ARE LABOUR GROUPS ‘SOVEREIGN’?
RECENTLY, A LETTER WAS CIRCULATED for Labour council leaders to sign, asking them to condemn the NEC for questioning the wisdom of Haringey’s public-private housing deal. I refused to sign it, for two reasons: firstly, because I thought the NEC did have a right to comment on Labour council policy decisions where they ran against national Labour policy; but secondly, and more importantly, I wasn’t going to sign a letter that referred to council Labour groups as ‘sovereign bodies’.
This phrase has appeared many times over the years, as a way of maintaining that Labour groups are somehow politically separate from their local Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), accountable to no one but themselves and their own interpretation of ‘public opinion’. But this simply isn’t true. It’s true that Labour groups are independent from the party in their day-to-day decision making and the way they choose to put policies into practice. But those policies should always be derived from the local manifesto, which must, under Labour Party rules, be drawn up by the CLPs within the council area. It’s then the duty of the Labour group to make sure that manifesto is put into effect.
In Hastings we adhere to this process well. We have council elections this May, so the process of drawing up the manifesto began last September, with a manifesto working group meeting over four months, to which all party members were invited. That can be a fraught process, and an anxious time for council cabinet members, having to justify why we can’t spend millions more on new services when the money just isn’t there.
But in the end, we end up with an inspiring (if rather long) manifesto that’s deliverable, and which party members have had a hand in. I then spend my Christmas writing the whole thing up. The manifesto is circulated to all branches in the New Year, and goes to the General Committee in January to be amended and endorsed. The full version goes online, after it’s launched, usually in early March, and includes information on how well we did against our promises from the previous manifesto. But we also produce a summary version that’s delivered to every home in the borough, as the election campaign gets going. So when a Labour council is re-elected in May, we have a neat treaty between the party, the electorate and the council - a manifesto drawn up by the local party, which every party member had the chance to be involved in, and which every elector had the chance to vote on. It becomes a contract between the Labour Party, the Labour council, and the electorate.
As council leader, I write a monthly report for all party members, which ends up on the CLP website. But I also produce a biannual feedback report to the local party on how well we’re achieving our manifesto commitments, to make sure the manifesto is properly monitored between elections.
Having a democratic manifesto also avoids conflict between the local party and the Labour group. Everything the council does should be a means to realise the manifesto, which the party and the electorate have both approved. If it doesn’t, the council shouldn’t be doing it.
Of course, no matter how detailed the manifesto is, it can’t predict every eventuality and frame policies for everything the council will ever need to do. But it should cover all the major issues, and can be a framework for discussion about anything else that’s contentious. From a council leader’s point of view, having a detailed, democratically agreed manifesto is comforting - it shares the responsibility for council policy with a lot more people than just Labour group members. But in terms of my relationship with the local Labour Party, it makes my life a whole lot easier. So, Labour groups must be answerable to the local party and the electorate, through a detailed manifesto - free to make decisions as they see fit, but held to account, and never ‘sovereign’.