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21st Century Party

David Wilkinson

This document, written by the Regional Director of the Greater London Labour Party as part of the Labour Party's 21st Century Party "consultation", was circulated earlier this year to the party's borough organisers in London. (The "London organisation" which the author invites to participate in the discussion is thus not the Party itself, nor any of its elected bodies, but the Party bureaucracy.) The document sets out a plan for demolishing the delegate-based structures of Constituency Labour Parties embodied in General Committees (GCs). As the author concedes, this would abolish the link between the Party and the trade unions at constituency level. Although these proposals relate to London, they are part of an attack nationally on Party democracy. According to an article in the Guardian (16 March), Millbank is proposing to set up 12 "pilot schemes" based on these sort of structures.

The purpose of this debate is to identify the form a modern party should take and the changes we need to adopt to achieve it. The purpose of this paper is to place my views before the London organisation to see if we can achieve enough common ground on the matter to contribute to the wider debate and consultation.

I believe there should be two guiding principles which should apply to every aspect of our review of party structure and organisation.

The first of these is OMOV. We have moved gradually away from Parliamentary and Euro selections by GC. It is the norm to have all-members selections at Council and Parliamentary level. We should aim to extend this to European selections and election to public and party office at every level.

Similarly, we should apply the same principle to decision making at internal party organisation and political debate level. So far as we possibly can, OMOV should replace internal party representative structures within the constituency/Borough organisation.

There are exceptions and this is where a layer of organisation is needed to deal with the internal bureaucracy/financial administration of the Party.

Secondly, we must retain the focus of the Labour Party as a primarily election orientated organisation. This does not mean that policy discussion or debate should be curtailed it is essential to focus the Party on politics and not continual arguments about structure and process. What I believe it does mean, however, is that our units of organisation should be linked to and co-terminus with geographical, political boundaries.

The shape of a modern party
I would like to explain what I believe our party should look like within the London area.

The Labour Party Branch should be the central unit of party organisation. However, the Branch would be a very different structure to the one we see now. The Branch would be oriented towards what might be thought of as a "village".

I will use Enfield as an example of how this could work. There are 33 wards in Enfield very few of which are recognisable as anything other than lines on a political map. The "if asked" test is not a bad one to apply. By and large if residents of Enfield were asked where they live they would reply either "Enfield" or use one of the 5-7 locally identified areas of Enfield which, by and large, are groups of 3 or 4 wards e.g. "Enfield Highway" (5 wards), "Enfield Town" (4 wards), Edmonton (5-6 wards) etc.

On this model, members would join a "branch" of the party that would cover the approximate area of their home "village". Applied across London as a whole it would reflect the reality of London as a huge collection of "urban villages".

To continue to use Enfield as an example, the Borough could comprise, say, six branches:

Edmonton (the southern wards bordering Tottenham up to Edmonton (Green). Southgate (the western area around Southgate Green). Palmers Green (the central wards between Winchmore Hill and Enfield Town centre). Enfield Town (the wards surrounding Enfield Town centre). Chase (northern rural Enfield including parts of Southgate). Enfield Highway (eastern Enfield).

Branch meetings would be all-members meetings and each branch would elect a group of officers whose job would be solely to co-ordinate the branch. Branch boundaries would be co-terminus with ward boundaries which would mean some anomalies as wards need to balance numbers of electors and, therefore, do not reflect absolutely a community area. It can work, however, for most of London.

The constituency party, as a unit of organisation, would only exist for the purpose of selecting a candidate (by an OMOV ballot). There would not be a need for a Branch to be co-terminus with a constituency boundary but, in reality, they would probably shake down that way.

MPs would have a direct relationship within their constituency and, in a few cases, there will be 2 MPs which are shared by a Branch. This would not be common.

Each Branch would elect 2 representatives to a Borough Executive Committee which would have a co-ordinating role and deal with administration, finance and procedural matters.

The wider structure
We have to, at some stage, deal with the question of affiliation in the new context of an all-members structure. Affiliation implies a type of representative democracy which we all know to be entirely false. However, it may be that we would wish to keep some form of "association", probably along the lines of the current "constituency development plans" which have replaced MP's Trade Union sponsorship.

I don't believe it is possible to merge a new "all-members" structure with a hybrid system of affiliated delegates who would be entitled anyway to attend the Branch meeting if they lived there as an individual member.

A structure as outlined above would end constituency and local affiliations. We would be able to strengthen the links between the Party and affiliates at Regional level which, in reality, is the first level at which affiliation can make a practical effect. The Regional Party must be representative and, therefore, a relationship based on affiliations and appointed delegates is appropriate.

London would look, therefore, from the bottom upwards like this:

At the base, approximately 200 branches based around the basic London communities and co-terminus with Borough boundaries. At any time, two or more Branches can meet. Each Borough would have an Executive Committee comprising 2 delegates per Branch which would deal with party administration, finances and procedures. The Regional Executive Committee would comprise delegates elected on a "one per Borough" basis plus affiliated delegates.

Selection of candidates
There is only one direction that this can go if we start to restructure along these lines. With the possible exception of the Party Leader, all positions should be filled on an OMOV basis.

Council candidates: Voting at Branch selection meetings with members dividing into their constituent electoral areas. Members should have the right to apply for postal votes.

Parliamentary candidates: These should be selected by a postal ballot of members from a short list agreed by an aggregate meeting of the Branches within the parliamentary constituency.

European candidates: However we elect our Euro-MPs we need to keep a close relationship with some sort of constituency area and they should be selected by an OMOV ballot of members.