Labour’s Democratic Renewal

The reforms proposed by Labour’s democracy review will open our party up to the working people it was made to represent.

Tony Benn pictured in Cardiff, 1980. In 1981, he stood for deputy leader as a champion of the Labour left. (Photo by Jacob SUTTON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.)

Labour’s democracy review, which concluded a seven-month consultation process this summer, is one of the party’s most ambitious projects in years. Commissioned by Jeremy Corbyn and overseen by former MP Katy Clark, it scrutinises Labour’s often labyrinthine structures to compile recommendations for how to better facilitate internal democracy.

To say that the Labour Party has democratic deficits is no great revelation. Anger over this situation reached its height in 2016, when many members felt they were subject to stitch-ups and manoeuvrings during the leadership contest. We have come some way from those days, especially with last year’s encouraging election performance. But we still have a long way to go in enshrining and strengthening the rights and representation of hundreds of thousands of Labour members.

Those of us in elected positions in the party are constantly made aware of stories from up and down the country of anti-democratic proceedings in regional offices, and arbitrary suspensions. In far too many Constituency Labour Parties (CLPS), members are forced to mount a continuous struggle against entrenched cliques of ‘in-the-know’ leaders who act as if they would rather new members stay out of their fiefdoms.

But internal democracy is paramount —  not only to ensure meaningful accountability, but to act as a safeguard to the political relevance of Labour representatives. If we are truly to be a party of the working class, the opinions of members who live and work in the society we strive to improve must be paramount in our structures. The democracy review is an unprecedented opportunity to shift political power in this direction.

So what does it entail? There are a number of significant proposals. In the first instance, the review proposes to take away the effective veto MPs have over which candidates get on the leadership ballot. Instead, power to place candidates on the ballot will be shared between the membership, the unions, and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on a nomination basis. In another boost for party members, the Welsh and Scottish National Executive Committee (NEC) representatives will no longer be appointed by the leaders of the respective parties, but will instead be elected by One Member, One Vote (OMOV). The NEC, it is proposed, will also now have a disability seat, taking the place of one that had previously been allocated to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

In local government, the review seeks to move away from the era of cronyism and patronage, and will propose that members elect their local leaders in Labour councils. There will be reform of the Local Campaign Forums (LCFs), and the right of councillors to sit on the forum committee is a significant change. The structures of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Labour, currently derided for their myopia, will be revamped to include all self-defining BAME party members automatically on joining the party. These members will then be able to elect the BAME Labour NEC representative.

In our youth sections, the review suggests the abolition of full-time officers for Labour Students, which has consistently refused to abide by open democratic norms in recent years. Under the new proposals it will become just like any other affiliated socialist society with no explicit financial aid from the party. There will be at least four full-time officers covering the remit of Young Labour and Labour Students, who will be directly accountable to Young Labour’s national committee. And, since Labour Students’ right-wing leadership has refused to implement OMOV in internal elections for half a decade, despite being elected on pro-OMOV platforms, the review proposes that the party intervene to ensure that this take place.

The National Policy Forum (NPF), founded under Tony Blair, is also put forward for reform. Ostensibly established to ‘widen policy discussion’, it today exists largely as a talking shop where elected representatives are ‘educated’ by carefully selected and usually right-wing ‘experts’ while concrete submissions evaporate into thin air. In its place, if the reforms pass, will be an NEC policy committee, working with the relevant Shadow Cabinet teams, on policy submissions from all sections of the movement through annual conference. Restrictions on policy motions from CLPs will be lifted and the power of regional conferences to effect policy enhanced, including pilots of ‘digital democracy’.

These are just some of the many democratising reforms now before the party’s members. Can we go further? Certainly. Mandatory reselection is inarguably the most important rule change in terms of the future of our party — and will be subject to a separate debate at conference. To ensure that we have a working parliamentary majority that is reflective of our socialist labour movement, we need to unlock the doors of representation to all of our membership and ensure that our parliamentarians are truly answerable to our party. It is to be hoped that this reform will follow those proposed by the democracy review.

But we can’t underestimate how important the democracy review process has been. Advocates of party democracy are constantly hounded by those who try to counterpose it to electoral success. This is a tired and false dichotomy. Democratising the party is key to building a social base for a Labour government which fights for working-class people, and refuses to capitulate to the interests of the rich.

Internal strife might cause newspaper headlines, but the billionaire press are never short of such material. In the end it’s a small price to pay for advancing the cause of a truly democratic and socialist Labour Party.