How they stitch up conference

Why party conference is bad for members and making policy

I’ve seen conference from both sides — as a fresh-faced first-time constituency party delegate & a cynical old party hack.

It is an awful place to make policy. The process is the worst type of sport, where the winners are those who best know the rules.

Conference delegates are in theory the ones who write & choose the motions that are debated on conference floor. But that is only in theory.

The process begins in August, when local parties are quietly pressured by one side or another to submit ‘contemporary motions’.

If the motion is over 250 words or doesn’t contain something ‘new’ since August, then it is inadmissible. So motions get obtuse. And weird.

‘On 17/9/17 Pharma boss Martin Shkreli sold a Wu Tang Clan album for $1m; private sector greed in the NHS must therefore be banned.’

This is just the start of the process. It becomes so gloriously complex that only Labour’s big institutions can fully navigate it.

Motions are considered by the Conference Arrangements Committee & a list of successful motions is distributed to delegates.

Delegates then vote in the ‘priority ballot’ to choose the most important topics for debate.

This happens over the first weekend at conference when nothing else is happening & many ordinary delegates have not arrived.

Successful motions are grouped together & delegates from the constituencies that submitted the motions are invited to a meeting Sunday night.

This is meeting is called the ‘compositing meeting’ and it is the pinnacle of conference arcanery & chicanery.

Still with me? No? Well, you’re not alone: most ordinary members are usually lost by now too. You need institutional nous to get this far.

The rules — such as they exist — are simple: delegates must decide among themselves whether to combine, withdraw or stand by their motions.

Advocates of party democracy might like to imagine this is an Athenian debate between Fabians & frontline workers. It is not.

Delegates are selected by local parties for many reasons: as a reward for dedication or through loyalty to one local faction.

They are rarely chosen because they understand the motion. So, in the meeting, delegates often feel apologetic, overawed & out of place.

‘I didn’t write this motion.’

‘I don’t really know anything about this issue. It’s not my area.’

‘It’s probably better if I let you decide.’

Those delegates that do know what they are doing in the meeting are there not because they know the policy but because they know the process.

In the meeting itself, the unions, minister & party staff can be present but only to provide ‘helpful’ information.

So the real gamesmanship — the strong-arm and the soft sell — is done before the meeting begins.

The simplest way to defeat a motion is to make sure that the delegate doesn’t turn up. That’s why there are so many parties on Sunday night.

We once lost a critical motion because a union official persuaded our delegate to meet a star from Corrie instead.

So each side protects their delegates, keeping them hidden (& sober) until the last minute, like key witnesses at mafia trials.

When I was education policy officer, I once ran point for the health team. (Again: wrong people on wrong policy. A feature of conference).

They had a shopping list of small issues. We persuaded them that the only way to win was to fold their motions into the Government one.

In the meeting, everything — at first — went to plan. The delegates turned up (sober) & one by one they backed the pro-Govt motion.

With so much support for our motion, it would likely pass. Rather than risk public defeat, I figured the union would pull their motion.

The clock ticked down. And then, right at the last moment, the delegate backing *our* motion inexplicably said: “I withdraw my motion.”

The government motion fell. The union one remained. The union official grinned. We were completely fucked.

Had they got to our delegate during the day? No, he boasted to me later, they had done it in August. August!

This is the deviousness required: after the CLP had submitted the motion, they got the delegate changed. It was our motion but their man.

This is the reality: conference is a game in which a few powerful players shuffle delegates around the board, while claiming to represent them.

Momentum is about to become one of those players but let’s not pretend that will empower ordinary members.

There are many good ways for the expertise among members, unions & Momentum to develop Labour’s policy. But conference is not one of them.

More power to conference is more power to the few players at the big institutions, for whom it is a sport, not rank and file members.

Conference is not some cradle of democracy. It is a fight over process, not a battle of ideas.

This is how it works: motions of 250 words, chosen by quirk or chicanery, with no expert oversight, face a binary vote with no nuance.

We don’t want to end up like the Lib Dems: banning goldfish as prizes & the boiling of lobsters. And then ignoring the manifesto completely.

More power to conference? No. We need less of this, not more.

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