Party democracy: what the candidates say

One of the most important issues in the current leadership campaign is how to rebuild the membership of the Labour Party. Thousands may have joined since the Conservative-LibDem coalition came to power but the party lost many thousands over a long period of time before then. One (among many) reasons for this decline is that party members have long felt alienated from policy-making and the decisions of party leaders.

It goes without saying, therefore, that the views of the leadership candidates on these issues are of great interest to party members.

Two months ago the ILP contacted all five candidates to ask for their thoughts on party democracy and, in particular, to find out how they intend to reform party structures so members can have more influence on policy.

We received replies from three – Diane Abbott, Ed Balls and David Miliband – and summarise these below.

We have supplemented their responses with remarks they have made in campaign material, on their websites, and to other organisations. We have also added relevant material from Andy Burnham and Ed Miliband, gleaned from similar sources.

Our interest in these issues is neither random nor new. The ILP has a long history of campaigning on questions of Labour Party democracy going back to the 1970s when it was one of the first groups to argue that leaders should be elected by the whole party, not just by MPs.

In the 1980s we were one of the few groups on the left to argue for the principle of one member one vote as a means of selecting parliamentary candidates at constituency party level and electing party leaders and deputy leaders. The ILP was often isolated on the left in embracing this extension of democracy, although we differed from the leadership in wanting to tie members’ voting to branch attendance in an attempt to maximise political dialogue.

The broad campaigns on party democracy succeeded in creating the electoral college we have today and one member one vote was finally adopted under John Smith’s leadership in 1993. However, with the rise of new Labour, the extension of party democracy was reversed.

In the 1990s we criticised new Labour’s ideas for restructuring the party set out in a document called Labour into Power: A framework for partnership, which first introduced proposals for national and regional policy forums, and we also responded to discussions around the party’s trade union links.

In all these cases, the ILP’s arguments were based on some key principles, namely:

  • that the Labour Party should be a model of healthy democracy
  • that policies and party leaders should reflect the views of the members
  • that no section of the party should have an unfair advantage.

They were also grounded in the ILP’s political perspective – that a truly democratic Labour Party, with a ‘neutral constitution’ and a culture of open debate, respect, tolerance and active participation, is a necessary part of any attempt to build a broad-based movement for progressive social change.

As Eric Preston wrote in On the Block: the future of Labour’s trade union links, published in the mid-1990s:

‘In an organisation such as the Labour Party, which has ambitions to improve and change society, and not simply inherit and continue the administration of what is, there will always be disagreement… We should not be ashamed of disagreement, or run away from it, or seek to hide or stifle it. The clash of ideas should be seen as an opportunity, not a disaster. It is the bedrock of democracy…

‘Democracy must rule within the party, and by example prefigure the democratic society we seek to attain.’

Of course, we recognise that party democracy, while important, is not the only issue on which members will (or should) judge the candidates. Nor are we offering here any kind of assessment of their proposals and promises. But we do hope the information and pointers provided below are useful for those who, like us, regard democracy as crucial to the party’s future.

What the candidates say

Diane Abbott

We were referred to Abbott’s ‘Diane 4 Leader’ website,, where we found her ‘Letter to CLPs’ in which Abbott lists five promises to members. Two of these are:

  • CHANGE for our POLITICS – Restore Labour Party Democracy, replace suffocating control with debate to reach out to lost allies and engage new supporters
  • VALUES for our POLICIES – Listen to our members and avoid the mistakes of the Iraq invasion, Student Top-Up Fees and attacks on civil liberties.

‘It’s time to renew and re-energise our party, its membership and its democracy,’ she says.

In a document entitled ‘Background information for CLPs’, her campaign lists party democracy as one of four reasons why party members should support her candidacy:

  • Diane believes that the Labour Party foot-soldiers deserve more respect. At the last election, without the loyalty and hard work of ordinary party supporters the result would have been much worse than it was.
  • If the party had listened to ordinary members, it would have not have made mistakes like: the 87p rise for pensioners; abolishing the 10p tax rate and going to war with Iraq.
  • Shaping policy should not just be a matter for the Westminster elite. We need to reform party structures to revive the party and give more power to members. Party Conference, the Policy Forums and the workings of the National Executive must be reformed to give members a real say over policy.

She goes into more details of her plans in a blog written on 5 August headed ‘Party Democracy: Time to get our house in order’. In it she states that ‘Labour Party members have been taken for granted’ for the past 13 years:

‘Under my leadership, the way the party organises itself will change,’ she writes. ‘As leader I will lead Labour in a new direction, and not merely by re-establishing the post of elected party chairman… We should also seriously consider a Charter of Labour Party Members’ Rights, together with a new post of Ombudsman, and a Code of Ethics. I will also review Partnership in Power and create processes for policy formulation and party operations, including a transparent separation of functions between the party in government and party HQ.’

She goes on:

‘Under my leadership, there will be an opening-up of the annual conference, with an increased role for outside voices and organisations; a re-alignment between its formal and fringe aspects; a fresh look at the contemporary resolutions process, which would allow for more discussion in the run-up; and a move away from the stage management. I also will look at ways of establishing rights of policy amendment at conference together with a resolution procedure in the event of a conference vote against either a party in government or an NEC policy recommendation. If people are worried about vigorous debate, we can hold some sessions without TV cameras present.’

You can read the full article here:

Ed Balls

The Ed Balls campaign pointed us to an article Balls had written for Labour Values which can be read at:

In ‘Rebuilding Labour from the ground up’ he argues that the leadership campaign is an opportunity to ‘re-engage with the communities we are elected to serve’.

‘Political aims, vision and policies aren’t enough unless Labour can also be a community-based political party rooted in the communities we represent,’ he writes. ‘There are three tests of how well our politics are rooted: are we ensuring our representatives better reflect the people we serve? Are we building membership in those communities? Is our policy making coming up from the ground through Conference to the leadership?

‘Party members are the heart and soul of the labour movement and we need to reverse the over-centralisation of our party structures and decision-making to give greater involvement and responsibility to our membership and affiliated organisations.’

He also says he supports the establishment of a Labour Party diversity fund to help people from ‘under-represented groups to stand at every level of the party’. He writes about his support for the trade union link and calls for a strengthened youth and student movement.

On party structures, Balls calls for a strengthened role for the party chair, a full-time youth officer, and for leaders of local and regional parties to be involved in the NEC.

He also appears to have strong views about membership and policy-making:

‘People who join the Labour Party need to feel they have a real say. Once you’ve decided to take the plunge and join you would hope and expect to talk politics and not just instantly be asked to deliver a handful of leaflets.’

On policy, he writes: ‘Too often our party leadership has made decisions at the centre and then sent them out for “consultation” once policy had been hammered out between union leaders and the party elite.

‘The National Policy Forum was set up to engage the party in policy-making, but too many members feel it has been used as a way of managing them and making for an easier Annual Conference for the leadership…

‘The National Policy Forum is still too focussed on these big national meetings which tend to be dominated by “deals”. We simply swapped the fixes and wheeler-dealing of the old party conference for the NPF.

‘This has to change. It needs a culture change at the top. The Labour movement is not there to be managed, it has a talent with a potential which should be unleashed. I strongly believe that the role of Annual Conference must be enhanced – not just as the sovereign body over rules and policy – but the place where we debate the big issues facing our country and how they affect working people.

‘As well as enhancing Conference, we need to strengthen the role of the National Policy Forum, regional policy forums and our local party meetings too so that party members no longer feel like their role in policy making is cosmetic.’

Ball’s campaign leaflet ( summarises these arguments in a number of ‘pledges’, later expanded in other election literature under the heading, ‘My contract with the Party’:

  • I will increase party membership and defend and strengthen the crucial trade union link
  • I will give party conference back to members
  • I will reform our party’s policy-making process
  • I will drive a culture change in the Labour Party to support greater representation for women
  • I will set up the party’s first ever Diversity Fund
  • I will end undemocratic imposed selections and start selection much earlier
  • I will give a more powerful voice to party members
  • I will nurture talent on our party and help our youth and student movement grow.

David Miliband

Of all the campaigns contacted, David Miliband’s team sent the lengthiest reply. Here it is in full:

‘David wants to engage with the wider public and with the grassroots of the Party. As a result, a large focus of his campaign has been on talking to people – at hustings, on conference calls, on webchats. One of his proposals to make Labour a more democratic party is the idea of electing a Party Chair.

‘As part of his campaign, David is also training 1000 future leaders in the skills and techniques of community organising so Labour can once again be a living breathing movement in communities. This will help rebuild membership and reach out to new constituencies of people. He is also targeting a doubling of party membership by the next election.

‘This project is the ‘Movement for Change’ and you can see the video of the launch at this link:

‘David’s vision for the campaign is to change the way that the Labour Party does politics. He has laid out a set of pledges as to how to increase transparency and democracy for members, which can be found here:

1. I will return democracy to the Party starting with an elected Party Chair.

The voice and power of members has been eroded in recent years. We can only reconnect with our values and our voters if we have an authentic voice – that means more democracy. I would support an elected Party Chair, voted for by you, as a democratic voice for Party members around the Shadow Cabinet table.

2. I will double Party membership.

I reject the old political culture which sees members as cheerleaders, or as a problem to be controlled. I will replace the Labour Supporters Network with a real recruitment resource for local parties: locally owned networks of people who identify with our values. I will rebuild our Party as a mass movement for change.

3. I will defend the union link and recruit trade unionists to Labour.

The Tory Liberal government plan to break the union link – I will fight against them tooth and nail. I will strengthen our links with the 3 million workers who pay the political levy with a national drive to recruit trade unionists to our Party.

4. I will lead with action, not words: offering training for 1,000 future leaders.

My commitment to rebuilding our Party is more than just words. My leadership campaign will offer 1,000 Party members training in community organising skills during the campaign – with more to follow.

5. I will give a voice for Labour councillors in the Shadow Cabinet.

Local government is the last line of defence against the Tories and the place where our ideas for the future can be tested. We need to value councillors more. I want the leader of Labour’s councillors to sit in the Shadow Cabinet.

6. I will support representation for Scotland and Wales on the NEC.

Britain’s politics have changed dramatically because of devolution yet our Party’s structures have not. I would provide a link between the UK and Scottish and Welsh parties by supporting the creation of Scottish and Welsh positions on the NEC.’

He expanded on the thinking behind some of these ideas in his Keir Hardie lecture on 9 July (, in which ahe said:

‘I don’t wish to simply be leader of the Labour Party. I seek to renew the Labour Movement – in idea and in organisation. Building relationships and a common life through common action for the common good in communities across the country…

‘We have to make democracy our ally again, outside and inside our party. The lack of democratic discussion, the hollowing out of the party, our administrative and managerial methods meant that we were seen as a fearsome but not attractive political machine.’

Andy Burnham

Burnham’s manifesto, Aspirational Socialism, can be found here:

As far as we can see it doesn’t include any proposals or specific ideas for reforming the party or party democracy.

However, in a response to a question about representation in Labour’s shadow cabinet and the PLP, he replied:

‘The party I lead will offer additional training and mentoring for our newly-elected representatives, which is particularly important for young, women and BAME members for whom the support has too often simply not been available. I will also ensure that the proportion of women across Shadow and Government reflects, as a minimum, the proportion of women in the Parliamentary Labour Party. My online manifesto calls for Labour to continue the great progress made with all-women shortlists to ensure there are more women in Parliament and on the Labour benches.

‘Providing support and listening to our members and those within the Labour family are key to Labour’s future success, to end the disconnection between the Party, its members and supporters. That means closer ties to the trade union movement, not just at the top of the Party, but from constituencies up. Working together, we can be a force for good within our communities and ensure that we never again lose sight of what it means to be Labour.’

More recently, in a letter to party members, he promises to ‘rebuild Labour from the bottom up as a truly democratic party that trusts its members, values its councillors and works constructuvely with our trade union partners. The Labour Party I lead will be a mass membership party, an active force on the ground in your community and the natural home, once again, for young people who want to change the world.’

Ed Miliband

In an article for Labour Values (, Ed Miliband talks of leading ‘a revolution of activism within our party’ so that it becomes ‘a party rooted in communities, dynamic and campaigning that can win the argument for a fairer, more equal and more democratic Britain’.

He writes:

‘A simple start would be to be open about how many members we have in different areas and what they are doing for their communities. It shouldn’t be difficult to double our membership, we all know at least one person who voted Labour at the last election who might want to join. But the reason for joining should be clear; membership needs to be about what you can change rather than just attending meetings. We should recognise where this is already happening and give those local Parties the incentives to continue in their successes. The central Party should also be able to provide members with the tools and support to meet their goals…

‘I want to discuss how branches can reach out to other organisations that share our values; how we can make it easier for supporters to share all of their talents for the sake of their communities; how we can share power and responsibility so that activists can make decisions and a real difference; and I want to discuss how the lessons learned on the doorstep are spread across the country, for the sake of all.

‘The leadership has spent too much time treating the membership as a threat to sensible policy and direction, when in fact if we had listened more, on housing, on the 10p tax rate, on agency workers, we would have been a better government.’

Ed Miliband’s campaign leaflets include the promise to provide ‘a new role for party members’:

‘Creating a living, breathing movement with more to say for party members in policy making; greater focus on local campaigning; and an elected party chair.’

You can find links to the candidates’ manifestos here.

The candidates’ campaign websites are:


  1. […] The future of the Labour Party, and in particular its internal organisation and operation, was a recurrent theme in the campaign for party leadership. All candidates argued that the party needs reinvigorating and revitalising, and all candidates made some commitment to renewing party democracy. […]

  2. Jonathan
    11 September 2010

    Not a great set of choices in this election. I won’t vote for David M because I am concerned that, as a former foreign secretary, he is tainted by knowledge of extraordinary rendition and UK involvement in torture. Sadly, the terms of reference provided by the government for the torture inquiry set the bounds of investigation at 2003, so I think he’s off the hook for now.

    I find Ed too light on detail and I don’t recall any spectacular achievements from his time as Environment Secretary..

    I can’t vote for Dianne Abbot – even the LRC is only able to ‘critically support’ her. Talk about damning with feint praise!!!

    That leaves Andy Burnham and Ed Balls. Burnham is the best looking candidate and Balls has the most ridiculous name, so from a purely presentational point of view I should go for Andy. Also he is proposing a national care service, which I strongly support.

    However, one idea – which I suspect he has decided to bandwagon – does not make a campaign. Ultimately, Ken Livingston’es recommendation and my own memories of the effectiveness of DCSF – plus some substantial statements on the economy – mean that I am using my 3 votes for Ed.

    My partner btw thinks it’s hilarious that I have 3 votes. I tried to explain why but she found my explanation even funnier. So much for Labour Party democracy!

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