Transforming Labour: Rule Changes for 2018

With this year’s Labour Party conference looming on the horizon, it may seem premature to some to start thinking ahead to the party’s 2018 gathering in Liverpool.

With this year’s Labour Party conference looming on the horizon, it may seem premature to some to start thinking ahead to the party’s 2018 gathering in Liverpool. But as we mentioned in our guide to organising for conference this coming September, rule changes proposed by constituency Labour parties (CLPs) are currently subject to a one-year delay - meaning that the earliest they are eligible for the conference agenda is the year after they are submitted. As we also mentioned in our earlier article, a proposed rule change may abolish this delay at this year’s Labour conference. But we cannot assume that this will definitely happen, and so we need to work under the assumption that the delay remains in place for 2018.

Therefore, CLPs have until July 7th - the same deadline by which they must choose conference delegates - to submit constitutional amendments for debate at conference 2018. There are several key rule changes being put forward by activists on the Labour left. It is up to rank-and-file members in constituency parties to ensure that their respective CLPs pass these rule change proposals so that they can feature on the agenda at Labour conference next year. These proposed rule changes promise to radically democratise the party and to empower its grassroots membership. The left must therefore work diligently to ensure that these measures go forward to Labour Party conference 2018.

The more constituency parties that support these rule changes, the better their chances of making it as far as a vote at conference. You should contact your CLP secretary or your local Momentum branch to find out more about how to put forward rule changes for next year’s conference, and when your CLP will meet to discuss these matters. If you feel there is a realistic chance of these rule changes being endorsed by your CLP - and this is more likely to be the case in those CLPs already run by the left - it is worth trying to put them on its agenda.

Candidate Selection and Accountability

The most important rule change proposal with regard to candidate selection is ‘A Democratic Selection Process for the 21st Century’, endorsed by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD). This rule change, if it were passed, would ensure that there is the possibility of a full selection process in constituencies without a sitting Labour MP or where the Labour MP is retiring, but also in constituencies where there is a sitting Labour MP who has expressed an intention to stay on. This rule change would see to it that where a sitting Labour MP states a desire to run again at the next election, other candidates are also invited to seek nominations from party branches and trade union affiliates. A shortlisting committee will then be appointed by the National Executive Committee (NEC).

On the face of it, this may seem somewhat similar to the old mandatory reselection process. However, there are some important differences. For one thing, sitting MPs will still have the ability to get reselected automatically. They will, however, have to demonstrate that they have significant support among members in order to so - which the present trigger ballot does not require. Crucially, this rule change would separate affiliates’ nominations from those of party branches. This means that MPs will no longer be able to get reselected on the back of nominations from affiliate branches - some of them merely ‘ghost’ branches more or less solely existing for that purpose. The role of these affiliate branches has been the source of much controversy, most recently in Tower Hamlets and Newham. This rule change requires the sitting MP to seek nominations from party members, enhancing accountability.

Considering the events of the last two years - and the major political gap between the leadership and the bulk of party members on the one hand, and most MPs on the other - it is necessary to ensure that the composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party is more in tune with the party’s rank and file, and that it is largely reliably supportive of the leadership and its politics. This rule change aims to bridge the existing gap between MPs and members, which is testament to the failure of the trigger ballot mechanism among other things. Trigger ballots force members to organise on a solely negative basis - i.e. against a sitting member rather than for another candidate. This proposal aims to replace this with a method allowing members a broader choice from the outset. If passed, it would therefore represent an important advance.

Another rule change proposes tweaking the current trigger ballot system. At present, sitting MPs need the support of a simple majority of local party units and affiliates (i.e. trade unions and Socialist Societies) in order to win a trigger ballot. Given that so many affiliate branches operate in such an opaque manner, this is not generally a difficult threshold to meet. Indeed, many - perhaps most - members don’t even know which trade union and Socialist Society branches are affiliated to their constituency party. CLPD proposes that this threshold should be raised to two-thirds - 66 per cent.

CLPD is also proposing that sitting directly-elected mayors who express an interest in serving a third term should be made to go through a full selection process before they are allowed to run again. This would be a useful measure for keeping mayors accountable, reducing the risk of ‘rotten boroughs’ emerging - again thereby serving the interests of the wider community - and empowering grassroots party members.

Reforming the NEC

Membership of the Labour Party has expanded rapidly under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, surging to somewhere in excess of half a million members. This is more than double where it was in 2015 - and with reports of another surge in party membership after the recent general election, it may even be higher than that. However, party members are represented on the NEC by the same number of CLP representatives (six) as they were before the recent expansion in Labour membership. Indeed, party members elect a total of only eight out of 35 NEC members.

To address this issue, a rule change proposes expanding the CLP section of the NEC from six to 10. It should be noted here that proportionally, the increase in CLP representatives on the NEC would still be lower than the growth of party membership as a whole over the last two years. The inadequate representation of party members on the NEC has meant that since 2015, the body has taken decisions wholly at odds with the will and interests of most members. Increasing the number of CLP representatives on the NEC is therefore important to help redress this balance and to ensure that grassroots Labour Party members have a louder voice.

There are other rule changes in the offing which would, if passed, also go a long way to help empower Labour Party members. One proposes that the occupants of Scottish and Welsh seats on the NEC - currently Scottish and Welsh leaders Kezia Dugdale and Carwyn Jones, respectively - should be elected by the Scottish and Welsh Labour conferences, rather than having party leaders simply take them for themselves.

Also being proposed is the election of two young party representatives to the NEC - one via a one-member-one-vote ballot of young members, and the other by a vote of trade union delegates at Young Labour conference. A similar system is proposed for BAME representatives - one elected via OMOV and the other by union delegates to BAME Labour conference. Currently, both Young Labour and BAME Labour conferences each send a single representative to the NEC. These two rule changes would ensure that young and BAME party members respectively are better represented on the NEC, affirming Labour’s continuing commitment to ensuring that they each have an effective voice in the party apparatus.

Furthermore, these rule changes empower members while also retaining trade union representation. Trade unions are and will remain an integral, intrinsic part of the movement - we should go out of our way to ensure that their interests are not played off against those of Labour Party members. Electing a BAME representative via OMOV ensures that there is at least one member of the NEC elected by all BAME members of the party.

At present, the only designated BAME representative on the NEC is chosen solely via BAME Labour, itself the subject of much criticism from some members who feel it operates in such a way as to shut them and their views out of it. It’s worth stressing here that most BAME members of the Labour Party are not involved in BAME Labour itself - levels of participation in the organisation are notoriously low. BAME Labour’s NEC seat is occupied by Keith Vaz, despite the fact that MPs are already represented elsewhere on the NEC. This rule change would mean that BAME representatives cannot be MPs, enhancing the voice of grassroots BAME party members and ensuring better representation for them.

Electing the General Secretary

The role of general secretary Iain McNicol - seemingly completely at odds with the leader’s office since Jeremy Corbyn’s first election in 2015 - has proven to be hugely controversial in recent years. It was McNicol who successfully appealed against a court judgment which ruled against the NEC’s decision to deny Labour Party members of fewer than six months a vote in last summer’s leadership election. That successful appeal meant that tens of thousands of party members were deprived of a say in the leadership election in 2016, in what was widely interpreted as a partisan move to tip the balance in favour of challenger Owen Smith.

A rule change being submitted with a view to conference 2018 therefore proposes that in future, the general secretary is elected by party conference on the recommendation of the NEC. The NEC will also have the power to appoint a general secretary should a vacancy arise between conferences. The NEC will also oversee the interview process before the top four candidates make it onto the final ballot paper. Party members will then elect a general secretary through an OMOV ballot.

With the very real possibility of a left-led Labour government in the not-too-distant future, we cannot afford to have a situation where the party machine is at odds with its leadership. Yet that is effectively what has happened over the last couple of years. Having a general secretary who is properly accountable to the party membership and the NEC would therefore help to ensure that a party bureaucracy moulded in the image of previous leaders is no longer free to undermine - with practical impunity - a subsequent leadership which is less to its liking.

Other Proposals

Further rule changes devised by CLPD include a proposal to allow Young Labour’s AGM to devise its own constitution and standing orders, thereby clarifying its role and leaving it less prone to the interference of party staff - a major bugbear for many young activists who’ve been involved in the party’s youth and student wings over the years. CLPD is also calling for more flexibility over the time period after which an expelled Labour member can apply for readmission - currently a minimum of five years - and for standing orders to be drawn up for conference, clarifying procedure in a range of areas including the conference timetable, voting processes, how debates are conducted and the role of the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC).

Organising to Win

It’s easy to look at all this and find yourself somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the task ahead - but nobody ever said it would be easy to decisively open up the Labour Party and transform it into a dynamic, radically democratic organisation powered by the initiative of its grassroots members. Yet this is the job the Labour left must do if the promise of the Corbyn project is to be fully delivered upon. The raft of rule changes outlined here would go a long way to democratising the party and shifting power away from the bureaucracy and towards the rank and file, which in turn strengthens the hand of the leadership so strongly supported by party members.

The Labour left must, therefore, be prepared to start pushing these rule changes now so that they stand a chance of making it onto the conference agenda in 2018. It must then ensure that, again, it has the conference delegates necessary to win these crucial votes as and when they take place. A resolute focus and a clear vision of what’s at stake - a Labour Party which can realise the collective ambitions of the millions of working and marginalised people in Britain - must be maintained.

  1. The full list of rule changes currently being advanced by CLPD can be found here