New Statesman & Society, 5 April 1996

Tony Blair’s plans to put an early draft of Labour’s manifesto to a vote of party members has been welcomed by the media – although not by the trade unions. But what does it actually mean? Paul Anderson investigates

Tony Blair’s announcement last week that his party’s National I Executive Committee had agreed to put an early version of the Labour manifesto to a vote of all individual party members came as a complete surprise to just about everyone – including, apparently, most of the people who were at the NEC meeting just before Blair’s press conference.

Trade union members of the NEC say that they thought the Labour leader had agreed to tone down his proposal for a referendum of individual members, replacing it with a plan to invite party members “to pledge support” for Labour’s programme. And they were not pleased when Blair announced to the television cameras that the plebiscite would go ahead. “I’ve never known the NEC to be so furious,” said one. “The trade union group is apoplectic.”

The apoplexy is unlikely to last too long, however. It’s mainly the result of union resentment at yet again being outmanoeuvred, not just by Blair himself but by his spin-doctors, who managed to give the impression that the referendum marked a definitive downgrading of the unions’ role in Labour politics. That resentment is real enough, and will eventually rebound on the Labour leader – but on the substantive question of the plebiscite the dust is likely to settle sooner rather than later. Although the vote is undoubtedly intended to give the public the impression that Labour has utterly transformed its policy-making procedures, in fact its direct effects are marginal.

For a start, it will make no difference to the method the party uses to draw up the first draft of the manifesto: a committee under the firm control of the party leadership, but with serious input from the unions, will distil and refine various policy documents that have been produced by the party’s National Policy Forum, endorsed by the NEC and (in most cases) passed by the annual conference. The policy forum, the NEC and the conference all give the unions key roles, most notably the conference, in which they still command 50 per cent of votes.

Nor will the referendum on the draft manifesto materially affect the role of the conference: the document – after modifications to take account of “consultations” with members over the summer – will be voted upon in Blackpool this autumn just like any other policy paper from the NEC, before it is put to the membership.

What’s more, after the vote of all members, the draft programme will be subject to change by the party leadership to take account of changing circumstances (in particular, on taxation and public spending, on which shadow chancellor Gordon Brown will not pronounce – assuming John Major does not decide to go early to the polls – until after this autumn’s budget). In the last instance, it can be given a final tweaking at the “Clause Five” meeting of the shadow cabinet and NEC (so-called because of the section of the party constitution that defines its role) on the eve of the election campaign proper.

On the face of it, in other words, there’s no arguing with Robin Cook’s claim in an interview with GMTV’s Sunday Programme last weekend that “this document will go through the full party procedures”. Those procedures are of course somewhat unfamiliar because the National Policy Forum has been going only since the last general election – but last week’s announcement changes them only at the edges.

Nevertheless, the plebiscite decision is significant – partly because of what it says about Blair’s fear of losing the party’s support when in government, and partly because of what it might presage in Labour’s internal politics.

Like many of his political generation, the Labour leader is haunted by the revolt of the constituency left in the late 19705 and early 19805, which he believes has kept his party out of government ever since. And the reason for that revolt, he thinks, was that the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan lost touch with the party, allowing the left free rein with its rhetoric of “betrayal”. The idea of the referendum is that it will tie the party – in parliament and outside – into support for a minimalist, responsible programme, and that as a consequence the cries of betrayal two or three years into a Labour government will have no purchase.

But will it work? There’s no doubt that a vote of all individual members will give the manifesto a legitimacy within the party that it has not enjoyed before – which will make it difficult for anyone to complain because a Blair government hasn’t done what it never promised to do in the first place. That, however, wasn’t actually the problem that did so much damage to the 1970s Labour governments: rather, it was that – under duress – they really did renege on promises that Labour had made to the electorate in 1974. If a Blair government fails to do what it says it will do – which is not impossible, however minimal the programme – the fact that the promises have been explicitly endorsed by the party membership will be a liability, not a strength. Moreover, there will be plenty that the manifesto will not cover or will fudge. Whether or not it is backed by the membership, it will not be the last word on European monetary union, for example, nor will it guarantee the party’s support for a Blair government’s handling of, say, a sterling crisis in 2001.

All the same, Blair’s initiative might presage a shift in Labour’s political culture that would have major implications. Although the use of a referendum to rubber-stamp the manifesto will have little impact in itself on Labour’s policy-making process, and is unlikely to do much to stem party criticism of a Labour government, there’s no doubt that habitual use of plebiscites would radically change the balance of power inside the Labour Party. If the Labour leadership decided, as a matter of course, to appeal on matters of controversy directly to individual members over the heads of the representatives of the party’s various parts in the NEC and at conference, the power of both NEC and conference would be seriously reduced vis a vis the leadership, much as regular use of referenda in a country’s politics reduces the power of the legislature over the executive.

That would be a real blow to the unions, and it’s not surprising that their NEC members are keen to emphasise that, whatever else, the manifesto poll should not be seen as a precedent. The GMB’s decision to ballot all its members on the manifesto, but to deduct the £250,000 it will cost from funds that would otherwise go to the Labour Party, is the sort of support for Blair’s initiative that a rope gives a hanged man.

How far the power of the ordinary membership would be enhanced by the regular use of internal party referenda is a moot point. If only the party leadership could choose what went to a vote of all members, plebiscites would empower the grass-roots not a jot – whereas if ordinary members could choose (for example, if a certain percentage of them signed a petition demanding a poll on a particular issue), referenda could make Labour an unprecedentedly democratic party. Something says that it’s the first of these models that Blair has in mind.

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