Among a raft of proposed reforms to party democracy going to this year’s Labour conference, Momentum supporters are calling for the leaders of Labour council groups to be elected by the party membership. They already have the right to elect the national party leader-or rather were given the right by Ed Miliband in 2014. They now wish to extend direct democracy to a local level. This is not necessarily a wise move. It could be open to legal challenge given that local authority constitutions state that councillors should elect the council leader. And courts tend to use any ambiguity against left-wing causes–remember Lord Denning deciding that the GLC was forbidden to subsidise public transport, in defiance of long-established practice.
This magazine welcomed the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader in 2015 and again in 2016, and we have been consistent in our support for him since. Admittedly, it would not have happened without the extension of the vote to all party members. (One member, one vote is the ultimate democratic method of selection and should be used for both local and national elections). But Corbyn was a nationally known figure even before his election, with a record of radical left politics. He was not an unknown Councillor on a relatively minor Labour council.
Many party members take a close interest in national party politics and, arguably, are in a position to judge the strengths and weaknesses of candidates standing for the leadership. They do not have such a close interest in local government politics. They select candidates for local councils and work to get them elected, but that is as far as it goes. They are not in a position to decide the leadership of the local Labour group. There is a closer affinity between local councillors, working together in a relatively small group, than that within the much larger group of MPs in parliament. The election of a Labour group leader should be in the hands of elected Councillors.
There is however an undemocratic flaw in the workings of local government. The cabinet system of government at a national level is now used across local government. This can, and indeed has in the case of Haringey Council in north London, be used to stifle democratic control by the full Labour group. Within some local government cabinets there is even a small core group who meet outside the full cabinet, making policy decisions which the full cabinet is expected to rubber stamp. This system also shuts out elected councillors outside the cabinet from participation in policy making decisions.
There is currently a fear among many MPs, mostly on the centre and right of the party and opposed to Jeremy Corbyn, that mandatory reselection of MPs will be introduced as a part of the wider reforms.
Chris Williamson, a Corbyn supporter, is currently taking a roadshow into Labour held constituencies to promote party democracy. His action is seen as an attempt to impose mandatory reselection in seats held by Labour ‘moderates’.
But mandatory reselection will happen in any case as a result of the boundary changes expected to be made before the 2022 general election. These changes could see Labour lose up to 30 seats. Every Labour member whose constituency is affected by the changes will have to appear before a (re)selection committee, along with other candidates, unless the constituency party decides otherwise and automatically reselects the sitting MP. Is the protest against mandatory reselection just another means of attacking the left in the party? This magazine sees nothing wrong with introducing a general procedure for the reselection of MPs. Reselection should not simply be confined to the expected boundary changes.
Mandatory reselection of MPs was one of the demands of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) formed in 1973. Pete Wilsman, whose alleged antisemitic comments were recorded at a recent meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee, and for which he subsequently apologised, was an original founder of CLPD and is the current secretary. Other CLPD demands, successfully achieved since, were for the party leader to be elected on a franchise wider than just MPs, and for more representation of women within the Party, which led to all-women shortlists being adopted.
The new proposals for the election of party leader could broaden the choice of candidates. When Jeremy Corbyn was first elected, a candidate needed to win the support of 15% of members of the parliamentary Labour party. Under ordinary circumstances Corbyn would not have garnered that level of support. His name appeared on the ballot paper because a number of MPs who normally would not have supported him, did so because they didn’t believe he could win but wanted a wider range of candidates.
The proposals to be put before this year’s conference are slightly more complex than the existing rules. To secure a place on the ballot paper candidates will need to win the support of 10% of trade unions, MPs or party members, plus 5% of each of the other groups which include various societies affiliated to Labour. CLPD proposes a simpler system. Replacing the current rule of ’15 per cent of the combined Commons members of the PLP and members of the EPLP’ with ‘by nominations from a) 15 per cent of the combined members of the PLP and members of the EPLP; or b) 15 per cent of the affiliated national trade unions; or c) 15 per cent of constituency parties’.
CLPD wants to defend the trade union link with Labour. This link in the shape of voting strength has been steadily eroded over recent decades. The changes introduced under Ed Miliband were aimed at strengthening the party’s links with individual union members who could ‘opt in’ to leadership elections by becoming affiliated members of the party. No longer would Labour’s leader be elected by an electoral college which gave a third of all votes to the unions, party members and MPs. CLPD supported the change to one member one vote which abolished the electoral college method of election. Yet it wants leaders of council Labour groups to be elected by an electoral college. An odd twist to its support for one member, one vote.
Democracy can be an awkward and irritating system of government. It’s not by any means a perfect system. As Churchill remarked in a speech in the House of Commons on 11 November 1947: “Indeed it has been said democracy is the worst form of government except for all those forms that have been tried from time to time” It can and sometimes does produce unexpected results, as the EU referendum in June 2016 showed. It can also work against one’s objectives. Extending democracy in the Labour Party may in the not too distant future result in the defeat of the left. We assume that the current left supporters of greater democracy in Labour will accept that as the fair workings of a system they helped to put in place.
Some years ago a question on an Oxford University politics paper asked: ‘If it could be proved that people are stupid would the case for democracy fall?’ The question that advocates of greater democracy in the Labour party have to answer is: will a more democratic party lead to the election of a Labour government? That is the critical issue. All their work to democratise the party will be to no avail if a left, Corbyn-led Labour party fails to win the support of a sufficient number of politically interested and disinterested voters. But the party and the country as a whole needs a left Labour government that reflects the interests of the democracy rather than the elite.