Labour becomes a people's party at long last

Past Labour governments have been sabotaged by wrangles with the NEC. But not any more
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The Independent Online
The Labour Party yesterday lost a little of its theatre and a lot of its capacity to self-destruct in office. The National Executive's approval of sweeping changes to party functions and structure is almost as important as the rewriting of Clause IV. More so, in that the new Clause IV is a symbol; the changes to the composition and functions of the National Executive, and the running of the party conference, will make a real-world difference, even perhaps the difference between whether it can or can't secure two full consecutive terms in office - something, incredibly, and in utter contrast to the Conservatives, it has never once done before. The change hasn't attracted anything like the headlines Clause IV did. But in its own way it's as big a moment.

The new world laid out in yesterday's 34-page document doesn't sound at all like the Labour Party we know and love. (Or at least those of us old enough to remember when Labour was last in office.) No last-minute deals on the wording of motions before the party conference? None of the party's most famous names jostling for a place on the national executive? No knife-edge card votes on fundamental issues of policy, such as public spending totals or scrapping Trident? No constituency resolutions to party conference? And so, predictably, there is already hand-wringing within the middle-class intelligentsia of the left. There are already murmured accusations of megalomania against Tony Blair. There are gibes about "democratic centralism". The Guardian agonises in its leader column.

But people forget. They forget just what a struggle it was to run a Labour government in the past, though the television pictures shown on Tuesday's Newsnight of Chancellor Denis Healey, in the midst of the IMF crisis, shouting above the booing and heckling at the 1976 conference were a modest reminder. They forget that it wasn't enough to be elected and then face, at times, a uniformly hostile press. Or to have most of the City and the world's money markets against you. Or to have a maverick section of MI5 plotting to overthrow you. You had to put up with the vested interests on the National Executive and the party conference as well. No Conservative Prime Minister, not even John Major, has ever had to answer to alternative centres of power in the way that Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan did.

Wilson understood what needed to be done, though he failed to do it. He knew, for example, that the NEC went "menstrual" before its own annual elections - by which he meant that candidates for NEC membership started to play to the activist gallery for the sake of constituency votes. And that therefore it was insane - and probably unconstitutional - for cabinet ministers to be among the competing candidates. It meant, for example, that ministers, supposedly bound by collective responsibility, shed it when, on the NEC, they were agitating for a change in government policy. It meant an NEC controlled by the hard left in the Seventies; indeed, between the late 1950s and the mid-1980s only three candidates not of the Labour left (Jim Callaghan, Healey and Jack Ashley) made it onto the constituency section of the executive. It meant that in the Seventies ministers used the NEC as a platform from which to attack the government - whether in big cases, as when Tony Benn was persistently trying to rewrite industrial policy, or the trivial and long forgotten ones such as the time that Benn, Judith Hart and Joan Lestor voted on the NEC, when they were all ministers, to condemn a routine Royal Navy visit to the South African base in Simonstown. Now Blair will pick the cabinet ministers on the NEC.

It's true, of course, that Blair has created a wholly different climate in which to enter office than Wilson had in 1974. It's not just that much of Whitehall is willing change, or that the press will give him a much fairer wind, or that the City is much more pacific about the prospect. The transformation of the party - and a growth which has seen rank and file membership double since he took office - has been such that adventurist posturing is no longer, and may never again be, the guarantee of success, whether in securing policies at the conference or victory in the NEC. But Labour's present unity is partly a function of the determination to win. Governments do become unpopular - and given the economic constraints Blair and Gordon Brown have imposed on themselves, Labour could become unpopular quite quickly. It's then that the party will most be vulnerable to internal conflict, then that Blair will most need a party machine in his own image.

But those who claim that the new system is undemocratic are talking about activists, not the ordinary rank-and-file member. They ignore the silent rage and disappointment among Labour voters across the country since the war, who have seen public divisions repeatedly cost their party a second term of office. And they overlook the more fundamental analysis provided by Denis Healey when he described, in a 1979 lecture, the gap between activist and party supporter as the "central problem" of the 1974-9 government. "Men and women who will give up night after night, weekend after weekend, to work for a political party are bound to differ in their views and in the fire of enthusiasm from the great mass of the British people. Only three out every hundred Labour voters bother to join the party as individual members. Only about three in a thousand actually turn up to work for the party between general elections." These are sweeping, historic, changes; but Blair's large claim that they reconnect leaders to party, and party to the people, is justified. Undemocratic, in the largest sense, they are not.

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