A call for unity on Refounding Labour

5th August, 2011 4:57 pm

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Labour RoseBy Johanna Baxter / @johannabaxter

For some time I’ve been concerned about a small minority who consistently seek to undermine the Refounding Labour project either because they consistently want to position themselves in opposition to our leader or because they have a vested interest in it failing. Theirs is not the view of the majority. Whilst there might have been a healthy dose of scepticism in the party at the start of the process most members I’ve met have been enthusiastic about the opportunity to air their views and have welcomed the positive engagement the process has given them. Most members recognise it as an opportunity to take a fresh look at how we do things and are open to change to benefit the party. Most members I’ve met wouldn’t sacrifice the greater good of the party for their own self-interest.

Last night Peter Kenyon posted a proposal on his blog for a special conference to be held at the end of the year to discuss Refouding Labour. John McTernan responded on Twitter suggesting that instead people should simply support the leader and make the changes he wants. I might have misinterpreted but this to me sounded like rule by dictat which ignored completely the rights and role of members in our party. When I challenged him on it he responded by saying that ‘It’s a party that only succeeds when the leader leads. Doing something about the unions is critical if we are to win’.

I don’t disagree that a leader needs to lead. I don’t however think that Ed’s leadership needs to be defined by whether or not something is ‘done’ about the unions. I don’t actually think it is helpful to talk about our affiliates in this way. And I don’t think good leadership is imposition of your own will regardless (not that I’m accusing Ed of this, he has not given me the impression that is his position). Good leaders will command the support of the party’s members and will take them with them through periods of change. Those who question the necessity of that should remember that there is a reason our members rights are enshrined in our rule book – not only does it make political sense (if our members aren’t engaged how on earth can we expect them to deliver our message to the electorate) but we are a democratic socialist party that believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone.

Ed knew when he took over that there was an issue with membership engagement – that, to his credit, is one of the reasons the Refounding Labour project was set up. It is a worthwhile process in which many across the party have invested a huge amount of time and effort; 3,255 individual members, 184 parties and 36 affiliates have taken part and there were 66 regional events held to discuss it across the country. I’ve been to over 40 constituencies myself this year – I’ve seen first-hand the appetite members have for this. That appetite is a good thing for our party. There’s a difference between healthy debate , which we need, and challenging our leader. Ed needn’t be fearful of that debate but debate there must be.

I know others have some legitimate concerns about the process too. To them I would say that Refounding Labour can still deliver. But it’s success relies on a number of things.

Those who seek to undermine the process should stop sniping from the side-lines and engage in constructive debate. It is neither the case that our leader’s, and our party’s, success can be achieved without our members or that every proposal that comes out of Victoria Street is rubbish or a conspiracy against our members. As with all these things the truth, unfashionable as it is, lies somewhere in the middle. So let’s desist with all the conspiracy theories and start engaging in the issues at hand.

We need transparency in the current decision making process. I have argued here before, and have made the point to Peter Hain on a number of occasions that I think submissions should be published. I know Peter agrees with the principle of this but is confronted with some difficulties.

Some members have explicitly stated on their submission that it is confidential and should not be published. I would prefer this not to be the case but I think we should respect their wishes. There is then the issue of whether it is acceptable to publish all other submissions . It would of course have been easier if members had been told at the start of the consultation that the default position would be that submissions would be published unless they explicitly opted out of that. I don’t know why they weren’t. We can rake over that old ground as much as we like but the point now is that there was no expectation submissions would be published when they were written. But, given the majority of them were submitted online we should be able to use the e-mail addresses we have for those members to check they are happy for them to be published and if necessary I’m sure a few of us would be more than willing to rock up to Victoria Street to help call round them.

I know this is a mamouth task for Victoria Street – I know exactly how much paperwork is involved. But, I firmly believe all of these difficulties can be overcome if the will is there. This needs to be one of our top priorities. Members need to have confidence in the process if they are to have confidence in the decisions which arise from it.

The negotiations that are taking place at the moment on some of the more contentious proposals need to be genuine negotiations involving all representative parts of the NEC. I’m sure neither Peter nor my NEC colleagues who sit as representatives of our affiliated unions will need to be reminded that the first rule of negotiation is to have an open mind – be open to compromise. I’ve been reading through the submissions and I’m confident there’s room for agreement if all parties are open to it. To allow that process of negotiation to take place though the press briefings have to stop – the possibility of achieving change on any side when people have already been backed into corners becomes all the more difficult.

And the proposals which impact our affiliates don’t have to be a Union/Leadership issue – they will impact our whole party so it’s right that other members of the NEC are involved in those discussions.

CLPs need to be able to give the proposals due consideration before conference. It’s great that Peter has sent round a summary of the proposals currently under consideration and you should feed back to us on that direction of travel before our next meeting. But as I said in my NEC report that was very much a summary – there are some good proposals hidden in the detail and CLPs need the full set of worked up proposals in advance of conference in order to mandate their delegate. I’ve already made the suggestion that if timescales here are going to be tight CLPs should be told now if they need to set up special GC meetings to discuss this.

The conversation should continue after, not end at, party conference. In my own submission I advocated that this should be the beginning of a process not the end, the start of a conversation rather than the conclusion. There are a number of proposals that will easily command majority support at conference and if there’s agreement for change we should just get on and do it. Where more discussion is needed why don’t we have it? Why do we have to feel the need to take all proposals together and rush to get things through this conference so that we can implement everything in one go? If we allowed conference to vote on chapters of the document we could easily make progress on areas of agreement and reference back issues that needed greater work.

At any rate there needs to be continuous engagement after decisions are taken, through implementation so that all of our stakeholders are supported in that process of change.

Refouding Labour has the potential to bring about great, and good, change for our party. It is too great an opportunity to pass up. But to make it work we need to be united in that objective.

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