BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 27.01.02

Film: IAIN WATSON reports on the changes Charles Clarke, Chairman of the Labour Party, wants to make to its policy making process.

IAIN WATSON: The tranquility of Ogmore in the South Wales valleys was about to be disturbed, a Cabinet big beast had come to town, it's Charles Clarke, Labour's Superparty Chairman. He has more powers than any of his predecessors and enjoys Prime Ministerial patronage. Here to beef up the by-election campaign, his wider challenge is to boost party morale and stop disillusionment descending into division. CHARLES CLARKE MP: Where political parties have divided from their governments, the most obvious recent example being the Conservative Government in the early nineties - but before that the Labour Government in the late nineteen-seventies, then at the end of the day those divisions have led to the people feeling that they're unelectable. WATSON: Even in winter, it isn't too much of an uphill struggle to get Labour Party members and even Cabinet Ministers out in the streets of the parliamentary by-election. Labour will be challenged here in Ogmore by Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, though this seat should be safe, there are fears there won't be enough Labour activists to pull out the votes at Council elections later this year. Losses are expected and party membership has also taken a bit of a tumble since the 1997 election. So the smell of fear isn't unknown at Labour's Millbank nerve centre. This internal Labour Party document exposes concerns over voter apathy and lack of political activity. So the Party Chairman, Charles Clarke, is anxious to find incentives to get the party members back into action. He's promising less control freakery from on high and more power for the grassroots over policy making. But if his reforms don't go far enough, the party membership may remain inactive; if they go too far, then Labour could be zapped back to the era of division and disastrous election results. Even modern day modernisers have had a rebellious past. PATRICIA HEWITT: Patricia Hewitt, St. Pancras North. Many of us in this conference are also angry about much of what the last Labour Government did and a great deal of what the last Labour government failed... WATSON: To head off the sort of stand up rows seen at Labour Conferences in the eighties, Tony Blair took policy discussions behind closed doors in that National Policy Forum. That system will now be relaxed a little, but one former Cabinet Minister says his colleagues must listen more to the views of the members. CHRIS SMITH: I hope that ministers will always use the policy forum, not as a fig leaf for giving some party justification to things that have already been decided, but as a genuine exercise in listening, understanding what people are saying and sometimes, if the policy forum coherently and cogently argues against what is currently on the table, sometimes being prepared to change minds. WATSON: It may not look like it but this is trendy Islington in North London, a member of Labour's National Executive Committee has come to meet the activists. Charles Clarke wants Cabinet Ministers to follow Anne Black's example by engaging in more question and answer sessions with the masses. But she isn't intoxicated by his promises. Indeed, she's concerned that some of the Chairman's reforms owe more to style, than substance. ANNE BLACK: My worry is that some of the changes I've seen so far will just turn out to be more effective ways of members telling ministers what they think about policy and ministers telling them why they're wrong. And if that's all it is, then we're going to have problems. WATSON: Labour Party meetings aren't always gripping affairs, so the Party Chairman will offer members more than the right to form a respectful audience for visiting ministers. He wants them to be able to discuss a range of policy options at an early stage, rather than simply voting for or against pre-prepared documents at Party Conferences. Some influential voices say these options must cover potentially divisive topics, such as taxation and be discussed in full public view. ANNE CAMPBELL: The process of voting on options at conference is something...that's if you like the end of the process but that's got to be genuine too. I think there was a lot of anxiety around the first round of policy for it that you know, whatever we did, we mustn't let it go to Conference 'cos we might get the wrong decision. We need to seek the party's views on whether we should keep the level of taxation low, or whether we should go for an increase in taxation in order to fund public spending. WATSON: Do you think it would be alright to allow the membership to have a debate over the levels of taxation? CLARKE: Of course, that is a central question and I've got no doubt that when we come to the economic policy review which will be in the years 2002/2003, concluding at the 2004 Party Conference, that we will do just that and it's right that there should be that kind of debate about our aspirations and how we go about achieving them. But the one thing I would caution is that that debate must be very much tempered by reality. WATSON: But that kind of 'trust the membership' response isn't universally popular; while the Party Chairman says it, Tony Blair's in favour of giving party members more say over policy options, ministers close to Gordon Brown are thought to be more sceptical. And those who have seen the effects of an overdose of internal party democracy in the past, warn that problems lie ahead if the result of Charles Clarke's reform is to give more say to party members rather than to the wider electorate. BOB WORCESTER: I think there are several pitfalls that we might catalogue about this initiative. Number one, and I think this is the big problem, it might re-ignite the conflict between old Labour and new Labour. New Labour won the '97 election, New Labour was re-elected with a massive majority in 2001, a party that is perceived to be, whether or not they are, perceived to be, by the British public, split, has a difficulty winning a General Election. WATSON: But Labour's Superchairman has anticipated some of the problems. He knows that party members can be as cantankerous as Railtrack shareholders. So Charles Clarke wants to catch the public mood too. He also wants non-party members to be consulted in the government's future direction. But some policy makers are warning the Party Chairman to proceed with caution. ANNE CAMPBELL: There will always be a worry I think amongst party members that if you start asking people with different political views, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to come in and give their views, we might actually go down the wrong track. So, I think it's all got to be done quite carefully. WATSON: Some leading Labour modernisers say that Millbank's attempts to motivate the party membership require a little bit more than simply tinkering with the policy making structures. They say there's disappointment at what's perceived as a sense of drift in Labour's second term. And now these unlikely critics are setting up a new organisation to ensure that government policy better reflects the party's priorities. Michael Jacobs is the General Secretary of the Fabian society, a Labour think-tank named after the Roman General, Quintas Fabius, who would delay his battles until he felt they were absolutely necessary. Five years into a Labour Government, Michael Jacobs is consulting with other modernisers, including a former policy director at Millbank, to find a way of giving the government more momentum. MICHAEL JACOBS: I think there are a lot of members of the Labour Party who want to see the government be more radical, be more committed and this group, provisionally called Compass, which doesn't yet exist but which there are discussions about, is aimed at bringing those people together to try and put pressure on the government in a sense from the radical wing of the party. There are lots of pressures on any government to be more cautious, more moderate. We need some pressure on the government to be more radical on issues like poverty and equality, on decentralisation and democratic revival ANNE BLACK: If the government was doing things that every party member approved of, then they wouldn't actually care much about the mechanisms. They wouldn't really give a toss whether Conference or the National Policy Forum made the final decision. The problem you get is if you have policies that people are unhappy with and no mechanism for saying so, or for changing them and at that point, they disengage, they stop becoming active, maybe they leave. WATSON: While some ministers are notoriously thin- skinned about criticism, Charles Clarke seems big enough to welcome it; he says ministers should be given the same luxury as the membership on policy development and be permitted to 'think aloud.' But there are warnings that voters might be confused about the government's stance on any issue if ministers are allowed to come out with different lines. WORCESTER: If you allow in a Cabinet form of government different people to be saying different things you are certainly leaving yourself open to exploitation by the opposition during a General Election. Any time that the Prime Minister or one of the leading members of the Cabinet will pronounce on something, they will hit back with ah, but you are split on that issue and that will permeate down into public opinion and possibly do them damage. CLARKE: Yes there are risks, but I think the risks of going down the course I've described of relative openness are less dangerous, both to our party and to politics in general, than the risks of just being in closed smoke-filled rooms and discussing what we're talking about, without having the open discussion. I think that would a more risky enterprise at the end, so we're prepared to take the risks. WATSON: But hard cases make good law and when Europe Minister, Peter Hain unfavourably compared our railway with those he'd observed on his travels in the continent, it was made clear to the press in lurid detail that he'd been rebuked for the crime of saying what he actually thought. A leader pollster believes that in practice, Labour's Party Chairman will have to set limits on his colleagues' freedom of speech. WORCESTER: On some issues, I think the mild mannered Clark Kent will be dropped on by Superman in the guise of Charles Clarke from a great height. Now it's alright to talk about some of the peripheral issues, cultural affairs or whatever and depart mildly from the party line, but if they start coming out with something different on the Health Service, something different on education, or transport, or the Euro, these things upon which the next General Election will be fought, won and lost, these are the issues upon which they will have second thoughts if people start stepping too far out of line. WATSON: The fate of this man could suggest the reduction in control freakery is strictly limited. A by-election panel chaired by Charles Clarke himself in Ogmore kept Mark Seddon, left-wing Editor of Tribune, off the final short list of candidates. CLARKE: Would it be clever politics or not? Would it be clever politics just to include people because they want to be on the short list? Would it be clever politics just to put people on the short list because they say, 'I have a name and I'm a terribly important person' or is it better politics to say we're going to put in front of the membership, people who have performed well under the simulated, I acknowledge, pressures of the by-election interview style that we had and that's what we decided to do. Now had Mark performed better he would have been on the short list. But he didn't. WATSON: Even modernisers say Charles Clarke must be seen to deliver on his wider promises to banish control freakery, otherwise loyal Labour Party activists may decide it's simply not worth putting themselves through all this. UNNAMED MAN: Well I resigned the Labour Party for what they're doing to the normal working people. JACOBS: They feel that the democratic structures of the party are no longer operating properly and that they don't feel involved any more. Almost that it feels like you're a member of a supporters' club rather than a democratic organisation and there's very grave concern about the new policy making machinery that the party has adopted and whether ordinary party members can be involved in it at all. WATSON: So the challenge for Charles Clarke and his colleagues at Labour's Millbank headquarters is to do just enough to lift the spirits of a mildly moaning membership without leaving themselves too open to attack from a more confident opposition. That may well be a task of superhuman proportions.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.