Monday, January 15, 2007

Knowledge Is Power : Thanks to Ann Black

Once Upon A Time

At one time the Labour Party operated under a comforting myth about its internal democratic processes. The great work of scholarship on this period is "The Labour Party Conference" by Lewis Minkin (Manchester University Press, 1978).

It was then believed (but not by Lewis) that it was possible for the smallest he or she to go to their Local Labour Party Branch Meeting and set a process in motion that could end up shaping the policy not just of the Labour Party, but of its parliamentary wing.

By presenting a motion to a meeting, it might eventually end up being endorsed by the Annual Conference of the Labour Party and be pressed upon the leadship of Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).

Of course, the myth tended to ignore the difficulties. Would the motion virtually disappear when it was cobbled together with other motions on the same topic at a pre-Conference compositing meeting? If not would you then pursuade the powerful Conference Arrangements Committee to recommend it to Conference for debate ? Next, would the National Executive Committee (NEC) seek to kick it into touch by recommending that it should be remitted to them for further thought ? And even if it eventually carried the day (perhaps against platform opposition), there was a high likelihood that the NEC or the PLP (or both) would just ignore it.

The Value Of The Myth

Yet the myth had important positive aspects. Occasionally activists could stir the conscience of the Party. In 1977 my local Constituency Party in North East Derbyshire did exactly this in a move to seek to protect its Councillors in Clay Cross who had rebelled against the operation of Tory Rent legislation 5 years earlier. It was only after it was carried overwhelmingly at Conference that it was ignored by those who should be Conference's servants.

The big thing about the myth which underlayed the above process is that it was based on clear, precise and understandable democratic principles. When you found that a proposal was subverted by undemocratic procedures, then the party members effected by this knew where to press for changes.

Today's Smoke and Mirrors

In place of yesterday's dreams, we now have a complex mix of Rolling Policy Programmes which are in theory developed through a variety of Policy Commissions which are fed and feed into various Policy Forums. A Joint Policy Committee made up of representatives from the Government, the NEC and the National Policy Forum are then brought into the act, before complex Policy Documents are then rubber-stamped by Annual Conference.

To Labour's dwindling rank and file, all of this is smoke and mirrors and they feel no ownership of the final outcome. In the absence of a clear and understandable decision making process , few in the Party are even aware of the (often theoretical) existence of networks of co-ordinators who can be tapped for a feed-in to this byzantine sytem.

Enter The Woman In Black

If we wish to transform the current structure we need to struggle to understand what it is . This is best done through involving ourselves in its peculiarities. We can then help change it into something that is meaningful.

There is no better way to gain the knowledge we need than by following what Ann Black is doing. She burrows away on a Policy Commission and is an active member of both the NEC and the National Policy Forum. But to bring the rest of us in to the act, she runs an invaluable web-site on which she presents her own reports of the various meetings she attends and provides clear information on their structures. What the Party hides from us, Ann supplies.

No wonder she finishes top of the poll in the Constituency Section of the NEC elections.

What Can We Do ?

It is only with knowledge that we can advance democracy, even if it is mainly a knowledge of what we need to change. I have, therefore, emailed Party HQ to see what I have to do to become a Local Co-ordinator in this process. I can't lose. If they don't answer, I just have to ask Ann.

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