It wasn’t until I read the report on Ron Windle’s death in the ‘Tiser last Friday that I remembered Project 99. I had no idea they were still so exercised by this last attempt by the Labour Party to ensure proper accountability of elected members. Since then, the Party has gone backwards and we are pretty much back to where we were in Local Government prior to 1997! Out of touch local politicians, paying only lip service to Labour’s constitution! Back to the future, would be an appropriate and simple way of explaining what happened here in Rotherham.
Once Tony Blair and his coterie took control of the Labour Party in the wake of the sudden death of John Smith, the then leader. They realised that the Party itself, was one of the biggest obstacles to a return to government.
Labour leaders from Michael Foot through Neil Kinnock and John Smith had tried to reform the party from within with some success at least superficially. Kinnock’s fight to the death with Militant was perhaps the major turning point. John Smith tried the ‘constitutional’ route by changing the way the party organised but this approach was already exposed as a failure that could not ultimately work. Despite this, John Smith managed to ‘modernise’ Clause 4 in 1993, with a little help from John Prescott, which included the abandonment of a socialist perspective in the Constitution of the Labour Party.
The biggest problem facing New Labour once in power? The ‘fiefdoms’ in the North in Labour’s ‘Heartland’ areas! Those in control locally, had their own ‘agendas’ which was frequently at odds with the party centrally. Power in these places resided, then as now, in the hands of the Labour Groups. Populated by time served apparatchiks, often with limited abilities, and in some cases of great age. These Labour Groups were largely out of the control of the party and often corrupt as well. Rotherham would have served as an archetype of this tendency.
When Blair took over the reigns of the party it was so hungry for power the membership would have done almost anything to secure a period back in government. Members would have swallowed anything that was necessary to secure victory at the 1997 General Election. Discipline was enforced, at least for public consumption, all embarrassments kept from the public by means of a very slick public relations operation with Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson heading it up.
Plans were already in train before the 1997 General Election to attempt to remove this obstacle to future electoral success by removing the ‘dead wood’ and replacing them with councillors much more in the new Labour mould than hitherto. The fact is, Labour had successfully ‘airbrushed’ out the unreconstructed nature of the party at grassroots level throughout Labour’s ‘Heartlands’ during the General Election. The strategy they came up with was Project 99 followed by Project 2000. This was an attempt to standardise and set standards of performance for all local councillors by controlling the selection process, giving real power to the members and more importantly challenging the power of the Labour Group.
Project 99 would be universally welcomed by the membership, but most definitely not by the councillors, whose power was being challenged! Rotherham was entirely typical in this respect and a battle for control ensued but complicated in Rotherham by the Deputy Leader Garvin Reed, who fancied himself as some sort of ‘Derek Hatton’ back then to the weak Leader, Jack Layden followed by the less cooperative Keith Billington, who had to clear up the mess left by Garvin, once he was unmasked as a delusional fraudster.
Garvin was still smarting, as was Roger Stone, from Roger’s ignominious defeat to John Healey, in the selection battle for the vacant Wentworth Parliamentary Seat. This exposed Garvin’s essential weakness, and a period of internecine blood letting and score settling followed, with at least two ‘Stalinist show trials’ of entirely innocent members and one full scale leak enquiry! Cheered on from the sidelines by everyone who had their noses put out of joint by Healey’s success, they went for the only people available to them to take their frustration out on. Disgracefully one MP stuck his knife in personally on one occasion leading the mindless baying for blood! Who was this? Kevin Barron, no surprise there then!
Project 99 certainly stirred things up in Rotherham all right! Now we know just how unhappy the collection of incompetent deadbeats were and still are, thanks to the ‘Tiser! Unfortunately, the fact is Project 99 changed nothing over the long term and local government now presents the same problems Blair had faced before the 1997 General Election. We will have to wait and see whether Ed Miliband is up to the task of proper Party reform. I bet he dodges it in the end?