Created on Monday, 23 April 2012 19:43 Written by Paul Dillon
This article which was first published on Fightback has attracted a lot of attention, and for good reason. Paul Dillon outlines how the Labour leadership and party management have centralised power and reduced the standing of the party conference. He sets out some problems with how the party conference is organised and how party members can address them. And he makes some predictions as to the party’s future fortunes and future party conferences.
Fightback welcomes this contribution which gives an inside view of the way that Labour Party Conferences are run and manipulated by the leadership. We believe however that the Labour Party leaders will face growing opposition to the austerity measures both within the trade unions and within the Party and the Labour Youth also. Labour needs to break the coalition and campaign on a Socialist Programme.
A brief history of recent Labour Party conferences
The 1989 Labour Party conference removed a lot of the power of ordinary party members to drive the agenda of the party.
That year witnessed an offensive by the party leadership and party management to begin to more tightly control the policies of the party and concentrate power centrally. The 1987 Labour Party conference passed the motion to move the power to elect the leadership of the party from the parliamentary group to the party members, rebuked the party’s period in coalition with Fine Gael and passed a range of progressive policy motions. This conference was the highpoint of Labour Left influence.
Among the key motions passed at the 1989 conference was the decision to move control of party policy from the conference to the Parliamentary Party. Many of the Labour Party conferences of the 1990s were fair pedestrian affairs. The decision to enter coalition with Fianna Fail in 1992 was barely opposed at all. Labour Left had at this stage gone out of business. Key figures had either departed the party altogether or were due to participate in the government as office holders.
No conference decision was taken when Labour entered into a coalition with Fine Gael and Democratic Left in 1994, after the collapse of the FF led coalition. The conferences held during labour period in opposition from 1998 to 2002, were largely unremarkable from the point of view of grassroots mobilisations.
The Labour conference of 2005, held in Killarney, backed the famous Mullingar accord and set the party on the disastrous course of a close political, alliance and a pre –election pact with Fine Gael. Both Labour Youth and the ATGWU Trade Union (now UNITE) produced documents correctly predicting the outcome of the Mullingar accord-a boost for Fine Gael, a loss for Labour.
The 21sts century commission proposals, passed at the 2009 party conference, witnessed another attempt to centralise power around the party leadership. The party executive was broken up into an entirely toothless central council and a much smaller executive board. At the same time, many of the old functions, nominally at least with the party executive, were awarded to the Parliamentary Labour Party.
It is within this lens that Labour Party conferences ought to be analysed. They do not allow party members to even nominally control the agenda and they occur within a space where power within the party has been centralised hugely. This is the context in which Education Minister Ruiari Quinn remarked that passing a motion on removing state funding from private schools would make no difference.
Conference organisation: Some problems and solutions
However, all this said, the conference still allows party members who want to actively intervene in the political life of the party an opportunity to make contributions. There are a number of barriers to these interventions. These are:
Party members concerned about the party conference have a number of avenues open to them. They should call for card votes on any close motions. This can be done by approaching the podium and appealing to members. Such appeals are likely to be backed by members. Motions calling for an end of the unlimited time for members of the PLP to conclude debates and ending the referral back practise should be submitted to the conference.
Party conference 2012
The general response of the Labour Party members was critical of the government. The Friday night session on Social Affairs referred motions critical of the Community Employment schemes cuts back to the executive board, a motion slamming Jobsbridge was abandoned at the last minute and a motion calling for no more cuts to lone parents was overwhelming passed.
On economic policy, the motions calling for an end to austerity, the introduction of a wealth tax and a 3rd rate of tax to be introduced were referred back to the executive. Remember: the referral back mechanism is used to stop a motion or policy being passed by the party members.
The motion against the sale of state assets was passed. Speaking afterwards, Brendan Howlin argued that the debate on this effectively null and void, seeing as the party pre government conference had voted for the programme of government. However, this point should be noted-the actual programme for government was distributed minutes before the conference actually started. No one could have actually read the document.
Many members will have concluded that the party entering coalition was a done deal by the time the vote was taken, so why make a fuss by getting involved in an argument, knowing the outcome. The party management was hyper sensitive to opposition at the conference-asking tellers due to count the vote to forget how to count, and discouraging speakers who may seek future nominations at election time from taken part in the anti-coalition side of the debate.
Some notes on the future
Opinion polls indicate that the LP will be slaughtered at the next locals. In the local elections of 1985, when labour was with Fine Gael in coalition implementing austerity, the party emerged with 2 seats out of 52 in Dublin. The opinion polls indicate that a broadly similar result is on the cards this time. Labour is already at its core vote. If the electorate gives Labour its core vote, the party will return with about 18 or 19 TDS.
Given that 14 Labour Party TDs will be close to or older than what is normally considered retirement age (65) by 2016, we can safely assume that a good chunk of the current PLP will not be candidates next time around. Given the power of incumbency in Irish politics, this will put further downward pressure on the LP vote.
The question for Labour is-will the electorate push the party below its core vote? The last general election pushed FF well below what was regarded as the FF core vote, giving food for thought for those who consider core votes as sacrosanct.
However, at this stage, is safe to assume that Fine Gael and Labour will be re-elected. With Fine Gael at 76 seats now and Labour at 39, it is possible for the parties to lose up to 32 seats and still govern. Sinn Fein will emerge as the 2nd largest party, but will be unlikely to be able to form a government.
The government, of course may very well not go full term. As the recession deepens, and Labour comes under more pressure, there is likely to be a leadership challenge to Gilmore at some point, as TDs look ahead to a general election with some nervousness.
What will future conferences look like?
The new practise of asking each party member to turn up with identification and a letter from the party to be registered as a delegate is likely to continue. This is a really unnecessary move and offensive to many. It heightens tension and fear among party members and ads to a siege mentality. At least 2 party members of long standing were removed from the conference hall for not having their delegate cards with them at this year’s party conference.
The numbers participating at the LP conference 2012 were down significantly. The number of registered delegates was 800. The conferences of 2007 and 2009 had over 1,000 delegates present. The number of delegates from Labour Youth branches was down to 20, from a high of 60 in recent conferences.
Anecdotal evidence from this year’s party conference suggests that most long standing constituency organisations have lost at least a handful of active participants from previous party conferences. These trends are likely to continue