Sunday, June 03, 2007

So will it be fisticuffs with Ming at Conference?

In an attempt to catch up with the threads of debate on the blogs I happened upon Jeremy Hargreaves piece on getting into fisticuffs with Ming at conference. As you might imagine I couldn’t quite let that go without comment.

I am still, it has to be said, learning the ropes on FPC – however, I think I have attended enough meetings now to begin to get a handle on things. Firstly, I know of members of the said committee who despair as they see it as nothing more than a rubberstamp for the Shadow Cabinet. Secondly, there is a view, which has been expressed (but as you know under Chatham House Rule my lips are sealed as to who by), that goes something like this. FPC is the policy making body of the party, so, should conference get above itself and vote against FPC policy (let’s say on something like Trident), that is very damaging to the authority of FPC and we should all be jolly glad it hasn’t happened.

So, the implications………….Shadow Cabinet may well take an opposing view to the leader, but loyalty means they are unlikely to push it, FPC similarly may (although I have not yet witnessed it) take an opposing view to the leader, but they may also feel constrained by loyalty/emotional blackmail, so that just leaves conference to tackle to ensure the leader always gets his way. Hence, the same implied disloyalty, damage to the party, emotional blackmail line – enhanced by an appeal to the fact that the press are always looking for stories of splits and challenges to the leadership. The irony is, whatever my beliefs about whether Ming should or should not be leader, I don't see him as someone who insists on having his own way, maybe it is our insecurities as a party that lead us to worry about being at odds with him.

The logical conclusion of Jeremy’s argument is that dissent should be suppressed to enable the leader to appear to have the support of the whole party on absolutely any and every issue. Sound familiar? If this is the road we are being corralled towards I think far from strengthening the party and the leader, it will weaken both. What will be the point of conference? And fairly soon after that what will be the point of FPC? Don’t want to sound like a broken record, but dissent surely is the lifeblood of democracy. Ming’s best approach to dealing with it is to say “Bring it on”. Sometimes (rarely if previous experience is anything to go by) he may lose, but more often than not he will win. This is about his confidence, not only in himself but also in his party. What boxer goes and sits in the corner and sulks every time he gets a bloody nose or loses a round? The mark of a fighter is their ability to get up and go right back to the battle. (Sorry about the fighting/military metaphor but I couldn’t think of a better one!) And frankly, what’s that saying about all publicity being good publicity? Let’s get real - we have enough of a problem attracting the attention of the media as it is, if there was no debate on contentious issues at conference we would receive even less.

So Jeremy, I understand your concerns but don't share them. The media will always be peeping round the corner for the next leadership contest, regardless of party. We have to continue to make a virtue of the fact that we are the party that actually allows the membership a voice and consequently has more chance of making policy that is in touch with the grassroots of our country. And Ming has to take the high moral ground in this and show he is able to take the odd sling or arrow of healthy dissent amongst his troops. (whoops that's my army background leaking out again!) Those battles he wins will make him stronger and those he loses, wiser.


Jeremy Hargreaves said...

Hi Linda

Thanks for commenting on what I'd written.

I really don't think anyone in the party thinks that FPC is the most important policy-making body in the party - that is clearly Conference, both constitutionally and in practice. The Leadership and all at FPC I think are strongly aware that whatever they decide to propose, it’s up to Conference to make the final decision.

I think you're right that one way of responding to the potential concern that I raised, would be basically to abolish the party's ability to decide on policy, and to hand it all over to the Leader. However I did go out of my way to say that I most definitely did not support responding to it in that way! I don't think I pulled my punches! I wrote:

"I certainly don’t think the answer is to make changes to prevent conference from taking the most important decisions about what our party thinks. That’s what it’s there for, and if anyone senior in the party thinks that the most important decisions about the party’s policy should be taken in a room in Westminster rather than at conference then they should be in a different party."

The party as a whole has got to retain the power to make those decisions. So I don't at all think that removing the party's power to do that is the "logical conclusion" of what I was saying.

And perhaps I've misunderstood but I'm sorry if you think I was trying to corrall anyone in any direction - I really wasn't, just trying to reflect on something that seems to me to be an issue.

I also think that you're quite right that Ming hasn't sought to do any of this above - "Bring it on!" seems to me quite a good way of summarising the approach he has taken to arguing his point of view at Conference, and has been quite happy to debate his position with others.

I was simply trying to say that I think something like the present system is what we ought to have, but it does seem to potentially give us a bit of a problem with the media handling if there is a perennial - and as you attest, wrong - perception that the party and its leader are (to borrow the boxing language you used!) in the blue corner and the red corner!

Anonymous said...

Too true! I can't stand the idea of our conferences becoming like new labour's (just applauding the leader and being chucked out if you have anything negative to say). we cant let the fear of the media blackmail us into submission. I have had an idea recently though about setting up a petition amongst party members to allow us to kindly ask ming to leave (I dont think anyone really wants him to be ousted after Charles).

Linda Jack said...

Thanks for both comments. Jeremy,I know you would never seek to corrall us - but sometimes it feels to me as if others are! Anyway, I am glad we are having the debate, it is really important, especially at a time when we have such opportnities, with Cameron losing the plot and the prospect of Mr Boring Brown...lets go on the offensive eh?!

Paul Walter said...

Linda - any chance you could make your font a bit smaller - it is quite difficult to read because it is unusually large. Many thanks

Anonymous said...

Just to let you know I'm reading Linda!

This is always a difficult balance for a democratic party like ours to pull off.

I'm not sure that your description of the FPC is wholly accurate. The party gets the FPC it wants by electing most of the members. In my experience, the FPC does flex its muscles. For instance at the last meeting it voted down a proposals from our Shadow Chancellor!

All the best


Linda Jack said...

Well Greg, I am glad you are reading........should I be flattered or worried (??!!) I defer to you on FPC, yes we are elected (tho I think we could do a lot more to engage the whole membership - it took me years to get even a cursory understanding of FPC et al), yes, the Shadow Cabinet position got the better of even our Shadow Chancellor (does that prove my point?!)