While watching an enthusiastic group of young people (many in their twenties) discussing their plans to change the Labour Party last night, I felt my heart sink a little, even though I too am pleased by the change of leadership of the party. The problem, I realised, is that, being in my mid-thirties, I have spent more of my adult life being fucked by the Labour Party than by the Tories. This is only true for a certain number of people in Britain – for those both older and younger by a few years it will be the other way round.
Perhaps my generational position makes me a little more sceptical than others. Or perhaps I’m just a grumpy bastard. But the history of the Labour Party is important when assessing exactly how hopeful this new situation is. Blairism lasted some years, and was preceded by years of purging leftists and deliberate de-radicalisation. One clique was in control of the party, now another clique is (half) in control of the party. Yay! Except that means that in a few more years another clique again, probably far less radical, will be in control of the party.
I think people should join the Labour Party if that’s where they think they can create change, though I hope they also put energy into community organising and the like. We need to change the political culture of the country (create one from almost nothing, even), and that will have to happen both inside and outside parties. But it is clear that many of the new entrants to the party will have to fight some of the existing party members. The new members will find plenty of existing members who believe in welfare caps and austerity-lite and wars in Syria. But please, don’t just fight on these policies. Because whatever you win on policies can be rolled back in a few years time.
The important fight is restructuring the party, making it a democratic organisation. I know Corbyn has said he’ll try to do this, so I think it’s worth pointing out that he should be supported, and that most of your energy should go into this. If this battle is lost, most of the policy battles won’t matter much. However much it may be tempting to get involved in some fracas about the party’s stance on disability benefits, any victories you win on such policy issues can be undone within months of a new clique taking the leadership. What matters is ensuring that in the future people can join the party and use it as a vehicle of political expression. The leadership must be forced to bow to the membership. This will prevent future crazy right-ward swings such as happened under Blair, and will entrench the good work being done now.
To all those about to enter the fray: please think about structure, even if it isn’t sexy. What will matter long term is radical democratisation.
3 thoughts on “For all those about to enter the Labour party to do battle…”
The tragedy of the “New Labour” era was the damage done to the grass roots upwards democracy that was emerging in the Labour Party in the 80s. By and large the left versus right conflict was about how internal party politics should be structured.
I was largely labelled as left wing, not for being an ideological socialist, which I’m not (or I would have joined the Socialist Party instead). I was left wing because I supported the idea of mandated democracy throughout the Party organisation. The right of the Party was bent on preventing “activists” (ie ordinary party members) being able to set any requirements for their representatives.
As a result we ended up with a Party controlled by a smallish clique from the Parliamentary Party and some unelected officers from Central Office.
Thanks Eric. I guess the new entrants will be labelled as leftists anyway, so they might as well embrace it.
Can I ask, as an experienced LP member, what chances you see of democratising it right now, with people both at the bottom and the top pursuing it?
A further conversation from a well-known social media site:
Eric Jarvis: The way we used to do it in the 80s was this. As issues came up the branch meetings would discuss them and where there were policy decisions to make the branch would vote to take a position. Ordinary members could bring forward policy ideas at any point, and if they discussed them with the branch secretary in advance could sometimes have them added to the meeting agenda. Branches could then decide to put forward resolutions to the constituency party or mandate ward councillors to vote a particular way on an issue. Branch delegates to the Constituency General Committee would also be mandated to follow the policies of the Branch. It then operated much the same way at constituency level. The Constituency Parties would then take it to the National Conference.
In addition to that the Constituency had a (legal) Womens Section that could bring issues to the Constituency GC, and a (not legal at the time) Black Section that could do the same. Sometimes other groups would be formed as required for specific issues.
The way mandation worked was that you were supposed to vote in accordance with the wishes of the meeting you were a delegate from. However if new information became available after the mandation and before a vote, or on a point of principle, you could abstain or vote against your mandate, but then had to explain your reasoning and offer to resign.
I’m assuming that Jerry Corbyn has something like that in mind.
Then there are a whole load of “subsidiary” direct things to get involved in. Councils have representation on a lot of bodies that are effectively delegates from the political parties. In my time I was a school governor (which is brilliant to do), a member of the Community Health Council (the body that used to look after the public oversight of an NHS Trust), and a trustee of the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation (a charity using the money from the sale of the Old Vic). There’s also a lot of work done by political party members within Tenants and Residents groups, and Lambeth used to have places on the Housing Committee for Tenants representatives.
All that was turned into the current rule by unelected clique by the Blairites. However it can ALL be taken back under democratic control. Pick the areas of activity that you have a passion for or expertise in (mine were health, housing, and the arts) and start looking at what needs to change.
Preorg: Really interesting – I hadn’t realised Labour had ever been so bottom-up. Could I (or you) copy this into the comments for my blog post? It’s a better way to preserve it.
Eric Jarvis: OK. It wasn’t that way over the entire country mind you. My experience is with the Haringey and Lambeth Labour Parties. I know the Islington ones were similar but I can’t really speak for the rest.
[In response to a question about refusing to vote as mandated]
I used to abstain when mandated about two or three times a year when I was a GC delegate. The branch were always happy to accept my explanations. Usually that something came up in debate at the GC that hadn’t been part of the discussion at the branch. In my branch in Lambeth we had only one GC delegate who had to resign after breaking a mandate. There were, however, some people quite adept at timing their toilet or cigarette beaks (we didn’t have smoke filled rooms even that long before the smoking bans).
It worked fairly well most of the time. The problem was that it was possible for a faction to overload branch meetings and effectively hijack that branch. No faction could do that in enough branches to anywhere near control the GC though. For a couple of years Militant were able to control two branches in Vauxhall.
It was when the constituencies stopped being able to put policy to conference directly that the heart went out of it all. Swiftly followed by the right in the national party using their control of the National Executive Committee to suspend or expel key leftist members in key branches. Which effectively allowed Blairite coups. That was the point at which I left before I got pushed.