Refounding Labour – proposals and problems

NECBy Ann Black

This weekend general secretary Ray Collins mailed members following the NEC’s organisation committee on 16 September. In some areas constituency representatives have been fully involved and consensus reached. In others changes are generally sensible, though more time and thought could improve them.

However I am concerned about some outstanding issues where we are told that “further negotiations are continuing”, and where despite promises to the NEC, constituency representatives have not been included. It is seven days to the vote. There is no time for us to consult our electorate, or for conference delegates to confer with local parties. A process of unprecedented engagement could see all the good work undone at the final stage if it is handled badly and if it ignores what members say.

Constituency Funding: a Model of Consultation

In August I outlined proposals under which the Euro-levy, election insurance and Contact Creator would be paid centrally for every constituency party (CLP). A total of £1 per national member (currently around £193,000) would be distributed to CLPs, with each receiving the same amount. The rest of the income from membership would go into two NEC-administered funds, to promote democracy and diversity and to support campaigning. The few CLPs with longstanding debts would have these written off.

Feedback was encouraging, including from those who would lose, but many argued that funding should remain partly linked to numbers. During the summer CLP representatives were involved in intensive discussions with party officers, and the following changes were agreed:

– adding one free conference delegate pass to the CLP package, taking its value to over £1,200
– increasing the amount returned to CLPs from £1 per member to £1.50 per member
– distributing this amount according to the number of members, regardless of what rate they pay
– phasing in the change for CLPs who lose, so their income will drop by half in 2012 and the full amount only in 2013. Gainers will benefit immediately

While not everyone will be happy, I am confident in commending these proposals because we had the opportunity to consider, consult and amend. Would that this approach had been copied in other areas.

Membership Rates

Most of these were also discussed with constituency representatives. Recommendations are for

– the standard rate to stay at £41, rising with inflation, with the reduced rate at half the standard rate
– a local joining rate of £15, also applying to registered supporters and trade union members
– the minimum joining age to be reduced from 15 to 14
– a youth rate at £1 a year for ages 14 to 19, and £12 a year for ages 20 to 26
– members on low initial rates to move first to the reduced rate, and in the next year to the full rate
– higher payment according to income to be encouraged

An additional idea, promoted in the Guardian, for current and former members of the armed forces to join at £1 a year was generally supported by the organisation committee.

These proposals do not answer concerns that rates are too high, though apparently those who pay more are actually less likely to leave. However given the importance of membership as a source of income I did not feel that we could cut rates without evidence that this would be compensated by more joiners.

What’s in a Name?

There is new flexibility for constituencies to organise according to local circumstances, allowing delegate-based structures, all-member meetings, or other options. Similarly they are free to choose officers to suit their needs. These changes are, I believe, permissive and helpful. Development action plans are already in the rulebook, and I have asked for clarification on how the January/December accounting year would fit with moving annual general meetings to the autumn.

In contrast, draft rules to replace local government committees (LGCs) with local campaign forums (LCFs) specified a rigid one-size-fits-all structure. At the organisation committee some said that many councillors see no overlap between local and national concerns and want to exclude MPs from any role, while for others their MP is an integral part of Team Labour. And many members do not have the luxury of Labour MPs, or sometimes even Labour councillors, which is why constituency representatives should have been involved earlier in this area, to speak for those who have no other voice.

We did make progress on flexibility in the structure of LCFs, but did not fully to explore the role of LGCs / LCFs in maintaining communication and debating policy, rather than as purely campaigning units. This is important: yesterday my concerns were reinforced by the following, from the north-west:

“Until May 2011 three of the four constituencies in our county area did not have Labour councillors. The LGC was an essential link in keeping members up to date with council business and alerting them to proposals to cut or restrict services. What is proposed may well work in close-knit urban communities but is unrealistic where larger rural areas are concerned.”

So we may end up, unnecessarily, with rules which will not meet all needs, or will simply be ignored.

Contracts for candidates drew support in principle, though some recalled admirable councillors who never knocked on doors, fearing an over-prescriptive approach. The devil will be in the detail, and the responsibilities of candidates must be balanced by equally significant rights.

Turning to parliamentary selections, the NEC guidance for selections after the last boundary review would be replaced by the new guidance agreed recently. At some point we need to separate the general processes for conducting selections from their application in particular circumstances, but this will be best done when the early selections have been completed and the pilot procedures reviewed.

Probably OK?

The proposed addition to Clause I states

“The party shall bring together members and supporters who share its values to develop policies, make communities stronger through collective action and support and promote the election of Labour representatives at all levels of the democratic process.”

While some might like to fiddle with the words and the syntax, I can’t see major objections.

Refounding Labour would allowing members to take part in selecting local and national candidates after six months’ party membership in any area. I support this. There were complaints last year from members able to vote immediately for the leader, but prevented from selecting their council candidate. The party has to balance the expectations of the majority against the risk of mass factional recruitment. I do not believe that swathes of existing members change their address simply to gain a vote, and where there are problems the NEC can require a longer qualifying period or take direct control.

In the Melting Pot

A new appendix covers registered supporters. There is agreement on the need to reach beyond our members to helpers and sympathisers, particularly trade unionists. However the organisation committee opposed giving them a vote for the party leader, and this reflects the submissions which I have read. Also constituencies do not want new rights for outside organisations at conference, because their delegates already feel crowded out by shadow ministers, platform speakers, presentations and videos.

On electing the leader, feedback took two general approaches. One would keep a three-part electoral college, perhaps with minor variations. The other would move to pure one-member-one-vote. Very few support the current plan to give most members two votes, one as an individual and one in the affiliate section. Linked to this is a contentious proposal that the association of Labour councillors and Young Labour should become formal affiliates, which would give every councillor and young member two votes.

On voting at conference, few submissions wanted to change the 50/50 split between constituencies and affiliates, or suggested other groups which should get a share. Even fewer commented on the make-up of the conference arrangements committee, though I believe it should remain independent of the NEC.

On the composition of the NEC itself there have been moves for some years to add Scottish and Welsh representatives, but differences on who and how. The disabled members group and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Labour are also bidding for places.

Refounding Labour already recommends that final decisions on gender balance in the leadership team should be postponed to 2012, and it is sensible to handle this and other unresolved issues in the same way.

So I believe that we should focus on the 90% that unites us, agree this at the start of conference, and then turn to the main business of Labour in opposition: attacking the worst excesses of the coalition, setting out in broad terms the positive Labour alternative, and starting the fightback.

Ann Black is a member of the Labour NEC – you can contact her here.

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