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Putting members in charge of the Party: are we up to it?

IsTheLeftUpToItBI remember a television programme about the death penalty many years ago in which the Governor of a US state (I can’t remember which) said that the death penalty was supported by the majority of voters and that therefore it required no further justification. That is one view of democratic power and voting: the rule of the people as a summation of popular prejudice.

The idea of democracy for socialists has to be something different from this. It cannot base itself on common prejudice since changing society requires many such prejudices, often very deep ones, to be challenged. Democracy for the left needs to be based on a critical appreciation of alternative approaches. That can never be achieved passively. Democracy for the left implies active engagement and not just in the activist sense of attending rallies, supporting strikes and other overt forms of protest. In means thinking, discussing, reading, and, in as many cases as possible writing.

Putting members in charge of the Party

Jeremy Corbyn was elected on the basis that under his leadership Party members would be put in control of the Party. I voted for him for that reason and I have no regrets for so doing. But now I am wondering just how many of his leading supporters understand what this means in both theory and in practice.

After this year’s annual conference we will have a three-year cycle of policy formation decisions ahead of us. The general lines of the Labour Party’s election manifesto for 2020 will have to be decided, at the latest, by the Annual Conference in September 2019. Given the difficulties and differences in the Labour Party at all levels seeing this process through to a conclusion clearly understood and supported by the great majority of members will be no mean feat. So where do we stand on the matter? As far as I can see the answer has to be “virtually nowhere”.

Looking at things from where I stand as a member of my LP branch and of my Constituency Labour Party’s General Committee, and as a member of Momentum what I see is almost no policy activity at all. I wrote a detailed piece on the current round of policy formation leading to this year’s Annual Conference for Left Futures. It produced significantly less discussion than articles about the bombing of Mosul, alleged Labour Party anti-Semitism and about the EU referendum. Important though all those subjects are it strikes me that something is out of balance when they get more attention and more follow through in terms of other articles on the same theme than a debate about how we can best contribute to the formation of Party policy.

To put the matter bluntly, the great majority of Party members do not know what is going on and are not involved in the process. Worse, the great majority of Corbyn supporting Party members do not know what is going on and are not involved in the process. I circulated my Left Futures piece summarising the current state of play on policy formation (with links to all the relevant documents) to my local Momentum group. It produced virtually no reaction and there were no other contributions on the same theme. One experienced LP member expressed a wish for model motions to be circulated which we could then put forward. That was it.

We need a change of political culture

Bringing about the change which would put members in charge of the Party would require a lot more than passing model motions, and supporting election slates, both decided on by a handful of people. It would require debate fermented with real enthusiasm and with large numbers of people involved challenging and improving upon each others ideas. In that process some people would become known for their analytical ability and the imagination to contribute well to solving problems. They could then be supported for positions on that basis rather than feeling obliged to support would-be apparatchiks of the left not known for such abilities. What is required in other words is a deep change of culture. Without that transformation no other changes of policies or people can be regarded as secure.

I had a look at the national Momentum website. I found no mention of the current policy documents out for discussion leading to the 2016 Annual Conference. There is a list of “current national campaigns” under which we see “Defend the NHS”, “Stop Trident”, “May Elections”, “Mobilisation and creative campaigning for Health, Homes, Jobs, and Education”, “Election of Conference Delegates”, “National Executive Committee (NEC) Elections” and “a mass voter registration drive”. Not in a single case is there a mention of policy documents in circulation for comment, and to which we might provide alternatives. There is therefore nothing on the extremely inadequate nature of these documents. In short there is little to encourage members to engage in the process.

There is a mention of Annual Conference in which it is claimed that “Momentum will work with the Labour Party and trade unions to provide guidance and support to ensure that a diverse range of grassroots voices are heard within the Party”. I see no real signs of that happening with regard to the policy formation process. I am reluctant to be critical of Momentum in this way because I know that it is being run with very limited resources by people who are working very hard. The criticism is therefore more aimed at the broad range of Momentum supporters who wait for the policy thinking to be done for them. If members do not take charge of this process by contributing to it on a large scale there is no meaningful way in which they can be said to be in charge of the Party. I like to be positive but his whole thing makes me think that it is could be yet another case of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. I want to be proved wrong but I am still waiting to see signs of that.


  1. according to my local NPF rep there are 7 policy areas being worked on and there is a policy review proposal out from Angela Eagle. But no sign of these at all, and frankly I don’t see the ability to perform at any serious policy level.

    THe members clearly don’t have any interest in research and the failure of the NPF proposals to get any serious discussion undelines the fact. ANd who are the members? The unions, who have research departments, should be intimately involved and yet as here are not mentioned, while the Socialist SOcieties who also have resources which the ordinary members do not have are largely excluded.

    Research and the Labour Party don’t go together, and that is a long term cultural phenomenon which can’t be ignored. The only serious research currently happening is John McDonell’s Economics Review, very welcome, but is it seriously proposed that Nobel Prize winners should bow to the expertise of the local membership of a randomly recruited party?

    The rhetoric of membership ownership of policy is largely moonshine. If in the current context a party which now clearly has a problem with anti-Semitism cannot sort out its basic values on something as vital as racism, the theory that members can decide policy even in the NPF which has never worked since John Smith proposed it is redundant. As someone who works on education policy, I would be happy to see a proper education forum drawing on trade union expertise, but to imagine local parties know what is happening even on the White Paper is asking them to do work they do not have the stomach for

    Trevor Fisher

    1. John Walsh says:

      I agree there is a deep-rooted culture problem. I joined the Party (last June) to be involved in policy formation. The (from what I can see) anachronistic ritual of walking the streets knocking on doors never appealed and I have other professional skills to offer. Ten months later, though, and I’ve yet to be involved in any meaningful policy discussion. There’s been many arguments (and many suspensions) but these have largely been about different conceptions of membership (at first glance arguments appear to be about left and right, new vs. old, but on reflection it’s what membership means that is the heart of the matter). My point is that we have tried very hard but have yet to scale the brick wall that is the old idea of members as menial door-knockers (this is evident in both the CLP and local Momentum groups).

      David, re your previous article (on Angela Eagle’s efforts), I left a comment yesterday about the Party’s ‘Our Party: made by members’ initiative. The problem of the status of submissions remains and the deadline is nonsense but the initiative could signal a different direction.

    2. David Pavett says:

      Trevor, I broadly agree with your comments. The idea of research and of involving as many members as possible in that research is not a part of Labour’s traditions. That has to change if there is to be a sustainable shift to the left. Is it possible? Frankly, I don’t know. But I can’t say that it is impossible either. Therefore I think that it is best to say “If the members are to have ownership of policy we need a change of culture so that they are actually involved rather than manipulated”. To dismiss the project as “moonshine” from the start seems to me to be excessively pessimistic.

  2. I fear its the experience of all organisations, including the unions and even U3A, which I belong to, that most people don’t want to do homework. I suggested to my local U3A branch that they invite a local professor to talk to his research which featured in an hour long Channel 4 documentary a month ago…. they did not even reply.

    As a union rep what interested my members was pay and conditions. Talk about policy development…. forget it. The NUT and UCU both of which I was active in had and have excellent research bodies, but to get the members to take up any offer of the facilities involved was a waste of time. Stand on a picket line…. yes. Go to a conference on the curriculum….. forget it. and in both cases the members had the qualifications to make a real contribution.

    The reality is for both political parties and trade unions is that people want to campaign and not much else. We can complain that people are used as door knockers, and nowadays phone bank providers, but that is easy to do. Talk through the implications of a white paper. Sorry David, you and I and a few other will do it.

    Most people in this culture do not want to make the effort. It is somewhat different on the continent, but less so nowadays and the best example of the auto didact culture in the twentieth century – the Italian CP – has long since gone. The internet has actually made things worse. Twitter, anyone?

    Lets accept reality, please

    Trevor FIsher.

    1. C MacMackin says:

      Part of David’s point is that the culture needs to be changed. You acknowledge that this has been possible, at least to some extent, in other times and places. Well, if we are serious about having a socialist democracy then it will have to happen here and now as well.

  3. James Kemp says:

    Disability? Nope no one cares about the estimated extra 2700+ extra deaths caused by the hated WCA and PIP. The stress and hassle to get a pittance the endless form filling and chopping and evil changes. This is the sort of campaigning Labour should be spear heading not kicking it into the long grass because sorting of a proper fair system whould take time and effort to get right.

    Instead we get headline grabbers whoopee! yes i will be sending in my suggestions as a Labour member but i feel there are more important sections of the UK that needs help NOW! not just more media and political silence that we are getting now…

  4. James Martin says:

    I think this is something of a chicken and egg problem. It is not that rank and file members of the Party are incapable of having far more influence over direction and policy, after all millions of workers in trade unions have managed this for generations, it is that currently we do not have the mechanism to make it either fully possible or meaningful.

    So of course the key part of any answer here is to begin to restore the Party democracy we have had eroded over the past 30-odd years, and in particular restore the sovereignty of annual conference and ensure that there is a process around it to enable maximum participation followed by genuine representative democracy (again, just like in any trade union worth their salt). It isn’t rocket science, but at the same time there is the problem we all face of what we do until those structural changes start to be made, as we also need to lay out a clear ‘vision’ (much as I hate the term) in the same way as the right-wing do through their various think-tanks and atlantacist ginger groups.

    So what can we do? Well clearly a group like the CLPD should stick to the very good job it does already around restoring membership democracy via constitutional amendments and campaigning. Momentum can and should play a key role, but has not yet itself developed structures to allow inclusive debate and policy making. I do think the union affiliates can and should be key as it is often a good way (when not frustratingly slow) for policies to be debated beginning at branch level and then moved upwards through union structures, but I would also like to see a new version of the annual Chesterfield conferences that took place at the height of the Bennite left surge, together with regional events and far more discussion papers. None of this need be exclusively contained within the Party (things like Red Pepper can play a very good role for example), but ultimately must relate back to the Party in terms of policy shift.

  5. Verity says:

    Whilst the comments about the absence of a research and policy formation culture is accurate, I think it can be the enormity of the task that may be holding back some from starting. Just where to start? In so many, many areas we are lacking workable basic documents upon which to even begin to work – given that previous policy has reflected a Party of the past (hopefully). Also since many areas of policy interact and affect other policy areas the absence of a starting framework provides a distracting disincentive. If Momentum can make a start then it would be a good vehicle because it is possible to assume some basic agreements (at least) about direction, but after such a long pause of inactivity for most of its Supporters, it is clearly unlikely to be the initiator that we should not rely on the organisation. So in this sense I think David Pavett has captured the urgency.

    When trying to address this issue I had no comprehensive taxonomy of policy areas to which to direct my focussed attention so I thought I would start with the inadequate NPF documents as the framework. Since it requires a fairly clear sheet, such work does take considerable time for there to be much to show, so in my opinion little can be done in time for this year. Following the May / June electoral demands this medium term project surely needs to start for most of us, so that when faced with the same challenge next year, we have something to show for the investment of research and thought.

    I think David Pavett had previous suggested that this site could serve a role in this and I agree. We do need a list of fairly distinct areas to address and we should accept the challenge to begin and agree that the beginning of 2017 would be a sensible timeframe for those of us who do not have work already partially completed. For those who do then have partially completed work we need a definition of the policy area to address and there is nothing stopping us from beginning now.

  6. Sue says:

    Thanks for this article David. I have tried, in the past, to make contributions to the NPF and to be honest it felt like a waste of time. I got polite emails back but I just felt patronised really. I want to be able to vote, at my CLP, for policies we’ve discussed. I want these policies then sent forward to people representing groups of CLPs? Then from there to be discussed at conference? But those mechanisms don’t seem to be available? Also, of course, labour has to have the ability to respond very quickly with a policy solution sometimes. The NEC is the obvious resource to deal with that but I think there needs to be consultation between them and the members ——– even if just a straw poll type thing? So we have to get members on line and interacting with each other etc?

  7. Bazza says:

    Good points David and I share your concerns.
    I think it was Oscar Wilde who said something like, “The problem with socialism is it would take up too many evenings!” and perhaps the root cause is that for most of us who work we are time poor.
    And of course for some with work, caring responsibilities etc. they often can’t make evening meetings etc. which is why I am all for harnessing new technology so people can contribute on-line and their views could be considered with potentially on-line voting considered too.
    I put all the points I made in your recent led discussion to our local Momentum Secretary and I even had a plan for the Saturday morning session and the Secretary was very interested so we will see if anything comes from this.
    But let’s use my local branch as an example it is in a generally better off area (about 5 miles from a University) with a small working class inner area surrounded by suburbia with a further very wealthy area.
    We used to have 100 members but with Jeremy this went up to 197 but we never really seen the new 97.
    About 12-15 of the long standing members attend meetings but a team of only about 4 have been out regularly canvassing and leafleting since November for the local elections (including the candidate who is from outside the ward) although we have quite a few elderly stalwarts who can’t do too much nowadays we are able to get ward leaflets out by members each doing 100/200 each.
    Our ward has always been a strong Tory ward but we are whittling this down bit by bit.
    But to answer your main question I think we will only be ready for grassroots power by as well as harnessing new technology when we all think for ourselves as Rosa Luxemburg argued as independent critical thinkers – so we don’t accept handed down lines, don’t necessarily go along with left wing group think (to be ‘in’) when by doing so we do the working class/working people no service and there may be times that you feel you need to argue against the grain.
    For example in the last election Labour seemed to be against zero hours contracts in a blanket fashion (I read some black African students at a university did a few hours a year going into schools to offer a more positive view of Africa and zero hours suited them perfectly) I made these points but they were ignored; we should of course be against the mass use of exploitative zero hours but they can suit a tiny minority.
    Delegates to Conferences should also fully represent branch policies and the general politics of the constituency and not if possible take power for themselves.
    I also think we may have information overload plus our language should be brief and simple so we can communicate with millions – resolutions with ideally a few straight forward bullet points and not one side of A4!
    I always have a simple rule – could you take a resolution out on an esate, onto a high street, to a workplace and would it be understood and could be discussed?
    So the best we can do is to keep persevering although I wouldn’t be surprised if the response to your main post was minimal.
    With best wishes.

    1. Bazza says:

      Oh David and there is something important too that we perhaps need to mention.
      As human beings (who happen to be socialists) as well as our political commitments we also as much as possible want to enjoy life too.
      I meet a friend after work Mondays and Wednedsays for a drink and we have a good chat (she is also a brilliant political analyst) but I want to keep and enjoy these moments as we both approach retirement and we are not getting any younger!
      I also to look after my health by going for a run Tuesday and Thursday evening so I put my life often ahead of Mon, Tues, Weds evening meetings but have been attending regular Saturday events and helping Labour on Sundays plus leafleting my estate.
      So this is our challenge – ensuring how we all have a good work or retirement/politics/life balance!

  8. Bazza says:

    Perhaps we should elect the NPF by policy area say 20 on each and call them LP working parties plus if you take housing as an example we should appeal to (and perhaps categorise places) for Labour members who are housing academics, housing campaign workers, social housing tenants, private renters, owner-occupiers? 4 of each?
    Just some food for thought.

  9. C MacMackin says:

    One of the tricky issues around policy is getting the balance between input from the grassroots and input from the experts. I don’t support dictatorship of the “expertariate”, but the views of experts are still very important to know. I wouldn’t feel comfortable making anything other than the broadest suggestions in most policy areas, because I don’t have the detailed knowledge needed. As a grad student in physics I might be able to comment on research policy, open source software, and nuclear power, but even then I can only make broad points. Moreover, only full-time researchers or people whose work is directly involved in a particular field would really have the time to come up with the detailed understandings needed.

    I suppose what is needed is a way for people to be able to funnel in the expertise which they have acquired from their particular jobs. I.e. have doctors and nurses formulating health policy, teachers and educational researchers formulating education policy, scientists formulating R&D policy, etc. However, this would still have to be given direction by the grassroots as a whole, and the detailed policies ratified by them.

  10. Giles Wynne says:

    What the Labour Party may need is a Cultural Revolution, to throw out the old guard, scrap the existing structure and start with a blank sheet of paper, headed “The Labour Road to British Socialism”. It should pre-empt the road that some pigs are more equal than others.It should start to listen to those who have “produced”not just those who pontificate, and it should accept every one full member, only one vote on all Party policy decisions and selection processes and be traceable & transparent about it . And just for good measure, no official should be allowed to stand for more than one five year term.

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