New Forest East



The Times – 15 September 1993

According to Mr David Kemp QC (letter, September 11) the introduction of "one member one vote" means that "the union block vote will no longer be available to alter the Labour Party conference's decision". Yet, he overlooks a crucial point: constituency activists at Labour conferences are traditionally well to the left of many trade union "barons" – so enhancing their power will undermine, not sustain, the moderate cause.

As Richard Crossman observed, twenty years ago, Labour required activists to organise the constituencies

"but since these militants tended to be 'extremists', a constitution was needed which maintained their enthusiasm by apparently creating a full party democracy while excluding them from effective power. Hence the concession in principle of sovereign powers to the delegates at the Annual Conference and the removal in practice of most of this sovereignty through the trade union block vote" (Introduction to Bagehot's The English Constitution, 1963).

This ceased to apply when many unions shifted radically to the left, but the situation was restored when compulsory postal ballots made union leaders more representative of their own moderate members. In the constituency parties, by contrast, a major survey of 5,065 members as recently as 1990 showed that 71 percent still favoured more nationalisation, and that 72 percent still wanted "nothing to do with nuclear weapons".

No fewer than 66 percent viewed "the class struggle between labour and capital" as the "central question of British politics". 73 percent thought that workers "should be prepared to strike in support of other workers, even if they don't work in the same place". Finally, when asked to position themselves on a Left-Right spectrum in comparison with other Labour Party members, only 22 percent considered themselves to be on the right of the party, whilst 58 percent considered themselves on its left – including 17 percent on the hard left.

If Labour is to avoid jumping out of the union frying-pan into the constituency activist fire, it needs to acknowledge once and for all that the role of the party outside Parliament is to help, to support, to advise and to warn – but not to control the policy of the party inside Parliament. As long as the myth of conference "sovereignty" is allowed to dominate its thinking, the Labour Party will remain in a state of constitutional crisis.

Deputy Director
Conservative Research Department
London SW1