“Will you help write our manifesto, [[first name]]?”, Jeremy Corbyn inboxed me, on 2 November. “I want to hear your priorities for our manifesto”, he continues, inviting me — and hundreds of thousands of others — to participate in a consultation, open for four days.
Well, if you remember Jezza, we just had a conference to decide just that: Labour’s September national conference.
September’s conference brought together delegates from Labour across the country, and from the affiliated unions, to democratically decide our policies. Thousands of delegates descended upon Brighton, representing hundreds of thousands of party members, and millions of affiliated union members.
Delegates from each constituency are elected by their Constituency Labour Party (CLP), and can be mandated and held accountable by that CLP. All Labour members can take part in electing, mandating, and holding accountable their conference delegates. The number of delegates is roughly proportionate to the number of Labour members in that constituency.
CLPs and affiliated trade unions can debate and send motions, which are prioritised, composited, debated and voted on by conference. In theory, and according to basic democratic principle, motions passed by Labour’s conference become Labour policy, and should form the basis of Labour’s manifestos.
In practice Labour’s democracy, and conference, isn’t as democratic as my sketch above would suggest. The running of CLPs, unions, and conference often make it difficult for members to engage, to understand, to challenge bureaucratic machines
Steps have been made in recent years to improve conference democracy (for example, 20 topics are now debated, where it used to be a maximum of 8). CLPs have become livelier. Much bigger changes are needed. And unions, too, need transforming.
But still, the conference is a conference, the focal point of months of debate in local Labour Parties and in the unions. At this year’s conference, activists brought, fought for, and won radical policies on free movement, migrants’ rights, anti-trade union laws, homelessness, and much more. The leadership of Labour and some of the big unions tried their best to keep many of these policies off conference floor.
We won despite them.
Since then, the leadership have been silent on almost all of these policies; and have actively, repeatedly, contradicted the policy on free movement. This is an affront to democratic principles. Respecting conference’s mandate is not only the democratic thing to do, but would help enliven and so improve the democratic processes going forward.
A consultation, superficially, may seem more democratic. After all, Corbyn is asking for the opinion, directly, of everyone he sent the email to. Surely a larger number than the conference delegates.
But no — consultationocracy is not democracy, and is much worse than democracy.
A lot of us know that from work. Endless “surveys” and “consultations” of staff are a common ploy by bosses who want to sideline trade unions.
Some of us know it from the Blair days in the Labour Party. Blair made a show of defying Labour Party conference when it was critical. He also made a show of encouraging electronic submissions to “policy commissions”. The members were “consulted”. The consultation had no effect on policy.
Because people know these facts, consultations generally have low levels of participation. The self-selected few who responded will probably be fewer than the delegates at the conference. Certainly have been orders of magnitude smaller than the number of those represented by these delegates.
Additionally, the process of consultations is atomising, rather than encouraging engagement, discussion, and debate; the processes which make it possible, for minority — generally more radical — opinions to win people over, and become majorities.
There is very little opportunity to challenge the creators of the consultation, or to hold them to account. There is no explained process for how responses will translate into the manifesto.
Consultations are almost always used extremely selectively, with results ignored, highlighted, or spun depending on preconceived priorities.