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Labour Party Conference 2013

20th September 2013

Labour Party Conference 2013
Michael Calderbank, Brent Central CLP and Jon Lansman (CLPD) look at the issues likely to come up at Labour’s annual conference.

Although the issue won’t be settled until the Special Conference next Spring, this year’s party conference will inevitably be overshadowed by Ed Miliband’s planned threat to fatally damage the link between the Party and the trade unions. The LRC and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), together with unions, party members and activists will be actively campaigning to retain this principle which is absolutely core to the Party/union link. (see Defend the Link Website).

Ray Collins, the party’s former General Secretary, will address the floor of Conference on Sunday. He has been charged with making recommendations concerning “the development of a new relationship between the Labour Party and members of our affiliated organisations”, including opening up union funding to individual opt-ins, and considering implementing a form of “primary” system for the election of London’s next mayoral candidate. Collins is expected to make known his interim findings and set out the timetable for consideration of the reforms in the run up to the Special Conference where the issue will be voted on. It will be vital to demonstrate the strength of feeling against breaking the link, but this will only be the start of a campaign to kill off proposals rushed through after Falkirk — and shown to be all the more unnecessary by the exoneration of Unite.

So if not this, what will delegates get to vote on at Conference? There’s no doubt that the opportunities for the grassroots delegates to influence key decision making over party policy and procedure has diminished as Blairite “party management” has increasingly centralised control at the top. However there are still democratic channels for party members to influence decisions from the Conference floor.

Many party members feel the National Policy Forum (NPF), and its component Policy Commissions lack transparency and democratic accountability. Though each of the eight commissions (made up of 16-20 members representing Shadow Cabinet, the NEC and the NPF) reports to Conference, Conference itself cannot amend policy recommendations at this stage. Nevertheless, a CLP is entitled to submit a Contemporary Motion to the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) on any issue — of policy or party organisation — so long as it could not have been taken through the Agenda 2015 process and has not been addressed in the reports of official bodies (NPF, Policy Commissions, NEC) to Conference. If passed after debate at Conference the motion is referred to the relevant policy commission for deliberation over the next 12 months. This year could see topics like the union link, the Party’s attitude to western intervention in Syria, and support for firefighters striking over attacks to their pension entitlements, being raised in this manner.

There is an arduous process to go through first, however. A first sifting for eligibility of Contemporary Motions occurs prior to Conference. Those that survive this process will be grouped into subjects, and then go into the ‘priorities ballot’, which will be held on Sunday. The ballot may open before Conference opens, and therefore delegates would be prevented from overturning any controversial decisions by the CAC in relation to what are, and what are not, valid Contemporary Motions. Thus, the CAC would not be accountable to Conference in respect of a major part of its decision-making powers. Conference is allowed to debate a total of eight different subject areas. But it is not as simple as the eight highest ranked in the priorities ballot going forward for debate.

Instead, the four voices of CLPs, and the four most popular choices of trade unions will go forward — and if any of these are the same, the number of debates is reduced. This means that CLP delegates must not vote for any of the four subjects that are favoured by the unions, since to do so is to waste your vote. It is in no way anti-union to vote for four different subjects — in fact, the trade unions, like CLP activists, want to ensure maximum debate and so support CLPs in voting for different subjects. The four subjects that the unions will choose are known well in advance of the Priorities Ballot. The unions arrange a voting pact to ensure their four choices are guaranteed a place on the agenda. On Sunday morning, CLPD will inform delegates via its daily briefing, the Yellow Pages handed out outside the Conference centre, of the four union choices, and suggest four choices for CLP delegates to unite around.

On the Sunday evening, motions submitted by each of these organisations will be composited into one or more motions to be voted on by Conference. The Contemporary Motions are treated as a gigantic ‘pot of words’. Each organisation has equal standing at the meeting — no matter how big or small they are. The delegates alone are in charge of compositing and decisions are reached collectively. Delegates shouldn’t be bamboozled by ‘helpful’ officials or shadow ministers. They mustn’t allow material into a composite that contradicts or negates other material — and need to be alert to wrecking tactics.

There is also a procedure for submitting Emergency Motions. However they must be deemed to be on a subject which could not reasonably have been taken through the Contemporary Motions procedure, and should cover an issue of “urgent and immediate importance to the discussions of the whole Party at Conference”. But it is entirely at the discretion of the CAC to accept such motions.

The CAC is the body responsible for managing Conference and the timetables for debates. CLPs through their delegates control half the votes at Conference. Sadly issues of concern to CLPs have been given a low priority in recent years and sometimes ruled out altogether. CLP delegates have too often been treated as passive cheerleaders for the leadership. CLPs need to reclaim their rights and influence at Conference. Having a strong voice on the CAC is key to this. That’s why we will be supporting CLPD/Grassroots Alliance sponsored candidates Katy Clark MP and Pete Willsman in challenging party whips for the positions. Similarly, Gary Heather offers a left challenge for the National Constitutional Committee.

This year’s Conference will also see a number of important rule changes debated, including:
 Preventing open-ended suspensions (Northampton Borough Labour Party).
 Electing Labour Group Leaders by a local electoral college (Leyton and Wanstead CLP, Redcar CLP).
 Requiring half of all individual donations to internal groups over £25,000 to go to the Labour Party, to prevent the likes of Lord Sainsbury bankrolling Progress to operate as a right wing lobby group inside the Party (ASLEF).

It’s vital that delegates make interventions when they can from the Conference floor, but it is true that more and more time is taken up with frontbench speeches and other presentations, and genuine debate often curtailed. It is on the Conference fringe — at lunchtimes and evenings — that a lot of the most serious debate takes place.

This preview was partly based on a Conference Guide from Pete Willsman of CLPD.

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