A suitable case for treatment

Barry Winter welcomes the call for Labour’s renewal in a new Compass pamphlet. But where are the forces to make it happen?

A robust dialogue about democratically renewing the Labour Party has never been more vital. That’s no guarantee, however, that one will take place.

Interest in party democracy is still overshadowed by the bitter political conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the subsequent centralising and authoritarian practices of the present leadership. These are reasons enough to welcome the Compass publication, Fit for Purpose: a programme for Labour Party renewal, written by Jon Cruddas MP and the journalist, John Harris.

Within the party, most are painfully aware of failing party structures and the mass departure of members – each fuelling the other. This raises important issues about Labour’s longer-term viability and the socialist response. More immediately it begs the question of whether anything can be done to stop the rot? Can Labour be turned into the kind of lively, outgoing, progressive, democratic institution that the authors envisage?

It’s a tall order made much taller by an even more poignant question: do the political forces exist to turn that ambition into reality or, at least, to have a reasonable chance of so doing?

Cruddas and Harris do an exceptional job in arguing, not only that ‘Labour is at a crucial point in its history’, but also in favour of a ‘decisive settling of the party’s federal shape’. They propose reforming the composition of the National Executive Committee (NEC), annual conference, and the National Policy Forum. Interestingly, it is very similar to the formula the ILP advocated 30 years ago, for which it was reviled by its comrades on the left. The authors call for a third of votes ‘to be given over to the membership, a third to unions, and a third to a new force made up of MPs, MEPs, Labour representatives in local government, and socialist societies’.

Wider vision
What they propose, however, is not simply about organisational matters, important as they are. They have a much wider vision, one not shared by the left partisans of yesteryear. They argue that democracy is not simply a means to an end but an end in itself. In other words, democracy is not simply a tool to be used to advance a sectional interest but of value in itself. This is very close to the ILP’s perspectives on democracy.

The authors have done a thorough job in examining what needs to be done – in ensuring informed debates on policy; opening up annual conference so that the fringe has a more recognised role; a review of the party’s moribund youth section; cutting down party bureaucracy; state funding for parties to be distributed to local parties; reinventing the party’s campaigning role; and re-aligning the supporters’ network so it is run locally, not centrally.

They hit the nail on the head when they write: ‘Underlying all these ideas is the belief that, although organisational change is crucially important, the need for a cultural shift cannot be overstated. In our view, if it is to be a credible political force, Labour needs to display the same characteristics as the society it aims to create – being not only democratic and pluralistic but built on the idea that, as the new Clause IV puts it, “by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”.’

Democracy force
Utilising state funding to local parties, they propose a new ‘democracy force’: full-time local party workers, partly answerable to local parties, to link the party, local campaigns and activities. The inspiration for this, they acknowledge comes from London Citizens (formerly known as TELCO), a coalition of faith groups, trade unions and community association ‘that is playing an incredible role in defining the terms of politics in the capital’.

In addition to regular delegate meetings, London Citizens hosts community assemblies for all its members on a regular basis to determine policies and priorities. They hold ‘accountability assemblies’ during the borough and mayoral elections with close questioning of the candidates. Among their successes has been the campaign to make the HSBC (at its global headquarter in Canary Wharf) pay contract cleaners a living wage.

The authors are well aware that some senior members of the party have a different organisational and political agenda: one that further marginalises the membership while elevating party supporters; one that shifts the party away from a federal structure, through state funding, to the centre. They warn that this represents a ‘pseudo-democratic monolith, a tightly-drilled central bureaucracy’ utilising supporters who have no meaningful role.

Whether this alternative spectre haunting the party has much mileage is open to debate but, equally, it is not clear whether the democratic alternative proposed by the writers has either. They do not offer a strategy on how best to advance their ideas. Perhaps that is asking a lot of them. But unless, there are concrete moves to turn these ideas into a political campaign, they will remain just that.

The point is made well in the pamphlet itself when they quote the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who said: ‘The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life as constructor, organiser, permanent persuader.’

We need a campaign to turn these ideas into a movement for change. We need ‘permanent persuaders’ committed to the party’s democratic renewal. In standing for the deputy leadership, Cruddas has a platform to widen his political message but his ideas for Labour’s democratic renewal need organising. That poses dangers – as we have seen in the past – but, if Labour is to have a progressive future, it is a challenge that has to be grasped.

Fit for purpose: a programme for Labour Party renewal, by Jon Cruddas MP and John Harris, is published by Compass, price £5. www.compassonline.org.uk

1 Comment

  1. Winter 2006/07 - ILP
    22 January 2009

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