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31 July 2018

To be a true revolutionary, Jeremy Corbyn must subordinate himself to Labour members

As the left consolidates its grip on the leadership, it will be tempted to centralise and to undermine internal democracy. 

By Michael Chessum

So often in political commentating, the urge to focus on technical detail is an alternative to engaging with political ideas. The endless maze of the Brexit negotiations has a provided a classic in the genre of process reportage giving off all heat and no light. But sometimes, debates about structure and process can provide a direct window onto crucial ideological shifts.

The Democracy Review, conducted by left-wing former MP Katy Clark for the Labour Party, is such a window, and has been variously described as a hard left power grab and as an unprecedented move to empower members. Based on the latest draft obtained by Labour List, it is predominantly comprised of a series of long-overdue common sense reforms, for instance the creation of standardised processes in the functioning of constituency parties, the creation of a BAME members’ section, and gender balancing in local government cabinets.

Those changes which are transformative are not new, though, but a reversal of the legacy of New Labour. One is the reform to leadership elections, which will allow candidates to stand with constituency nominations and a much reduced rate of parliamentary support. The other is the reinstatement of conference as the sovereign policymaking body of the party. Under Tony Blair, conference became a stage-managed affair with little time for debate. Local parties can at present only submit a single “contemporary” resolution in a small window between early August and early September, when most are not scheduled to even meet.

Ironically, despite having pioneered the removal of democratic rights from conference, the heirs of New Labour are distinctly unbothered by their reinstatement – perhaps because the primary effect of this will be to make it easier for policy changes to occur without the endorsement of the leadership. The left finds itself deliberately putting in place measures that make dissent easier, and its own position less secure.

So while pundits might like to report on Labour’s internal reforms as a simple battle for power between different factions, they really reflect a much deeper division over the soul and purpose of Labour, a division that dates back to its earliest days. Is the parliamentary Labour party the party of a movement, accountable its members, or is it a set of professional politicians with some supporters tacked on?

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For the New Labour modernisers, stripping back the power of members and elected officers to make policy was about managing the party and staying close to the political centre. Those tasks are more difficult to achieve if there is real internal democracy, both because members can make decisions that contradict your strategy and because those decisions would have been likely to be more left-wing. Along with this went a narrative that saw electability as Labour’s primary purpose and centrism as its only path to power.

The Labour right is in crisis because this narrative is clearly obsolete, even on its own terms, in the world of 2018. Although they would have been viewed as mainstream in the post-war era, the policies of common ownership, taxing the rich and combating austerity are a major break from Labour’s recent past. They are also extremely popular with voters. In contrast, the electorate is deeply mistrustful of the controlled, managerial politics that promised so much in 1997 but in practice delivered a continuation of Thatcher’s legacy and rising inequality. Between 1997 and 2009 when New Labour was in government, party membership figures fell from around 400,000 to around 150,000 and the activity of local branches declined dramatically.

In its current form, Labour’s Democracy Review goes some way to institutionalising the Corbyn surge and opening up the party to control by its members. But without a deeper shift, its effect on Labour’s core democratic processes will just be a shift back in time to before the Blair leadership – and this does not solve the fundamental issue of the accountability of Labour’s parliamentary party. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan often flouted the will of party conference, sometimes pre-announcing that they would refuse to abide by its decisions or presenting it with fait accomplis in the form of IMF loans. 

To really fix Labour’s democratic deficit, the left will have to introduce a range of potentially more controversial measures, which confront the idea that being an elected representative puts you above democratic control from the grassroots of the movement. The election of council leaders and local policy-setting by party members could be a crucial step in rebuilding trust in Labour’s often aloof local government operation. And, whatever it is called, members must have the right to choose their parliamentary candidates before each election – as is the norm in pretty much every left-of-centre party in Europe.

Most importantly, reforms to Labour’s internal structures must be consciously linked to its intentions in government. From Alex Tsipras in Greece to François Mitterand in France, the left’s experience of power has shown the pressures of being in government lead to unhealthy compromises. The only real protection against this is the existence of a mass movement, in which members have the formal power to instruct their MPs and ministers.

As the left consolidates its grip on the leadership, it will be tempted to centralise and to undermine internal democracy. To achieve something truly transformative, it must do the exact opposite: consciously subordinate itself to the will of Labour members.