In the past, the Labour
leader has had to listen to the Trade Unions, the National Executive Committee
and the Conference
in order to make policies. In New Labour
, Blair in particular has concentrated power in the leadership by being prepared to bypass NEC
and Conference and appeal directly to membership to back clause 4 change (1995) and draft manifesto (1996), to bypass the Parliamentary Party (PLP) in directly appointing Chief Whip Donald Dewar
and to give strong leads on policy and strategy.
Traditionally, Labour’s belief in equality and sharing out of power- which gave a dominant role to the trade unions- made leadership a more difficult affair than with the Conservative Party. The leader has had to balance the wants and needs of MPs, Trade Unionists and constituency members, and since the 1970s has also had to meet the needs of pressure groups such as women’s groups and black activists. Also, each element within the party contains its own divisions between left and right with many areas of opinion within each topic which have to be taken into account. In trying to keep everyone happy and trying to stop actual and potential conflicts, Labour leaders have had some resources at their disposal: prestige, the authority which comes with the position of Labour leader, the power to appoint the Cabinet, if the party is in power at the time or the Shadow Cabinet if they are not, membership of the NEC and above all he has the desire for office, which can lead to compromise from some parties in debates. A series of strong Labour leaders up to Tony Blair have ruthlessly shifted power away from the traditional power-bases of the NEC and Conference, and towards the leadership itself. Starting in the mid 1980s they rooted out the extremist factions such as Militant Tendency, abandoned the party’s socialist commitment, drove party policy towards centre, and by introducing many organisational reforms, created a more obedient party. These leaders have imposed firm discipline from the centre which controls all sections of the party. A policy adopted in late 1996 permitted the withdrawal of the whip from any Labour MP who voted against the party or brought the party into disrepute. After the 1997 election, two Labour MPs were suspended for bribery and running a smear campaign, four MEPs were suspended for breaking the new rules which meant that they could not publicly criticise government policies, and the suspension of local councillors in Doncaster and Glasgow for misconduct. Also, Tam Dalyell MP and Llew Smith MP faced uncertainty over their futures after they spoke out against Labour’s devolution plans. The reason the leadership were so harsh was that infighting had destroyed the previous Labour government and the former Conservative government. However, critics say that now no-one within the party can send out a warning signal if they think that something is going wrong, which could lead to the eventual downfall of the party.
Tony Blair has tried to give himself more power by lessening the power of the Trade Unions and the power of Conference. He has done this by introducing the system of OMOV (One member, one vote) which means unions can no longer block vote on certain issues.
The Conservative Party is essentially an autocracy. Authority is entirely based around the party leader, who appoints the party Chairman, the Shadow Cabinet when in opposition, and decides party policy, with only their very close colleagues. Between 1965 and 1997 the leader was elected solely by Conservative MPs. However, after 1997, the electoral system changed, making it fairer for the members of the party, and taking power away from the party leader. Firm leadership is expected by the party, and this involves the leader making his objectives clear, and passing these on downwards through the hierarchy of the party. Leaders of the Conservatives need to deliver political success. Electoral defeat, or the threat of defeat, places the leader in immediate jeopardy . Defeat in October 1974 led to the removal of Edward Heath as party leader. In 1990, Margaret Thatcher was ousted as leader, even though she had won three consecutive elections, because she had an unwillingness to change her unpopular policies such as poll tax, and her economic views, which the Conservative Party thought might lose them the next election. John Major’s defeat in the 1997 election was followed by his immediate resignation.
Iain Duncan Smith has tried to provide the Conservative party with a new, more libertarian identity. He and his colleagues are trying to make the Conservative party more inclusive by extending personal choice to all areas. Smith also made the party more inclusive by increasing the influence of members at the constituency level. He did this by sending out ballot papers before any policy changes to find out what the local members thought of the policy. However, this has not really increased the freedom of the party members, because Smith does not have to listen to those members who have filled out the ballot, and so far all ballots have been in favour of the leader, because you are more likely to vote for something than against it. This is because if you are against something, you are more likely to throw away the ballot paper, or not return it.
In all, the Conservative leader has traditionally held more power than the Labour leader. The Conservative party has almpst been a dictatorship, with the leader determining exactly what the party will stand for, and exactly what its stance will be on certain issues. On the other hand, the Labour party has traditionally been more equal, with MPs, local party members, and Trade Unions determining what will happen within the party. However, with recent changes, the Conservative leader has had less say in how the party is run, and the Labour leader has had more say. Despite these changes, the Labour party is still much more equal-minded and relies less on a strong leader than the Conservative Party does.
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