Party conferences: less democracy, more glitz
Its rather saddening to be reading a report about the upcoming Labour party conference that makes the whole affair sound more like a pop-show than a real chance for grassroots members to intervene in deciding the direction of their party. We are now firmly in the age of closed committees deciding how parties should run, and stage management of conferences with glitzy show piece addresses and little real debate is becoming the most common denominator in all of this.
Brown claims that he wants to draw a line under the Blair years. He doesn’t seem to be doing much to provide real substantive changes. One of the things that I found marvelously horrific about Blair was the fact he publicly moved British politics closer to American politics, through a common war agenda and through manifesting in Britain such horrible thoughts as a Department (ok, Ministry) of Justice instead of the very British ‘Home Office’ we were all used to. But the fact is, Blair’s agenda at a party level followed an even more alarmingly American set of trends.
Blair was actually a pupil of the Clinton-era Democratic Party, which he and others remodeled as the “New Democrats”. This meant replacing all debate within the party with closed committees which were always very obliging to lobbyists, ensuring that money, and not popularity, informed the party. Conferences became a series of Rallies, which were more aimed at motivating the foot soldiers and servants within the community than actually creating any kind of party strategy.
The New Democrats were able to win because they didn’t let their membership screw things up by creating policies that corporations would baulk at. Indeed, this was all part of the trend for corporations to donate to both Democrats and Republicans, giving the Democrats maybe a third to a tenth what they gave the Republicans, but guaranteeing that they’d funded the winner all the same.
It was because of the disaster of this policy with ‘ordinary’ Americans, who hold democracy up like a banner in a fairly admirable way, that Barack Obama has been able to come on the scene with a message of ‘listening to the public’ and make it sound almost like a call to revolution. Obama holds dinners with small selections of his supporters, and this is held up as being groundbreaking, which in a way it is, only its ground across which his party only moved in the opposite direction about 15+ years ago.
Blair was seen as a European counterpart to Clinton in his attempts to move a party away from a history of failure because of listening to its membership towards a future of ignoring the membership and thus winning. Indeed, Blair seemed to completely forget, most of the time, that he was merely the Prime Minister, and not the all powerful President he seemed to aspire to be; Claire Short even declared that he ‘ruled by diktat’. But Blair succeeded much better where Clinton mostly failed, and now Brown can walk out, claiming to be drawing a line under the Blair years, and simply continue this slide towards Rally based politics. And this slide away from democracy is continuing.
In terms of democratic capacity, the Trade Unions, flawed, hierarchical and undemocratic as they are, have always ensured that if something was done against the personal economic interests of the British working classes, a debate could be held at the conference and the party brought back to account. This would happen in front of the media, and could therefore be quite embarrassing.
Now its all about being able to take the Unions on one side, explain why its not possible to do as they wish, tell them that if they kick up a fuss, they will regret it later, and get back on with running the party into the hands of the corporate paymasters who will underwrite it come election time.
So, as the Trade Unions of Britain quite rightly demand a national referendum on the European Constitution, and one which will actually force Brown to sign or not as the case may be, it is no surprise that Brown is also trying to remove their power, saying it will only be for two years to see if this makes things better. Well, of course, if you’re New Labour, this will make things better.
The point of the Unions according to New Labour’s thinking is to deliver the working class vote, not to help run the country or inform policy decisions. It is also to ensure the working class don’t get too out of hand, and to condemn any long term strike action (anyone how few times in recent years a Union’s leadership actually backed an all out strike by its own members).
Of course, I could also write about what has happened to hecklers and other protesters at these events, and how the media circus can no longer tolerate any kind of dissent from the party, who must all patiently watch and clap at the correct moments.
So when Labour arrive in Bournemouth next week, don’t think that anything is happening which might have an effect on you. Instead, watch as the politicians-turned-pop-stars are greeted by adulating fans who know when to clap, watch the media circus as a huge PR machine tries to convince you that the fact Labour appear together and nicely synchronised is sign that they are in any meaningful way a good party.
Maybe someday we’ll start to react like the American’s do to the last party convention before an election: thousands of people protesting for days trying to shut down the conference, realising that such an event, in its newest incarnation, cannot be a part of a functioning democracy.