Saturday, 3 November 2007

Party conference to networking opportunity

One of New Labour’s particularly philistine features is its bipolar view of the world, which says ‘if you don’t agree with our view of change then you’re stuck in the past’.

I remember when the term ‘dinosaur’ was flung at anyone defending Clause Four of the Labour Party’s constitution (incidentally, this included quite a modern commitment to democratic forms of public administration); and yesterday I was alarmed to hear it used again by a friend who is an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) tutor.

She was describing the difficulties in getting any real debate about the substance of the educational issues at stake, in my friend’s case, for ESOL. In her college, the conditions set by the government-imposed funding regimes represent ‘change’ and staff making criticisms of these conditions (informed by their teaching experience) are made to feel their views are illegitimate - and if they pursued them, they would be seen as ‘dinosaurs.’ It was alarming to find how deeply embedded this limiting political culture has become.

There were no signs at this year’s grand ‘Networking Opportunity’ (it’s no longer a party conference) of any attempt to shake out this culture, stimulate substantive debate or build a plural and creative political culture. On the contrary, all those opposing the party leadership-defined change (which this year is to end the ‘contemporary resolutions’ system, where topical motions are submitted to a ballot for debate at the party conference) were defined as against change itself. As dinosaurs.

In the end, lack of substantive debate kills an organisation. Real debate and argument is an organisation’s oxygen. The debates at the Labour Party conference were definitely in need of modernisation but there are many ways of change that would have enabled party members to argue through both the principles and details of party policy.

Judging by the fringe meetings I attended - on corporate responsibility, the low carbon economy and what to do about private equality - it seems the death of party debate has almost killed the party organisation too. Constituency delegates were ominously absent while NGO staff, business lobbyists, researchers and journalists were plenty. A few trade unionists but hardly a constituency delegate in sight. Only three years ago at the last Bournemouth conference the main hotel bars were full of them. Now it’s only officials and lobbyists.

This shell-like character of what used to be a more or less active membership party isn’t of course unique to Labour. Political theorist Peter Mair’s analysis of parties across Europe found a strong trend for them to move towards the state and away from society, becoming more similar in the process. The end result, he argues, is ‘cartel parties’, a situation where politics becomes increasingly self-referential, professional and technocratic. He describes this process in his recent article Ruling the Void for New Left Review.

Increasingly, it makes elections events to observe from a distance rather than moments of public debate and popular political participation. But beneath the cartel politics, with its culture of change defined by government rules, there is a real desire for debate about substance and for change rooted in people’s needs and everyday attempts to find solutions.

The frustrations of my ESOL teacher friend are a sign of it. How do we help to build a collective, and personal self-confidence, for these desires and efforts to break through? Especially in an election or pre-election period when official political debate narrows and at the same time becomes more difficult to escape.

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