Dark times are here. 

The government’s corrupted and incompetent government’s handling of the pandemic, and its decade-long stripping of the social security safety net, mean that the next few years will be marred by mass unemployment and precarity, dwarfing that of the early 1980s.

We will also see a major increase in inequality, heightened by a process of asset stripping. 

All of this will happen at the same time as the deepening climate emergency.

How might Labour react so as to mitigate some of the worst effects of the coming crisis? And what  models should be developed for the future that will generate trust in what Labour is and does – and leads us back to UK parliamentary power in 2024?

Most answers to that question would be about how we develop our political messaging in opposition to reach those whose votes we have lost, and what programme for government be set out.

But for me – and as a candidate for party treasurer you might expect me to say this – the answer lies in how Labour manages its finances.

There should be a presumption within the party that all finance coming into the party, from whatever source, should be distributed on a fair basis to Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), unless a solid business case – linked to the party’s strategy in UK parliamentary opposition – is accepted by those CLPs through an appropriate decision-making framework.  

This is not far from Crispin Flintoff’s proposals that a straight 50% of all income should go to CLPs –  though I propose a more flexible framework in which CLPs take ownership of what they seek to spend in relation to the business plans emanating from the centre for their consideration.

Whatever precise route is chosen,  what is being proposed is a reversal of the traditional financial flows in the party, in which CLPs get to submit development proposals for a few thousand pounds, with their grant applications scored under a fairly mysterious system.

It is radical, but it also realistic about the amount of funding that local parties need to make a real difference in their community, and in so doing improve the electoral fortunes of Labour in that area. 

I submitted proposals on these lines back in 2013 to the Collins Review, and I invite readers to review the detailed document.  

I would add the following as an attempt to make those proposals contemporary. 

  • Firstly, such a reversal of flows would not mean that CLPs would have to cope with much larger cash amounts than they currently handle.  There would be a ‘virtual chequebook’ system, with actual transactions administered centrally or regionally, but under the control of CLPs (as happens with schools operating under local authority control);
  • Secondly, a welcome consequence of the reversal of financial flows would be to allow CLPs/groups of CLPs to appoint their own staff, with a concomitant decrease in staffing in Labour HQ and regional offices.  This would not be immediate, but over time it would help the party move on from the kind of toxic culture that develops in powerful top-down bureaucracies, even those peopled by talented, committed individuals (see here for my wider exploration of this issue).
  • Thirdly, such a change of flow, with more resources under CLP control, will need to be accompanied by a curtailing of the excess that is annual conference.  While many of those who attend are fully committed to their role, there is no doubt that in some CLPs a significant amount of money goes on conference expenses which might be better used on work in those constituencies; what Covid has taught us is that virtual meetings can in fact be more inclusive than annual celebrity-focused jamborees, and we should make the shift now to embrace that new potential for member inclusion;
  • Lastly, and most important of all, money is needed at constituency level more than ever before. 

The massive hardship coming to our country means that – like the early 1980s but much more so – local parties and movements will need to be ‘out there’. They’ll need to provide for the most vulnerable and engage in effective local economic regeneration/sustainability in ways that also create models of action on the climate emergency.

Pump-priming

 CLP funds will need to be used strategically as ‘pump-priming’, drawing in other resources both public and private, and inclusive of revised municipal investments and pension fund portfolios.  

There will be many ways of doing this, and no one size will fit all, but in my view the most promising way forward lies in drawing on the national scale proposals currently being examined by the non-Tory devolved governments for the development of ‘holding companies’, established to protect for the public good the assets of distressed firms against the asset stripping predators, in exchange for a combination of equity and commitment to good employment and climate practice.

As I have set out in more detail, drawing on this model at CLP level would require the development of Labour Party-driven Community Benefit Societies, tapping into the potential for withdrawable share under Society law (as opposed to Company Law), as a way of jump-starting town/area-wide funds which protect jobs and businesses through socialized ownership (but with a buy-back option built in for business owners as part of a transition from the traditional model of business to this very new one).

The model then becomes adaptable to new green infrastructure (FCA-regulated debt equity comes into play here, but can still be community-managed and owned), for example, and in turn offers evidence to local communities that local Labour is worth voting for, because it gets stuff done.

Our aspirations shouldn’t stop there. 

At local level, CLPs (and rejuvenated Trades Councils) should be using the additional resources available to explore wider themes of community solidarity and renewal.  

As I’ve written at length in the first part draft of my forthcoming book, we might do well to gear our efforts to the themes of truthfulness, conviviality and voice, in keeping with a wider political vision for a society with a renewed respect for professional integrity and geared, through that new professionalism, to discourse ethics which eschews self-defeating populism for empowering inclusion.

But any political vision is delivered by some people starting something.The way to start something, I contend, is to start with the money. 

Releasing resources into local parties is the way to do this.  It will bring meaning to party meetings. 

It will empower those quiet ones at the back who don’t like to speak up but are great at reviewing a set of accounts, or costing a plumbing job for a new resource centre, or working up the childcare arrangements to suit Ofsted requirements.

The Tories are corrupt and incompetent, but they’re really good at slogans.   So let’s just adjust a bit for context, and let’s Unleash the Local Potential.

Reg Cotterill, West Lancashire CLP

Reg is standing for Labour Party Treasurer in the forthcoming NEC election.

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