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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.