policy Commission and one murmured: “We are from the Algerian embassy.”
As far as I can make out, policy documents for policy commissions are drawn up by ministers, special advisers and Labour Party staff. Once, submissions from unions or local parties would be published. Nowadays publication tends to depend on how helpfully they read. The truth is that “think-tanks” and influential individuals have far more say over government policy than the Labour Party. Foundation hospitals, tuition fees and the catch-all phrase “choice” all emanated from the think-tank ether.
To cap it all, Labour now has an unelected chairman, appointed by the PM. There have been three chairmen in almost as many years, although the incumbent, Ian McCartney, is far more popular than his immediate predecessors, Charles Clarke and John Reid. The party hierarchy did not even attempt to change the rules when it created the post – the unions had sniffed another erosion of their power on the NEC and threatened to scupper the plans. We therefore remain in the Kafkaesque position of having two party chairs, one elected by the NEC and the other in Tony’s gift.
It would be better if the party members elected the party chairman. In recent weeks, I have been meeting with like-minded souls to discuss the possibility of launching a “Democracy Commission” – presided over by Labour figures trusted by the membership – which would be charged with taking findings in camera and sending recommendations to Labour’s NEC and conference.
One of the reasons that so many Labour people have dropped out is that they no longer feel they have the slightest influence over what goes on in their party. And one of the reasons that so many voters have deserted the government is that they feel it is unresponsive. New Labour has been created in the image of one man: Tony Blair. His writ runs through the party courtesy of a string of unelected advisers, an increasingly defensive and draconian party machine and a hard core of roughly 70 loyalists among MPs.
It is no way to run a party and no way to run a country.
Mark Seddon is former editor of Tribune and an elected member of the Labour Party NEC