Labour Party Conference Fringe Events

Later than late here's my roundup of the fringe events that I attended at this year's Labour Party conference.

Voting Reform in a Third Term

First in my diary was a packed event titled “Voting reform in a third term” organised by Make Votes Count (a coalition of Electoral Reform Society, Charter 88 and others). Anne Campbell MP, Chair of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform kicked off her main point being that PR is actually politically imaginable these days. 'Super Thursday' this year saw numerous different voting systems in action for European, London and council elections. 10 years ago such a thing would have been unthinkable she argued, showing how much progress had been made in that time. So proportional representation for Westminster is politically possible though she somewhat undermined this point when she explained how hard it had been to keep the commitment to PR in the 2001 Labour manifesto.

This was a love-in, nobody needed to be told why PR was a good thing. They just wanted to hear that PR was coming and soon. Peter Hain MP (Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Privy Seal and Secretary of State for Wales if you wanted to know) tried to persuade Single Transferrable Vote wonks that the Alternative Vote was the only politically viable option for electoral reform. It may be true that AV is acceptable to anti-STV and pro-STV people alike and so presents itself as a viable compromise. But AV is not proportional and can have even more distorted outcomes than First-Past-the-Post.

No MPs are going to be turkeys voting for Christmas argued Hain. But all MPs recognised the challenge of declining turnout and so felt something had to be done. Hence his view that AV could be the answer. He finished with a persuasive challenge to Labour that instead of reaching for PR when it was weak it should make a permanent positive constitutional change to the country when in power. We shall see. Hain did mention one statistic that caught my attention… apparently turnout for electing New Deal boards is double that for local elections. Does anybody know any more about this?

I asked Hain if due to the complexity of proportional voting system he felt that we needed e-voting. His response? 'I'm very concerned about the complexity of voting systems and it's something we need to look at.' Hmmm.

The meeting ended with Robin Cook MP giving a barn-storming speech with many excellent points. Essentially he asked how can any government elected by a minority have any legitimacy or mandate for radical change? (Well it didn't seem to bother him when he was in the government). He argued that democracy was the only alternative to the market. It provided an opportunity for people to be judged equally with one vote each instead of being assessed only in terms of their buying power. Such a view depended on each vote mattering… hence the need for PR. The kidney punch was this though… 'If elected by PR then Parliament wouldn't have voted for war.' Quite probably true and so we heard a new slogan – 'Vote PR for Peace'. Not bad, eh?

Cook continued exploring, using Sweden as an example, how PR allows parties to be more radical because there is less of a battle for the centre: Those few swing voters that can make or break the tiny number of at-risk seats often lead to elctoral battles of 'frenzied moderation' .

Cook told us that he became convinced of the need for PR when he watched Maggie Thatcher being asked by Dimbleby if perhaps the Tories needed some time out of government to refresh their policies. Absolutely no way she had replied, if the opposition get in they'll install PR and the Tories would never get back into power. And there you have it, the progressive reason to push for PR!

As the meeting ended I privately asked Cook if he still supported e-voting having been the one to instigate it when Leader of the House. Yes he replied, though the pilots had been disappointing and postal ballots had shown much better results. I didn't have any time to push him further but it was interesting that he sees e-voting in terms of turnout and not from the security or accuracy angles that so many of us do.

At the event I received a flyer for Billy Bragg's proposal for House of Lords reform. Quite an interesting compromise he's putting forward… read all about it on his site.

The Future of E-Democracy in the UK

The next day the lovely people at VoxPolitics and Sussex Community Internet Project lured us to their event with free drinks and nibbles. Brian White MP, a former systems analyst who is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Internet and E-Democracy groups, started us off. He leapt straight into a discussion on e-voting via Big Brother which led to many eye-rolls from hardened e-democracy wonks in the audience (I'm guilty as were the rest of the panel!). His verdict on e-voting: People who have used e-voting tend to be positive, even if they were negative before, so we need to get more people used to it. Uh-oh.

The rest of White's talk focussed on how e-democracy can enhance accountability through interactive consultations, blogging and good use of email. Refreshingly he quite happily admitted that a targeted email campaign on a certain issue could quite well change his mind.

Next up was MySociety's Tom Steinberg who quoted someone-or-other saying 'Dean ran smack bang into broadcast TV.' In other words e-democracy can only get us so far. It's good at co-ordinating a geographically dispersed group to fight the status-quo but other media are needed to go up to other levels he argued. So short term Internet spending won't deliver much to political parties. I mainly agree with Tom but the fund-raising potential alone of the Internet may be enough to get parties to take the Internet more seriously.

E-Government Bulletin's editor Dan Jellinek finished off the panel's presentations. A few days later Dan was announced as one of the E-Politics top 10 people or organisations having the greatest impact on the way the Internet is changing politics. Anyway his presentation was mainly aimed at getting the discussion rolling but he had several good points I noted down for posterity. Firstly, with elections it's easy to claim that pretty much anything has made a small difference as there's no way of proving or disproving such claims. Secondly the key to online consultations is usability. Labour's Big Conversation could be a good example of e-participation he argued but we have no idea if anything is actually coming out of it. We need to see some results being shared from such projects.

The most interesting thing to emerge from the discussions was that tech-friendly MP White actually prints all the emails he receives! Why? So he can file them along with postcards, letters etc that he gets from the same constituents. White only just won his seat in 1997 and nobody expected him to hold it in 2001 but he did, thanks (so they claim) to his hard work at the constituency level. Perhaps this printing emails thing has something to it!

After the Party: Can Labour restore public trust in politics?

The final fringe I managed to attend (I missed one on ID Cards I'd had hoped to make) was from those clever people at Demos. While notionally on trust in politics the event soon drifted into how can parties increase their membership and much more.

David Lammy MP, a minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, made many interesting points. He felt that the introduction of citizenship classes should be seen as only the beginning of a programme to increase political education. But his key point came down to the differences between party politics, personalities and issue-groups like Greenpeace. Of those three parties were the losers because they occupied, in his view, a nuanced landscape of priorities and compromises. With declining amounts of free time he felt that it wasn't surprising that parties were losing membership. He felt that the US model of affiliation to party might be a useful direction.

Hilary Wainwright, editor of Red Pepper, argued that single issue organisations often actually had much broader agendas than any one issue. She felt that people were less willing to compromise and with the closure of debate, notably by Labour, this led people to activist groups or to just feeling that there's no point. She felt the first of many reforms to revive diversity in politics would be electoral reform.

At this point the whole session became very interactive but Douglas Alexander MP made some valuable contributions. He argued that parties are still based on hierarchical industrial-age models when modern-day society rejects hierarchies and deference. It was easy to be a Labour member 10 years ago when Thatcher was in power because everyone was just against her! Today it's difficult for a member to see how passing a resolution in their local party meeting 'authentically expresses their values', ie makes a difference when compared to the immediacy of protesting on the beach. Alexander argued that local politics forces you to bump into people you disagree with (and even don't like) again and again. He felt that single-issue groups can be very comfortable places to be as everyone agrees with each other (not in my experience!).

Tessa Jowell MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, slipped into the session from the Hansard Society's rather interesting sounding 'The Power Game: Politicians, the Media and the Control of the Political Agenda' (Will Davies attended that one). Jowell was quite frank in admitting she wasn't sure whether political parties could stop falling membership. Any new member attending a general committee and experiencing the jargon was unlikely to return, she commented.

Iraq and top-up fees kept resurfacing from questioners and again when Kierra Box finally was allowed into the session. Kierra, an 18 year old activist who co-founded Hands Up For Peace, main point was that there was no trust because politicians didn't listen to people, especially the young. Her point was eloquently made because unlike all the other panellists she wasn't given a chance to make her opening piece. When finally given her chance Kierra broke into a rant against the lack of grassroots connections in the Labour Party. She gave a nice example of trying to call her local MP but found that it was a national party line with no connection to the politician in question.

Douglas Alexander ended the debate with a key point: How do we resolve the expectations between the age of interactivity and the reflective speed at which Parliament needs to operate? How do we reconcile million person marches with the fact that MPs vote on their own judgements and aren't merely delegates?

All in all, the event ended with many questions and few, if any, answers.