Labour counts


As a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party (weren't we all) I was particularly proud to attend my first annual party conference. To be elected as a delegate was a privilege - and an opportunity (at last) to modestly help shape my little corner of the world.

It also provided a chance for ordinary party members to share tables with professional politicians, journalists, and the flotsam of networkers who, it would seem, regularly surround party conference - all of us protected within a security zone that removed us from the usual hierarchy associated with things political.

This absence of deference gave me the chance to test a long held belief: that most people in and around the Labour Party have little understanding of the “Labour Party Constitution and Rule Book” - the 90 page book which, amongst other things, supposedly determines how Labour should govern.

An informal survey of these movers and shakers confirmed this (if such a sample drawn from this inner sanctum represents a valid focus group). In fact I had always found it strange (as a lifelong barrack-room lawyer) that few party colleagues took the same active interest in our constitutional rules (perhaps it’s a passed-down anarchic tendency in all socialists to reject rules?).

I did always reckon, though - after many debating successes - that pretty much all political debate within the Labour Party could, and ought to be easily won by being familiar with at least 3 simple constitutional clauses (CLAUSES 2, 4 and 10). Armed with this knowledge, I believed, all dissident arguments on party policy would be severely weakened, if not demolished. Something along these lines -

First, whatever the nature of the dissidence always start with the killer argument. Quote CLAUSE 2:

all affiliates (and their members) must accept the programme, policy and principles of the party …and conform to the constitution (rules)

If dissidence still persists, perhaps on an insistence that said policy was simply wrong and not properly thought through. Quote CLAUSE 10:

For the avoidance of any doubt, any dispute as to the meaning of the  rules shall be referred to the NEC for determination

This will undoubtedly win all arguments, (although not necessarily hearts and minds).

A less brutal and often more persuasive approach, when time allows, is to agree to interact over the precise nature of the dissidence.

Iraq aside, all internal dissidence essentially focuses on the perception that Labour has betrayed historic values by ignoring its working class roots and pursuing market-driven middle class Tory policies.

So, immediately ask your dissident: where does it say in the rule book we have historic values? You quickly answer your own question: it doesn't! You then go on to explain that the only references to values are the “timeless” values of.… and proceed to tick them off:

  •  common endeavour
  •  community
  •  duty
  •  solidarity
  •  tolerance
  •  respect"

All taken directly from CLAUSE 4, all current, all relevant - and of course not a single mention of the words "class" or "struggle

Next question: what do you mean by Tory policies? Again jumping in to answer your own question (assertively trained fingers now at the ready)

  •  belief in a dynamic economy
  •  serving the public interest
  •  enterprise of the market
  •  rigour of competition
  •  nurturing the family
  •  partner with voluntary organisations

Again, the exact wordings drawn directly from CLAUSE 4.  It’s there in black and white, at the heart of the constitution, Tory inspired or not (you say).

If these constitutional arguments still fail, and at the point just before the membership card becomes an invasive weapon - move on to the second specialist subject: the Labour Party Manifesto (my ad-hoc focus group was seemingly ignorant on this detail as well).

And here's another tick list, fresh off the internet - some of the manifesto election pledges on the popular dissident topic of Foundation Hospitals.

  • The NHS needs radical reform
  • We will decentralise power
  • We will create a new type of hospital
  • We will allow successful hospitals to take over failing ones
  • Private-sector providers should support public endeavour
  • A spirit of enterprise should apply to public service

You would expect these admittedly small-print extracts (pages 7 and 17)  would still be big enough to win the argument. They didn't (win) at Bournemouth.

Why, I keep asking myself, did the loyalists lose an argument that was so cast-iron constitutionally solid?

Perhaps the movers and shakers know more than they let on.

Mike Allott October 2003

Labour counts