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The Streatham Farce: Labour’s Latest Attack on Member Democracy

Labour's London region seized control of last week's Streatham party AGM from local elected leadership. The result was chaos – candidates locked out, ballots not arriving and many members losing trust in the party altogether.

Faced with a breakdown in systemic trust, the economist Albert Hirschman argued, participants had three options available to them: exit, voice, or loyalty. More than a few on the Labour left have elected to exit the party since Starmer’s coronation as leader in April of last year, while loyalty has been in diminishing returns, compromised by Rebecca Long-Bailey’s defenestration from the shadow front bench, by the seeming embrace of so-called ‘Blue Labour’ values and messaging, and, of course, by Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension in the wake of the EHRC’s report on antisemitism.

And so to the middle child of Hirschman’s triptych – voice; a strategy that many, in Streatham CLP, have tried to render workable and effective, including the author of this piece. Our collective ‘voice’ is going to be particularly vital in these coming days, as the frustrating and at times absurd process of our local Annual General Meeting—where the forthcoming Constituency Labour Party (CLP) officials are elected—begins to sink in.

I first became involved in Streatham politics in the summer of 2019. Looking back, I was remarkably naïve about the bitterly divided and factional nature of our party, both locally and nationally. Contrary to popular opinion, this polarisation didn’t start with the Corbyn era. It didn’t even start with the battles between left and right that pitted the 1980s. It is at least as old as the Lansbury-MacDonaldite splits of the 1920s and ’30s. In the abstract, this history was intelligible to me. But in actuality, I didn’t understand it.

I didn’t get involved to engage in factional dogfights; that isn’t why I gave up so many evenings of my life. I got involved with the local left because I am a socialist. When, on two evenings in a row, I was phonebanked by both the local right and local left, I sided with the latter. I got stuck in, and just five months later found myself serving as the election agent for Bell Ribeiro-Addy, MP for Streatham. Not long after that, Bell was elected to parliament with a majority of 17,700, putting to an end Chuka Umunna’s dizzying merry-go-round of defections.

The campaigns we led in Streatham were against the odds. Before I’d even arrived in the constituency, the left had forced the transition from a delegate to an All Member Meeting (AMM) structure, then won the support of members to run the CLP at the 2019 AGM. Ribeiro-Addy was first selected and then elected, and—despite the tragedy of the 2019 general election result—there was seemingly much to fight for locally in 2020.

Then Covid-19 struck. Gradually, as things started to thaw and the world regained a semblance of normality, Streatham’s Executive Committee (EC) began to prepare for the long-delayed AGM, as was their democratic obligation. (I was not a member of Streatham’s left-dominated EC, but was often admiring of the difficult work they did.) Soon enough, as anticipated, the national party finally lifted the Covid-induced proscription of formal internal elections, and the start pistol was fired on the Streatham AGM.

Here’s what happened: first, notification was given to the London Regional Office of the Streatham EC’s decision to hold an election on 4 March. The date was approved by the Regional Director, and notification was issued to all Streatham Labour Party members. Then, without any proper forewarning, London region issued a countermanding email to our membership stating that the AGM would indeed go ahead, but that it would be conducted by regional officials without any democratic oversight from our locally-elected officers.

According to the rulebook, such usurpation of local party democracy is only permissible when a CLP is in ‘special measures’ – a criterion that has never applied to Streatham CLP. When Streatham’s Executive Committee remonstrated with the London Regional office, several of its ranking members had their access to the party database summarily suspended.

When the EC queried why, and on what basis, these highly irregular decisions had been taken, they were treated to half-baked and incoherent claims about failings and discrepancies surrounding past elections and processes in Streatham. These claims do not stand up to scrutiny – as was evident when several top-ranking regional officials answered the questions of EC members on a Zoom call several weeks ago.

Despite many attempts by the EC officers to wrest back control of our AGM, the regional officials doubled down. In the aftermath of the Zoom call between Region and Streatham there was a more or less total blackout of communication with the local EC. Our elected Chair was permitted to chair the March 4 proceedings, but beyond that, precious little was offered by way of compromise. Requests to at least co-host the meeting, so that Region’s assigned team could be partnered with local representatives, were met with silence.

To be clear – Streatham’s EC, like all local Labour Party ECs, is comprised of volunteers who’ve stayed on well beyond their agreed tenure because of Covid-related delays to formal party business. They are members who keep the party financially afloat with their monthly subs, and substantively afloat with their committed voluntary work, often at the expense of family, work, and social engagements. To have their mandate traduced in such a humiliating manner, without proper justification, is an appalling show of ingratitude for their hard work and dedication over the years.

And so to the night itself. It wasn’t long before a catalogue of errors started to mount. First, reports that members in the Zoom waiting room were being denied entry because their full names were not showing-up, despite their Zoom accounts being registered in their full names. Consequently, they found no way of further identifying themselves to the meeting’s administrators.

Of course, anyone who has chaired or even attended a Zoom meeting knows that devices such as iPads or iPhones are sometimes stubborn in their name registration, often showing up simply as ‘iPad’ or ‘iPhone’. Some members were kept in the waiting room for two hours or more, with several not admitted until the final fifteen minutes. One particularly egregious example of disenfranchisement on the night was the visually-impaired incumbent Disabilities Officer, who, we found out later, waited for around two hours to enter the meeting – without success.

After the meeting closed, automatic ballots were due to be generated and sent to every member on the AGM call via the Anonyvoter system. Pretty quickly it became apparent that dozens, and finally hundreds, of eligible attendees did not receive their voting ballots. Despite the fact I was standing at the AGM to be secretary on the left’s slate, I didn’t receive my ballot until 9pm the following night, and when it arrived it was incomplete – with several key positions missing.

Incomplete ballots were, it would transpire, issued to many members, forcing the Regional office to extend the voting deadline from 11:59pm, Friday 5th, to 5pm, Saturday 6th. Finally, our elected teller for the proceedings was denied access to key turnout and voter data immediately following the meeting, despite numerous assurances from the Regional office that such data would be made available to them.

At the time of writing, the results of the AGM have yet to be announced. Everybody wants to have faith in the process, but from the very start this was an election conducted in the dark, seized from democratically-elected local members with little oversight. Nobody doubts that the world of online voting is difficult, subject to the flaws of nascency. But if you are going to make a point of hijacking local democracy on the basis of unsubstantiated incompetence, you’d better make sure your own systems play like a harp.

Policy architects in the party machine might consider some exit and some voice inevitable, perhaps even favourable. But if Streatham—like Bristol West before it—proves a straw in the wind, and the democratic clampdown becomes widespread, relations between the membership, leadership, and party bureaucracy will surely become untenable.