Democracy means that conference decides

Submitted by AWL on 11 March, 2020 - 8:12 Author: Sacha Ismail

Labour deputy leader candidate Richard Burgon has launched a set of ten democracy proposals for the Labour Party, including a clear statement that conference should be sovereign over Labour policy.

His argument that Labour’s national conference must be its sovereign decision-making body is clear and welcome, and is evidently not just a passing gesture for tactical advantage. He made the same case in not-very-widely-circulated interview with Aaron Bastani and Michael Walker on 10 February.

Burgon’s wider politics are close to those of the Stalinist *Morning Star*, and it is not clear why he has launched these proposals so late in the Labour leadership contest, on 4 March, nine days into the ballot period which closes on 2 April, and after many people have already voted.

But he explains:
“The [2017] Democracy Review was an important step forward in creating a members-led party. But there is a long way to go to implement all its recommendations and to create a truly democratic party.

“As deputy leader, I will push for all its outstanding recommendations to be fully implemented whilst simultaneously launching a Democracy Review 2.0.

“It will ultimately be for the members to decide the best ways of further opening up the party…

“I am launching these ten proposals to spark that next wave of discussion on how we strengthen grassroots members’ say. Some will agree, some will disagree but – whatever your view on these specific proposals – if I am deputy leader, members will be in the driving seat in deciding how we best democratise our party.”

Burgon’s proposals also include:
• automatic open selections for candidates;
• a guarantee that policies achieving an agreed threshold at conference will be in the manifesto
• replacing the National Policy Forum with a more democratic system
• an annual women’s conference with policy-making powers and maybe conferences for other oppressed groups
• removing the ability of the PLP to block leadership candidates
• and election of council Labour group leaders by local members.

Some of Burgon’s specifics raise issues. Say the threshold for a policy being included in the manifesto is 60%. That could mean a much argued-over and important policy which wins 59% of the vote not being included, while a little-discussed policy winning near to 100% is. The fact that many votes at Labour Party conference are not counted at all also raises a problem: sometimes chairs deny delegates a card vote even when one is requested.

Burgon’s proposals for student and youth representation say nothing about democratic national structures or about building functioning local groups, only a “a new national student body that secures maximum involvement” and “regional Young Labour committees”.

In terms of replacing the NPF, he calls for “much better use of digital engagement” and more widely he calls to “invest in digital tools and technical support, so that CLPs can properly engage with their members using a range of channels, bringing the party into the 21st century”.

Better use of IT and the internet is good. For instance, the Labour Party currently refuses to publish and circulate in advance motions submitted to conference. That and other useful information could be put on the web at virtually no cost, and it would facilitate democratic engagement and control.

Unfortunately, given the dominant discourse in the party, there is a real risk of “e-engagement” being used to undermine what limited democratic structures and meetings currently exist in favour of more atomised and passive pseudo-democracy.

So there is plenty to discuss further. Overall Burgon’s proposals point in the right direction.

“Policy labs” or proper votes?

Rebecca Long-Bailey, one of the candidates for Labour leader, has announced that she is organising “over a dozen” local “policy labs” across the country to discuss Labour Party policy.

These are “Rebecca for Leader” meetings, and so not necessarily an attempt to replace votes in Labour Party structures by glorified “focus groups”. And discussion is good.

But the way Long-Bailey talks about this process does hint somewhat at the “focus group” approach.

“I know from developing the green industrial revolution through meetings across the country with unions, businesses, local communities, members, activists and experts that policy created at the grassroots is more robust and more relevant to people’s lives.”

So we can replace class struggle by “grassroots” meetings with businesses, and it’ll all be good?

In fact, over climate policy at last year’s Labour conference, Long-Bailey led the effort to avoid radical proposals from CLPs making it to conference floor. Since then, as shadow minister responsible, she has ignored many even of the policies that were agreed by conference.

A democratic party implies members being able to propose policy through clear formal structures, at the grassroots (eg in wards, union branches and CLPs) but also all the way up to a national structure, conference, which can hold the leadership to account and ensure agreed policy is carried out.

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