Can Blair cope with democracy?

The Liz Davies row focuses on the problem of pluralism for Labour, says Donald Macintyre
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It's now quite possible that the Labour conference will begin on Monday morning with a good old-fashioned, unedifying and all too telegenic row about the National Executive's refusal to endorse Liz Davies as the candidate for Leeds North East.

On Wednesday, the national executive decided not to endorse Ms Davies as the candidate in Leeds NE because, according to the party general secretary Tom Sawyer, of "her perpetual opposition to the mainstream of the party and its policies over a long period of time".

Today, the conference organisers - no doubt in close consultation with the party's leaders - are deciding whether to allow a debate on the subject. Next week we will know how big a watershed the Davies affair has been for Tony Blair's Labour party.

Whether or not a debate is allowed, whether the wrath of her supporters is headed off - possibly with the unfashionable assistance of the union block vote - there is the chance that Liz Davies will become the issue around which the left will revive and mobilise. But there are a number of reasons why it may not in the end generate quite the brush fire through the party for which her supporters are hoping.

There is some evidence that the membership of the constituency party in Leeds NE is not quite as united in her support as the unanimous backing of its 80-member General Committee suggests. Only 167 out of 496 eligible members voted in the ballot; one theory is that a majority of members effectively boycotted the election because of their dislike of the narrowly carried decision by the General Committee to select an all women's shortlist, and the consequent exclusion of a popular local man. Second, some conference hands expect the energies of the left, especially in the unions, to be channelled much more actively next week into securing victories on bread and butter issues like the minimum wage, rail privatisation and education. Finally, the imperative and proximity of an election victory will surely still some of the voices which would have been raised over such an issue in the early Eighties - given that neighbouring marginal constituencies in West Yorkshire would find themselves caught up in the Tory and media spotlight that would be on Ms Davies. Those in neighbouring marginal West Yorkshire constituencies will be particularly wary of having the Tory and media spotlight turned on Ms Davies in a general election.

Political self-interest, therefore, may yet ensure that the conferencewill not be convulsed by the Davies issue next week. But that leaves a larger question about the long-term effect on the party and the limits of its internal democracy.

They are real arguments and they are easy to rehearse. First, no one is claiming that the ballot, or the decision to run an all women's shortlist - even though it was not taken by the whole membership - was in any way improperly conducted, and Davies's loyalists in Leeds also argue that the turnout was no lower than in some other constituencies. Second, it was always recognised that the greater reliance on one-member vote democracy would carry risks with it. You cannot, runs a persuasive argument, hand power to the individual members and then simply ignore the result when you don't like it. And occasionally that's bound to happen. Did not the impeccably loyalist Donald Dewar insist that his constituency ballot the full membership on Clause IV only to find that it came out in favour of retaining it?

A paradox, given the anarchic years for Labour after the 1979 election defeat, is that Tory constituency parties now enjoy more autonomy than Labour ones. Labour's leadership can impose by-election candidates and it showed on Wednesday that it is prepared to exclude general election candidates it considers politically beyond the pale. What price pluralism, some of Ms Davies's supporters are now saying?

Whatever her political orientation, Ms Davies's actual party misconduct does not seem to have been in the big league. She didn't admit to her poll-tax sentence at the full selection meeting, but she did tell two branches during the selection process. She didn't vote according to the whip on two occasions on Islington council, but she didn't vote against the full budget. It isn't that easy to quarrel with Dennis Skinner's gibe that, by contrast, Neil Kinnock voted 77 times against the parliamentary whip before becoming leader of his party.

But Blair doesn't see it like that. And it isn't just that under Clause 10 of the party's constitution the final decision is vested in the executive. Or that David Blunkett's opposition to Wednesday's decision is balanced by passionate backing for it, by Clare Short, who evidently believes that while Labour had to be a broad church, that the church has to have walls and that those associated with Labour Left Briefing belong, like Militant, outside those walls.

At one important level, the Skinnerite left's analysis is correct that the NEC's decision on Wednesday was a political rather than a disciplinary one, and at least partially designed to minimise the prospects of Campaign Group revolt after Labour comes to power. Ms Davies just isn't Tony Blair's kind of socialist. But he believes that she isn't the larger membership's either - let alone that of the wider electorate - and at this point One Member One Vote cuts both ways: as the first leader elected by national and compulsory individual ballot in all three sections of the electoral college, the leader has a democratic locus within the party too.

It was, moreover, the NEC that delivered all-women shortlists; Tory local autonomy may help to shore up the Euro-rebels "party within a party". But it is also frustrating Central Office's efforts to secure more women and able, unmarried candidates. The administrative methods used last Wednesday were no doubt pretty ruthless; but the democratic argument is rather more complex than the angry delegates who will rise to the rostrum in Ms Davies's defence next week are prepared to allow.