Three weeks after the NEC meeting significant gaps remain, and even NEC members will not see detailed proposals till September 15th at the earliest, with the conference debate scheduled for Sunday September 25th. I am increasingly concerned at putting such a complex project – the draft section on Young Labour alone runs to more than four pages – to a single Yes/No vote. However I also accept that another year of self-examination would be a distraction from taking on the Tories and promoting clear and attractive Labour alternatives. I hope it is not too late to rescue the baby from the bathwater, endorse the many areas where there is agreement, and defer the few contentious issues to next year, or perhaps to a special conference as Tony Blair did with Clause IV.
The Consultation – What Did You Say?
Thanks to everyone who copied their thoughts to me. However the only way to see the full response is to go to London and sift through the boxes in Victoria Street, where I’ve skimmed about half the 184 party submissions. There is much valuable experience on effective local working, and I hope they will eventually be published. Unfortunately after 14 years the national policy forum is still seen as top-down, opaque, detached, remote and failing to provide feedback, and this applies even more strongly to the policy commissions and the joint policy committee. All these points were made in the two previous reviews, and the best gift at conference would be a personal guarantee from the leader that this time will be different. Although a few people want to scrap the entire NPF machinery, there is no overwhelming desire to return to a wholly resolution-based conference: deliberative policy-making would be acceptable if members were allowed to be part of it. Until then giving the NPF a share of the conference vote, as some rumours have suggested, would be a profoundly anti-democratic move.
A number of people have written to defend their local government committees, and asked whether abolishing them in their current form would be compulsory. This seems to come from the local government Labour Group submission, which states that “LGCs are outdated and need to be replaced because of three main problems: they are too large, they lack focus and they are very time-consuming.” I believe that the flexibility envisaged for constituencies should apply equally to LGCs: local structures to suit local circumstances, from inner-city Labour strongholds to second-tier borough councils to the Tory shires, and Labour groups which range in size from one to more than 50. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Media speculation has centred on registered supporters and on reducing the power of the unions in electing the leader and voting at conference. I have no idea what is going on behind closed doors, but I will clarify Peter Hain’s proposals for the leadership, as most reports get these wrong. He envisages that MPs would be limited to a single vote in their section of the electoral college, but party members would continue to get two votes, one as an individual member and one in the affiliates’ section, however many unions or socialist societies they belong to. I fear this will satisfy neither those who like the existing system, nor those who prefer pure one-member-one-vote. In any case I will continue to argue that these issues should not be settled by last-minute haggling between the unions and the leadership, but after proper consultation with all sections of the NEC and with the wider party.
Truth or Fiction?
A strange story appeared in the Guardian on July 30th claiming that Labour was set to launch an aggressive marketing campaign offering membership at 1p each to several million military veterans, including former national servicemen. This would signal that we are a party of the armed forces, and use their “unique experience and insight” to “shape the party’s culture, policy and campaigns”. This has never been raised with the NEC, and I can find no-one in authority to confirm it, so I think it can be dismissed.
This does not deny the courage of those who are sent to fight and the respect in which they are held, regardless of opinions on particular wars. However the veterans’ associations themselves see it as a silly gimmick and would, like everyone else, prefer a decent pension. And many people serve their country in other ways: as unpaid carers, volunteers, and other frontline public servants, large numbers of whom – unlike most veterans – happen to be women. Party membership is still overly white, male and ageing, and initiatives should surely be aimed at increasing diversity.
Meanwhile other issues around membership have been discussed at some length with the four constituency representatives on the organisation sub-committee. The latest thinking is that members on an initial rate of £15, or the youth rate of £12, should first move to the reduced rate (currently £20.50) and then the following year to the standard rate of £41, to avoid a sudden sharp increase. Tying subscriptions to income is probably unworkable, and instead members will be encouraged to pay more as and when they can afford it. The aim is to reconcile the general view that standard rates are too high with the need to maintain income, and it may be possible to reach agreement by conference. I will also follow up queries about how young members or others without bank accounts are expected to pay.
Constituency representatives have also been consulted on radical new proposals for allocating the local share of membership money. The problems have been evident for years. Since I joined the NEC I’ve had despairing letters from constituency parties (CLPs) with small and ageing membership, unable to pay the levy for European elections (£300) and the election insurance premium (£365), or afford Contact Creator (£420). Some are trapped in debt and owe more to HQ with every passing year. The most common suggestion is that central levies should be related to the number of members, though the calculations are complicated and it would not tackle other sources of inequality. However any change will create losers as well as winners, so ideas have to be considered in terms of what is fair across the party as a whole, not what is good for our own CLP (and Oxford East would be one of the bigger losers).
Currently 25 CLPs receive less from subscriptions than the Euro-levy plus insurance, and for a further 128 the remaining income is not enough to buy Contact Creator. Nothing is left for campaigning, local activity or sending delegates to conference. Around 40 CLPs owe money to the national party, and this is also deducted at source. Annual membership income ranges from £260 to £8,092, with the top CLP getting more than the bottom 91 CLPs together and the top 5% receiving more than the bottom 50%. In general London has the largest and richest CLPs. Evidence suggests that 85% of recruitment is related to social class and to where people live, with only 15% attributed to local initiatives.
A Fairer Future?
It is proposed that first, all national debts incurred up to 2010 would be written off, so that every CLP would start with a clean slate. Second, a higher proportion of membership income would be retained centrally. In exchange CLPs would have the Euro-levy, election insurance and Contact Creator paid, a package worth nearly £1,100. Another chunk would be reserved for two funds to be administered by the NEC. One-eighth would go to a democracy and diversity fund, to help the poorest CLPs with sending delegates to conferences and encouraging diversity at local level. Seven-eighths would go to a local campaigns and improvement fund, which could provide matched funding to CLPs for organisers and other projects. The remainder would be distributed to CLPs based on total national membership but, importantly, with each receiving the same amount however many members they have.
Discussion is continuing over the balance between national and local shares, but if each CLP received £300 (based on 193,000 members at £1 each, divided by 633 CLPs) with no charge for the Euro-levy, election insurance or Contact Creator, around half would be better off than they are now, and over £400,000 would be available for the new NEC-administered funds. If the amount allocated to CLPs was higher, money for the central funds would be correspondingly reduced.
Constituency representatives have flagged up some concerns. CLPs will need incentives to recruit and to raise funds if they no longer benefit from higher membership. Also there are other sources of inequality, including property, reserves, and contributions from councillors’ allowances, MPs and unions. The NEC-administered funds could take these differences into account when considering bids, but would face dilemmas: how to encourage and reward local effort, while also helping CLPs where the odds are stacked against them no matter how hard they work? And if the funds are to gain trust and overcome suspicions of greater central control, they will need to establish objective criteria and transparent decision-making processes for allocating money. Finally there should be transitional arrangements so that significant losers can adjust their budgets.
I believe the proposals are worth exploring further, but they are controversial and will not succeed without broad support, so I would be grateful for feedback before discussion resumes in September. And, if this approach is not acceptable, how else can we ensure that every CLP receives some income from membership, can attend conference, and is able to function, to campaign, and to thrive?
This article first appeared on Labour List — Ed.