‘Labour Party governance’ hardly seems the most inspiring topic. To most party members, the Labour Party constitution and rules are a dry set of articles, which exist merely to give CLP busybodies a way to laud over their members and Labour Party HQ centrists a means to justify their authority over local branches.
Yet, when we ask the question of why these rules and indeed the constitution exist, we touch on a range of challenges facing the Labour Party today. What does the party exist for – is it to merely win elections? What should the relationship be between the party leadership and local branches? What are the ideological aims of the party? In a rapidly changing and increasingly pragmatic world, should we even have an ‘ideological aims’?
We need to understand what our constitution is for and what our rules should aim to do. Very few Labour Party members have read the rulebook, yet alone find a use for it. One hundred years ago the constitution was a sacred account of the party’s long term manifesto and values, enshrining the rights and responsibilities of all its members. Now it is largely a reference document that lives on as a PDF in the computer libraries among Victoria Street officers and CLP Secretaries.
So what can be done? This is a significant issue that requires serious debate in the party. First, rules should be enabling, not prohibitive. With this in mind, every effort should be made to boil down impenetrable books of clauses to that which is accessible and understandable. With this, rules will at least have some influence and power. Currently, they can be used at convenience by the few who understand them and ignored at will when they get in the way. Were everyone to understand and use the rules, the Party would have more credibility, members would have more faith in party headquarters, and it would actually be much easier to ensure consistency and unity across the country.
Second, we need to clean up our act on selections. Polished Westminster ‘insiders’ parachuted in to stand in constituencies are an understandable source of anxiety for local members. On the other hand, the homegrown activist who has been working his or her way through CLP positions and currying favour among the ‘Exec’ is perhaps little more democratic. Whilst this debate rages on, we still have a deficit of MPs who are women and from ethnic minorities – not to mention a deficit of Labour MPs in general. We don’t have the solution to this challenge, but merely suggest that the leadership do take this issue seriously before it becomes a source of division and local dissatisfaction among party members at the next election.
Finally, we do need a mission statement relevant to the twenty first century. A short set of widely known articles that members sign up to. Inspiring to attract the loyalty of prospective members; simple to ensure all party members feel they can use it to hold leadership to account; and versatile enough that they can be applied to different times and different challenges whilst ensuring we do follow our values.
A reconsideration of the constitution and rules is an opportunity, a chance to ‘reset’ the party. We won’t get the country to unite behind us in 2015 if we in the party are not united ourselves. The rulebook seems a good place to start.