An elected party chair mustn’t become the plaything of MPs, says Joanne Milligan

Many weeks ago, Labour leadership contender David Miliband proposed an election for the role of party chair as a step towards ensuring that there’s a voice for party members at the shadow cabinet table.

Discussion of the idea then escalated following a Jon Cruddas’s speech to the Labour Friends of Searchlight’s Organising to Win conference in which he declared that he would put himself forward for the post.

Subsequently, both national executive committee (NEC) member Peter Kenyon and NEC candidate Luke Akehurst took to the blogosphere to offer their views. A little surprisingly – for me anyway – I find more common ground with Peter than Luke on this issue (don’t worry Luke – that doesn’t mean you’ve lost my vote).

I can’t imagine that I need to persuade many members of the need to reform our internal party structures and processes, whoever wins the leadership contest. Our guiding principles in internal reform should be twofold – ensuring a greater say for party members; and instilling more respect by party leaders for the voice of members.

Between them, Jon, Peter and Luke have covered many of the issues that need to be fleshed out, but let me summarise and offer some thoughts of my own.

The post doesn’t exist and that the rule book suggests that rule changes of this nature need to be dealt with by annual conference. I appreciate Peter’s concerns about rule changes being brought to conference next month without any real detail having yet been fleshed out. Surely the NEC can propose a framework rule change which guarantees that this can be discussed, with the rule change able to be amended, at conference this year? What that shouldn’t mean is agreeing a vague framework rule where the issues are fudged and the NEC empowered to fill in the gaps.

There is also an argument that the post shouldn’t exist because other politicians or officials already do, or should, have responsibility for some of the functions being suggested. I have a little bit of sympathy for some of Luke’s arguments on this point, but we should be looking to enact the guiding principles for internal reform that I set out above. That means redefining a number of party roles – politicians and officials. What it shouldn’t mean, however, is accepting without challenge and discussion the definition of the non-existent role by the only already declared interested candidate.

Both Jon and Peter refer to the method of election. In somewhat contradictory comments, Jon says he wants to ‘build a plural, democratic Labour party’ and that having an elected party chair would aid this, but then goes on to suggest the post should be elected by party conference rather than by members. Peter points out that ‘the party adopted the principle of one-member-one-vote (OMOV) for such positions nearly 20 years ago’. I blogged elsewhere recently on my unhappiness about what appears to be a growing culture of the NEC ignoring the OMOV principle and making the franchise suit the preferred candidate. If this is a role to give greater power and voice to members then it’s a role that should be elected by members – simples!

Luke also throws in the old chestnut about expensive OMOV elections as a means to back up his argument that the post shouldn’t exist. Again, a simple solution is available – one which also ensures accountability of the post holder to members and the OMOV principle for election – introduce a fixed-term for the post and ballot members at the same time as the NEC and national policy forum (NPF) all-postal ballots.

The big discussion, and possibly the most controversial, that members need to have a voice in is about whether a ‘members champion’ at the shadow cabinet table should be a post that’s open to MPs to fill. Notwithstanding the many qualities of Jon Cruddas and the excellent work carried out by other MPs – for example Gisela Stuart and Stella Creasy – in being effective voices for their members and communities and outstanding campaigners, it is, after all, only MPs who currently have the opportunity to be elected to the shadow cabinet. Maybe this is one senior post that needs to be open only to ordinary members to fill, elected by ordinary members, and solely for the benefit of ordinary members in having their voices heard and their views respected.

Joanne Milligan is an activist in Croydon South CLP; member of the London Labour Regional Board and London representative on the National Policy Forum.

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