Tony Blair recently announced to the press (followed a little later by a letter to constituencies) a new breakthrough in the marvellously democratic way the Labour Party is now run.
The electorate, he says, have a right to know what Labour’s (sorry, New Labour’s) policies are before the general election, and so he has developed a new innovative concept called a manifesto.
You may be forgiven for thinking that this idea had been invented some time ago. Old Labour had manifestos made up of policy that had received majority support at a conference. But Tony’s idea is a radical, exciting and totally new vision, entirely fitting for New Labour.
In Tony’s new manifesto, all the policies will be decided by the National Executive. Then they will be put to conference for a yes or no vote (no amendments allowed in New Labour). And the ultimate pinnacle for Tony’s new idea is a postal vote of all the members, after the conference.
We must not forget that Tony’s manifesto will contain no spending commitments whatsoever, or any hint of Labour’s tax plans. Because, whilst the electorate deserves to know, it doesn’t deserve to know too much.
A quick look behind the scenes is required before it is possible to understand why Blair is proposing this new departure.
The manifesto idea looks like “Son of Clause Four” - a press stunt designed to prove Tony Blair’s success in transforming the Labour Party into his own image. And to a degree it is. But though the press may have played Blair’s game for the Clause IV debate, there is not going to be nearly as much interest the second time around.
In fact, Blair’s game plan is longer than that. First, he is trying to undermine any rebellion from within the party to his actions once he gets into office. By writing a manifesto now that spells out Blairite “One-Nation” government, he hopes to cut support for protests about that government before it begins.
Second, he is attacking the core of representative democracy in the party by making policy decisions reached through constituencies and conference even more irrelevant to what a Labour government is committed to do. This fits with the direction the Blair machine is pushing the party.
New members are encouraged to campaign, not in their own constituencies, but in the nearest marginal, organised direct from Walworth Road. Young Labour groups are told that meetings which take decisions are boring. Candidates even vaguely on the left are forced more and more into following the model from Walworth Road for their election campaign, because the manifesto won’t say anything else for them to use. The whole package is designed to turn party members into electoral foot soldiers instead of allowing them a say in the policy decisions, or even the style of their local campaigning.
However, as difficult as it was to justify a yes-or-no vote on Clause IV, ordinary party members will balk even more at voting for or against a twenty page manifesto. The result will almost certainly be a pathetic turnout in the postal vote.
Even if Tony Blair’s plans for the new manifesto go through, it may not imply very much for the protests inside the party that will arise under the Labour government. If the membership doesn’t see any role for itself in decision making, it won’t feel any loyalty to the decisions made. And the pressure from Labour voters, who, despite Blair’s speeches to the contrary, still believe a Labour government will renationalise water, pump money into the health service, reduce class sizes, will push party members and trade unionists into making a stand against a Blair government.
Socialists in the Labour Party should be arguing now for the manifesto to be based upon the representative democracy of the party. By pushing for involvement at constituency level, for an amendment process, and for the final vote to be taken at conference, we can use the debate over Blair’s New Labour manifesto to make ordinary party members aware of how much their rights are being eroded, and how the democratic processes of the party are being destroyed.
We should be pushing now for people to get involved in the Network of the Socialist Campaign Group and fighting for the concept of collective democratic decision making.
When the fightback against a Blair government starts, those socialists inside the Labour Party will have a pivotal role to play.