How members can take control of the Labour Party

Submitted by Matthew on 13 December, 2017 - 11:39 Author: Keith Road and Martin Thomas
Conference should be democratic

The Labour Party is doing yet another democracy review.

This time, however, the review comes under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, and its coordinator is Katy Clark, formerly a left-wing Labour MP and someone we on Solidarity have known as a solid socialist back to her student days in Aberdeen and Edinburgh in the late 1980s and early 90s.

The deadline for Phase 1 submissions is 12 January, and they are to cover BAME (black and minority-ethnic) Labour, Young Labour, and Labour Women's Conference.

Phase 2 (submissions by 23 March) covers more diffuse topics, such as strengthening the involvement and participation of members, but also specifically the governance of CLPs [constituency Labour Parties] and the place of Labour's twenty affiliated socialist societies.

Phase 3 (by 29 June) will deal with the election of the party leader, the composition of the National Executive (NEC), the policy process, local government, and Labour's links with trade unions.

A first report is scheduled for Labour Party conference in September 2018. This should also include all remitted rule changes from the 2017 Labour Party conference. Delegates were assured they would all be considered during the review.

Ensuring that the democracy review is in itself run on democratic principles is important. We would encourage all CLPs, and union affiliates to put forward proposals, invite relevant NEC members and Katy Clark to address meetings and promote participation particularly from young members on the future of Young Labour.

Previous reviews have almost totally ignored the submissions put forward. There is good reason to believe that this time will be different, but we should not be complacent.

Fundamentally any move to greater democracy in the party must mean structures that put basic democratic controls into the hands of members and local party units, with a responsive and accountable national structure that includes oversight of the parliamentary Labour Party and the way the leader and her or his team operate.

One of the great differences since Harold Wilson has been the increasing size and weight of the staff around the leader.
It was previously very easy for other insiders to speak to the leader. Now almost anyone can find it difficult to get past the praetorian guard of staff.

There is a remedy: the sovereign decision-making body of the Labour Party. A conference with meaningful power that set the policy agenda and passes motions that are then included in the manifesto.

At the 2017 conference, Labour passed a number of good polices including the repeal of all existing anti-trade union laws since the conference there has been complete silence on the issue. Most members will not know about the policy, let alone plans for it be enacted by a Labour government. How and where can members get involved to turn the conference resolution into a living campaign, that can draw in support from the wider labour movement and local parties?

There is no method at the moment for the policy to be realised. The frankly hollow and seemingly inept National Policy Forum never appears to consider conference policy when it submits its report to conference.

Conference is only one of several aspects being discussed. Already the scope of the review excludes selection procedures, which are one of the primary principles of a democratic and member-led party. We can see no good reason to be restricted by the official terms when submissions are made to the review.

At this stage we do not know with what level of scrutiny different submissions will receive. We have formulated a series of proposals covering the three stages of the review ,and would be keen to work with others to promote these principles and discuss any other proposals.

Submissions opened on 1 November and can be made either online or by email.

Drawing on past debates and struggles

Ideas to go to the democracy review can be got from the work of the 2010-1 Democracy Task Force, launched by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy but involving others, and run mainly by Jon Lansman, now leader of Momentum, and the present writer.

The work of that Task Force was geared to a previous democracy review, ordered by Ed Miliband. Run by Peter Hain, that review ended up summarily binning the submissions it received including the official submission from all Labour's affiliated trade unions and ramming through a series of mostly-regressive measures on a snap vote, with scarcely a few days' prior notice, at the 2011 Labour Party conference.

The ideas binned by Hain are mostly still relevant today.

On Young Labour, the Task Force declared: The revitalisation of Labour's youth section at a national and local level is a precondition for renewal of the party and reinvigorating its campaigning potential... Autonomy is important for [its activity]. This requires:

The establishment of Young Labour branches at CLP level under the supervision of the CLP, with representation at CLP meetings, and the freedom to campaign on issues it regards as important to young people, and to recruit new members.

An annual Young Labour conference convened by the Young Labour National Committee.

A sabbatical salary for the elected chair of Young Labour, with office facilities, administrative support and adequate resources to maintain an effective and autonomous organisation.

Adequate resources and administrative support for Young Labour at a national level, and full access to for Young Labour officers to membership lists at the appropriate level.

Young Labour should be able to feed into party decision-making at all levels constituency, regionally and nationally, into the... national executive and party conference.

The Young Labour National Committee should be ex-officio delegates to Labour Party conference, and be entitled to move motions there which have been approved and prioritised by Young Labour conference.

Three things can be added today. Young Labour should have its own constitution, decided by Young Labour conference. (At present the rules for Young Labour are made up arbitrarily by Labour head office, and changed from year to year).

The new Labour leadership should not only allow, but positively campaign for, the setting-up of constituency Young Labour groups. When a mostly right-wing Labour Party, trying to reverse a long period of decline, launched youth groups in 1960, within a short time (by Easter 1961) there were 721 of them, more than one per constituency.

With Labour Party membership buoyant today, and strong Corbynism among young people, similar rapid growth could be got today, if only the Labour leaders would campaign for it.

That would also lay the basis for Young Labour conference to be a conference of delegates from Young Labour groups (as it was in previous times), rather than a mixture of delegates from CLPs, from often rather bureaucratic trade union youth structures, and from student Labour Clubs, as today.

The 2011 text referred generally to The strengthening of the women's and BAME structure

There need to be active and representative women's and BAME organisations at local (CLP), regional and national levels and at the moment there are neither.

The current rulebook licenses constituency women's and BAME forums, rather than the women's sections which had existed (I believe) from 1918 up to the Blair days, and the black sections which existed unofficially in the 1980s. These forums are, by rule, run by officials elected by the whole CLP and have their activity controlled by the whole CLP. They lack the autonomy that the previous sections had, and are even now sparse and lifeless compared to the past.

BAME Labour is now a socialist society, but unlike all other socialist societies has direct representation on Labour's National Policy Forum and NEC (currently the egregious right-winger Keith Vaz), and ex-officio representation at Labour conference.

The structural position of Labour's affiliated socialist societies is a mess. Until 1918 Labour had no individual membership, and the socialist societies (ILP, Fabians, for a while the Marxist SDF and later the Marxist BSP) were the local-activist complement to the affiliated trade unions.

Now Labour has twenty socialist societies, ranging from Labour Business through Chinese for Labour to the Labour Animal Welfare Society. They are mostly small and have little representation in national structures.

Their status is open to abuse: if your local right-winger who has no support in her or his local branch does not turn up as a delegate from a union branch which never meets, she or he may instead arrive at your constituency General Committee or EC as from a newly-cooked-up and shadowy local branch of the Labour Party Irish Society or Christians on the Left.
Tidying all that up, however, seems difficult and not a priority for the left.

The 2011 text contained much detail about the NPF (it being considered unrealistic then to try to abolish it in the short term), but I think the left is now strong enough to say that the NPF (which has never worked even on its own terms) should be scrapped.

It also contained a fair bit of detail about the NEC. The main priority for the left there should be to make more explicit what was implied by the 2011 document, namely that the policy authority in the party should be the conference, or the NEC between conferences, and not the Leader's Office.

The main points from 2011 are important for what is now called the policy process.

The party's federalism is important at all levels: the traditional branch and GC structure can work well, enabling trade unions to be drawn into local activity and policy making, and we support retaining it it helps to provide accountability and transparency...

Members must know they have a real voice in the party.

Pluralism is important diversity of opinion should be valued in a healthy democratic party...

The 2011 document also focused on making Labour Party conference the central political authority in the party.
A 'living breathing party' with a real functioning democracy requires that party conference has real debates and votes on the key issues, with decisions taken by the delegates representing the membership (individual and affiliated). A good indicator of a 'iving breathing' conference is how much time is devoted to delegates' contributions. The Conference Arrangements Committee should ensure that at least half of conference's time is devoted to delegates contributions in debates on which votes are taken.

'Real functioning democracy' requires that members (individual and affiliated) are able, through their CLPs and Unions, to submit their policy proposals, have them considered, see the outcome and have them voted on. All motions for conference should be published online. Composites should be produced [well in advance of conference] on the most popular six topics amongst CLPs, based on the number of motions submitted on each topic, and another six for the affiliates (to ensure that smaller affiliates are also included).

Each CLP and affiliate should also be able to submit a motion on issues of organisation, finance and campaigning and a rule change on any topic. Rule changes should be considered in the year they are submitted.

[If the NPF is retained] conference should be able to consider minority positions from the NPF and amendments from CLPs and affiliates, or to take documents section by section.

All party conference documents, including annual reports, policy documents, motions, records of decisions, votes and proceedings, should be published on Membersnet. National executive papers and minutes should be published on Membersnet, outside exceptional cases. Agendas should be published in full. The National Executive should return to the practice of taking questions and comments on all of its annual report at conference, and submitting it for the approval of conference, subject to the reference back of any parts with which conference disagrees.

The party's rolling programme... approved by conference each year, shall be the basis of the party's election manifesto.

On rule changes, maybe we should also argue that the NEC should not be able to put rule changes through conference unless it has given the party due notice and allowed procedure for amending its rule-change proposals.

The new review does not cover selection of candidates. The 2011 document said:

There should be a renewed right of members to select all candidates prior to each election. This would mean that the selection (and reselection) of parliamentary candidates would be put on the same footing as that of all other candidates for election, except that we would accept that shortlists of one should be permitted for sitting MPs where there was only one nomination (a procedure which should replace the trigger ballot).

For local government, as is already the case for parliament, candidates should no longer be required to have prior approval from the district, borough, city or county party...

Working-class representation in parliament, including amongst Labour MPs, has suffered badly in recent years, and this needs to be addressed. It is a good reason to resist any reduction in the role of trade unions in the nominations process, although trade unions do need to ensure that they are encouraging their working-class members, shop stewards and lay officials, to stand as well as their political officers, researchers and legal advisers. The provision of training is an important aspect of increasing the numbers of working class, women and BAME MPs.

In local government, the Local Campaign Forums set up to replace borough Labour Parties, local government committees, etc., under the Hain-Miliband changes of 2011, should be scrapped and replaced by the old structures.

In the 1980s, some left-wing Labour council groups gave the ultimate authority in their decisions to joint meetings of the council group and the local government committee or borough Labour Party. That system was outlawed by Labour Party rules later in the 1980s, but should be made the general rule. And the Labour Party rule passed in 2016 to outlaw Labour council groups making decisions contrary to central government (Tory) rules should be rescinded.

The 2011 document had little on anti-purge protections; the place of unions within the party; or on leadership elections.

Expulsions should be done only for opposing Labour in elections or for gross and damaging anti-worker, racist, sexist, or discriminatory behaviour, and only after a hearing, with prior notice of charges, with the National Constitutional Committee.

All those penalised should have the right to appeal to an autonomous appeal committee.

Suspensions of party units or individual members, or putting of CLPs into special measures, should be imposed only when risk of damage to the party's fabric makes that essential, and only with the right to a hearing and a resolution within a short fixed time.

As regards place of unions in the Labour Party, the priority for the left is to defend the affiliate structure, and reverse the Collins report provisions downgrading the unions' role.

Other changes necessary in the union role within the Labour Party are mostly things that need to be done within the unions themselves. In the 1980s the left proposed allowing union block votes to be broken down so that large union delegations could allow internal minorities to vote differently, especially on issues where the union had no settled conference policy. Apparently at least one union had done that in the early 1950s.

That idea is more relevant now, with the huge block votes. As I understand it, the Labour Party now does give each union delegate separate voting credentials, rather than just one block-vote card to each general secretary. It is union custom and practice, rather than Labour rules, that union delegations vote as a block, and indeed in recent decades, on most issues, all or almost all the affiliated unions vote as a block.

The provision in the 2011 document for votes to be published is a useful corrective here.

In the 1980s the whole left used to argue that election of leader at conference was the best method. We settled for an electoral college only to take advantage of an USDAW union conference decision and thus get a majority for imperfect reform.

Given the weaknesses of conference, it would be quixotic to put energy into arguing for conference election rather than the one-member-one-vote system which was introduced by the right wing but, in 2015, blew up in their face.

We should argue for the suppression of the non-affiliated supporter category, and for the restriction of OMOV to the leader and deputy leader and CLP NEC place elections, rather than its extension to other fields.