I’m sure many of you will have been as surprised as I was this morning to see a story on the front page of The Times (Britain’s paper of record) about the ownership of CLP offices. According to The Times:
“Labour is forcing local parties to hand over their headquarters buildings, enabling it to shore up its precarious finances, The Timeshas learnt.
The move allows the party, which has a deficit of millions of pounds, to raise loans against the properties. It has caused unrest in constituency offices, which have been told that they will be thrown out of Labour unless they agree to sign over their assets.
Several have told The Times of their anger at having to give up ownership of the buildings. They have been told to transfer the deeds of the properties into a company controlled by the national party.
Letters sent out to constituencies that oppose the ruling state that complying is a “pre-condition of continued affiliation to the party”.”
On one hand I think we need to take the story with a pinch of salt. Even a seasoned Labour Party obsessive like me presumes that The Times don’t really find CLP office ownership fascinating, and this story (and its prominence) is probably linked to union affiliation discussions and persistant coverage about Miliband’s leadership. In response to the story, a party spokesperson told me:
“Constituency party delegates voted at Labour Conference to make it a pre-condition of affiliation that CLPs transfer the title of their property to be held in trust by the Labour Party’s trustee holding company.
“This followed a comprehensive consultation and was to ensure that the titles of the property owned by all areas of the Labour Party are kept in good and safe condition. It was based on our exposure to liabilities unknown to the party over properties that were in disrepair. The Labour Party has not used it as an asset to lever loans or other capital. As ownership has effectively been retained by the local parties, the assets have remained on their balance sheets.
“Transferring the title does not adversely affect the present beneficial ownership of the CLP properties and does not alter present beneficial ownership for CLPs who have been given bequests. The holding company manages the property for the CLP. With the ongoing boundary review, it is also expedient for CLPs to do this so that their beneficial ownership can be transferred to the new constituency party name.”
That’s a fair response, and suggests a much more nuanced story than The Times put forward. But there’s a fundamental principle at stake here.
I understand why such decisions might be made, especially if there’s any risk of the party going bankrupt (we’re far from that at present, but it’s something the party need to guard against) or if after boundary changes there are two offices in one CLP – then it makes sense to have assets that could be sold. However, if the party did need to sell CLP offices for financial reasons (which would presumably mean the national party was extremely cash strapped), I’d want to see local parties still able to operate and campaign, rather than seeing them turfed out of their offices.
Why should CLPs – especially those who have prudently managed their finances for decades – risk being forced to hand over their offices to bail out the national party over the financial decisions of the past? Especially when local CLPs have little or no say over how the national party spends its money.
If anyone comes for my CLP office, I’ll fight them every step of the way. But there’s another, crucial aspect to this that I wouldn’t want to be overlooked – when you get to conference, be careful what you vote for. Often conference votes can seem obtuse or unclear. For that reason – from next year onwards – we’ll be keeping a closer eye on what you’re all voting on too…
Update: The party have argued that “As ownership has effectively been retained by the local parties, the assets have remained on their balance sheets.” I’m quite happy to take them on their word at that. But I’m also keen to determine whether or not these changes make it more or less likely that the national party could sell a CLP out from under a CLP. That doesn’t seem clear cut one way or another, and that’s something we’ll be looking into more closely in the coming weeks.