Oct 2005 - Democracy not autocracy

01 June 2013

I can’t help feeling that the most telling speech of last month’s Labour Party conference was made by a man who was not a delegate, and whose contribution amounted to a single word. The man was Walter Wolfgang. The speech was: ‘Rubbish!’

Walter, you will recall, was the 82 year-old Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who was ejected from the public gallery of the conference hall by hefty bouncers for having the audacity to question what was being said by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Mr Wolfgang was right when he said later, 'My case is not important. But what happened to me when I was ejected from the Labour conference tells us there is something deeply wrong with the culture of our government.' His complaint was that the conference - and increasingly, the party - is now so manipulated that it is no longer a forum for discussing issues in a open and comradely fashion.

This is precisely the point I made when I spoke on the first day of the gathering at Brighton. Basically I pointed out that the conference has ceased to be a conference. A conference is, by definition, a meeting for discussion where there is an exchange of views. Linked to this is the assumption that the outcome of those debates will be noted and acted upon by the leadership.

If this does not happen, there is no conference. At best there is a 'get-together'; at worst there is a 'rally'. Ominously, Labour's annual shindig becomes more and more the latter.

The government feels free to legislate (or not) about how trade unions should operate. That is its dubious privilege. But it also means that we are free to insist how the party we fund should conduct itself.

In two words this is: openness and respect. Last month Labour failed on both counts. There must be open debate within a political party. This is how differences are resolved in a reasonable and democratic manner. Becoming a government minister does not give a person a monopoly on truth, and no political party can exist without debate. It stagnates. It becomes autocratic. It degenerates.

There needs to be equal respect for every Labour member. Jack Straw's views are no more valid that those of Walter Wolfgang. Both are equally entitled to express them. And there needs to be respect from the leadership for the views of ordinary Labour Party members, expressed through their delegates at conference. No democratic party can dismiss or ignore the decisions of its own 'parliament'. Yet that is exactly what happened last year when the Labour Party conference called for the return of rail to the public service. There is no point in going to a conference if decisions are going to be taken and just ignored. This is not democracy, it is autocracy.

Labour is happy to lecture trade unions on the need to be responsive to the views of its members, to be transparent and to be democratic. This is exactly the culture we support and strive for at ASLEF.

It is also the one I want to see adopted by the political party to which we are affiliated.

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