Latest post on Left Futures

What Labour now needs is informed debate

Jeremy Corbyn Whose PolicyEveryone, even people who opposed him, understand that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was a signal of a deep desire for change among Labour members and supporters. I have never agreed with all Jeremy Corbyn’s views but I was pleased to vote for him and, on reflection, I am glad that I did so. After all, the alternatives promised at best no change to Labour’s received wisdom about “electability” (Burnham and Cooper) or even a regression to undiluted Blairism (Kendall).

Corbyn’s election announced the possibility (but little more than that) of a new path for Labour. One of the keys to that new path was to be the full involvement of the mass of party members in policy formation. The view that Party members were to be regarded as a resource rather than something to be manipulated to get support for policies decided in advance was something of a breath of fresh air.

But there is an immense distance between wishing for better democracy and making it a reality. That is especially true of a long established institution like the Labour Party. It is a big ship with its procedures, elected representatives and full-time officials and various traditions. Turning such a ship round was never going to be an easy task.

First, there is the question of what we mean by democracy, and this is not discussed enough. For Plato, anti-democrat that he was, democracy was indistinguishable from mob rule because politicians would always pander to popular prejudice while genuine expert opinion would be ignored if it was not palatable. (His Gorgias is still worth reading to see just how old some of the arguments are.)

I am reminded of a scene in John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World in which he describes a vote in the Petrograd Soviet. The majority support a motion. Votes against are called and a few hands are raised. Reed describes a surge of bodies around the nay sayers resulting in their contrary votes disappearing. As I remember it, Reed seems to regard such things as either amusing or as showing the virility of the revolutionary movement. I found the description repellent and a characteristic of the mindset which allowed the dreadful weed of dogmatic “Marxism” to stifle the creative thought released by the 1918 revolution.

We are nearly a hundred years on from those events but, it seems to me, have still not absorbed the lessons on how to handle divergent views without abuse.

Corbyn and McDonnell have a very hard task to turn the Labour ship round to point in the direction of a democratic and socialist future (i.e. in the direction of its declared objectives). They face immense opposition throughout Labour’s established structures. Their position can only be secured by winning a whole series of battles about the ideas underlying Labour’s raison d’être. This is a battle that cannot be won by two, or even a handful, of people at the top of the structure. Neither can it be won by a small groups of people at the head of organisations trying to advance a left agenda, however worthy their motives. If the left is to make headway and to provide Corbyn and McDonnell with the support that they need to consolidate their positions, then we need genuine debates going right down to Labour branches about what Labour stands for.

But if we are to overcome Plato’s problem of the populism versus expert opinion then the answer has to be by treating members as adults who can listen carefully to the arguments on the various sides of each debate and then make up their own minds before lending their support to any particular view. Such a process is inconceivable without carefully prepared documents for the various contending views so that members can discuss and weigh the alternatives. This is what was completely missing from the so-called policy review under Jon Cruddas and is the reason why it was such a farce.

At this point, in asking for such an adult debate about alternatives, I worry about the political habits of so many of those on both the left and the right who have spent their lives drawing up election slates, circulating motions only ever seen by a tiny minority of members. The smoking ban may have made “smoke-filled rooms” a thing of the past (I hope so at least) but the spirit of those rooms lives on without the smoke.

Genuine informed debate, rather than different camps jockeying for position and trying to get “their people” onto this or that committee, is just not a part of Labour’s traditions. That needs to change and change in a  short timespan. I don’t think that, with a will, it would be that difficult to bring about. What is needed is the understanding that it is what we must do if Labour’s left turn is to be put on a solid basis. Branches need to receive position papers, produced according to agreed guidelines, with a request to members to discuss them and to express their views about the alternatives in motions to their constituency parties for Labour’s national policy forum.  According to the situation this or that group may find a resolution reached on such a democratic basis unacceptable but that is for them to decide. For thearty there is, in my view, no other way forward. I am at something of a loss as to why there are not already clear moves to institute such informed debate.

503 Service Unavailable

Service Unavailable

The server is temporarily unable to service your request due to maintenance downtime or capacity problems. Please try again later.

Additionally, a 503 Service Temporarily Unavailable error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.