This contribution responds to the invitation for comments on Labour’s future as part of the Refounding Labour process, and is broadly endorsed by the ILP’s NAC.
The renewal of the Labour Party, encompassing changes in its structures and practices, is long overdue and we welcome the Refounding Labour initiative. There is much to commend in the Refounding document and we applaud both its recognition of the problems and its openness to new ways forward.
The campaign for a successful, participatory and democratic Labour Party has been at the heart of the ILP’s politics for over 30 years (see below). In debates about party democracy over the last 30 years, we consider we have taken an honourable and principled approach which sometimes brought us into conflict with those seeking democratic reform for partisan advantage. Our responses to Refounding Labour are guided by this record and a number of key aims:
- for a vibrant and participatory party
- for a party that is, in Ed Miliband’s words, ‘rooted in communities, dynamic and campaigning that can win the argument for a fairer, more equal and more democratic Britain’
- for a party which makes membership meaningful, beyond being electoral foot soldiers
- for a democratic party in which members have an influential role and there is a direct and transparent connection between members’ views and policy.
1. An outward looking party
Local parties should be free to organise their activities in new ways, and the Party nationally ought to encourage and support such innovation as much as it can. An urgently-needed part of this new way of working is for political education among party members and those in the wider community who share some or all of our vision. We agree that Labour’s success is dependent on our members being active and engaged in their local communities. To that extent, and in building on the successful examples of vibrant local party campaigns, we agree with many of the suggestions in Refounding Labour which point towards innovation in the way that local parties organise themselves and engage with their local communities. Local parties do have to maintain certain democratic procedures for formally determining positions on policy and for conducting (re)selection processes. Aside from those areas, formal business can be kept to a minimum. However, Labour’s project of ‘a fairer, more equal and more democratic Britain’ has to be campaigned for. An informed and engaged membership at grass roots level is vital not only to win elections but also to win hearts and minds and to counter the dominance of a right-wing media. Local parties are not, therefore, simply in the business of reflecting views of local communities, but also of campaigning for change. Here, keeping the formal part of local party work to a minimum would allow constituencies and branches to have more open, engaging and educative meetings.
2. A voice for members
Both Refounding Labour, and the current leadership have openly acknowledged that party members have been neglected and sidelined within the party for many years. As Ed Miliband said, the previous leadership ‘spent too much time treating the membership as a threat to sensible policy and direction’. It is very welcome that Refounding Labour acknowledges the need to make members feel involved and listened to. The democratic deficit in the party is profound and no-one reading Refounding Labour can be left with any view other than that internal party processes and rules are in urgent need of a democratic overhaul. Partly because of the nature of the Party and its history, this is a complex and difficult area and we offer a series of guiding principles only:
- We would welcome the creation of registered party supporters but there should be no formal role for non-party members in any of the voting processes within the party, including election of leader and deputy leader, voting on party policy and selection and reselection of parliamentary and local government candidates. Enhancing the voice of party members is incompatible with allowing non-members any formal role. Participation by registered supporters in local party discussions and party conference in an informal role is to be very much welcomed and registered supporters could be given special mailings, invites to social and other events. Indeed, broadening such informal consultations would allow policy debates to be informed by dialogue with a wider audience.
- Any changes to how party policy is determined ought to fulfil this basic criterion: that there should be a much more direct, democratic and transparent connection between the views of individual party members, their constituencies and official party policy. For this to be realised, the processes by which party policy is determined have to be completely overhauled. Even if something akin to the National Policy Forum is retained, at least in the short to medium term, its operation and procedures must be made more simple and transparent and it must constitute a more direct link between constituencies and party conference. As part of this, policies emanating from the NPF should be properly debated and voted on at party conference and there should be a mechanism whereby amendments can be tabled and minority reports, where appropriate, are also debated and voted on. For this direct, democratic connection between individual, local and national levels to be realised, serious work and resources will have to be allocated to ensuring there are adequate procedures for ‘reporting up from’ and ‘reporting back to’ the local level. Examples of such democratic practices, such as in the consumer co-operative movement, could guide this.
- Annual conference should be reaffirmed as the supreme body of the Party but its processes and voting procedures need a democratic overhaul. The key democratic deficit here is that trade union votes are now concentrated and dominant as never before. As Refounding Labour makes clear, barely a handful of large unions control around 50 per cent of votes at conference. A revitalised role for party members is not possible if they are so marginal to decisions at conference. A phased process should be introduced whereby the Union share of votes is gradually reduced if and when party membership increases. By creating a conference more relevant to members, playing a real role in the democratic life of the party, may help to address the growing neglect of conference by constituencies that Refounding Labour has identified. In addition, initiatives to increase participation by registered supporters in discussions, and debate around conference, should be encouraged and will help to shift the emphasis of conference attendance away from corporate lobbyists and towards communities and campaigns and movements for change. An annual party ‘festival’ would add to the variety of voices and debates heard by the party and would be very welcome.
3. Renewing the party
The Party should learn lessons, where appropriate, from the use of social and new media for building networks and creating new forums for debate and dialogue as well as fundraising and campaigning. Successful examples deployed by campaign groups like 38 Degrees, Compass, Progress and Obama’s presidential election can help to guide this practice. Many other issues around renewing the party have been covered in the initiatives necessary to build an ‘outward looking party’. The key to both will be a revitalisation of membership and a freedom to innovate and learn from one another at constituency level. Such renewal is necessary not only for electoral purposes; an active party is also important to avoid the party leadership, particularly when in office, becoming cut-off from the wider society.
4. Winning back power
To protect and reaffirm the role of selection and reselection procedures as a democratic bedrock of the party also means tempering the centralised, top-down interventions by the national party in local selection procedures. As already argued, there should be no role for non-party members in the formal business of selecting electoral candidates. The undemocratic and counter-productive imposition of candidates in parliamentary, mayoral and devolved assembly elections has been a disaster for party democracy and the party’s public image.
About the ILP and Labour Party democracy
The ILP has a long history of campaigning for democratic change within the Labour Party. We were at the forefront of the early campaigns for internal reform in the late 1970s, when the left agued for (and eventually won, in 1979) the right of constituency Labour Parties to deselect sitting MPs. This right, now trumpeted as a pillar of party accountability in the Refounding Labour document, was won in the teeth of opposition from many MPs and the right wing of the party.
The ILP was also at the forefront of the campaign to broaden the electorate for leader and deputy leader beyond MPs to include party members and trade unions. A new system was eventually agreed in 1981 creating the ‘electoral college’ which still exists in modified form today, whereby the trade unions had 40% of the votes, MPs 30% and constituencies 30% (the proportions are now, in line with the ILP’s view at the time, a third for each). In this process serious differences opened up between the ILP and much of the rest of the left. In arguments over the electoral college, the ILP saw that the left had to ‘compromise or be damned’ and stood up for a compromise position, not unlike that eventually agreed. Other groups on the left chose to be damned as undemocratic and stuck out hopelessly and erroneously for a much more trade union-dominated system.
More importantly, the ILP argued on the grounds of basic democratic principle, that the constituency element of the electoral college should be based on one member one vote (OMOV). Others on the left argued for the retention of a delegatory system which placed constituency votes in the hands of activists and officials, a system which we argued, correctly as it tuned out, invited a manipulative and undemocratic political practice. The ILP’s stance developed further and we came to a position which argued that to create a participatory democratic system, OMOV should include a requirement for members to attend a minimum number of party meetings.
We sustained the campaign for this system through the 1980s, though much of the force had gone out of the party democracy movement by the late 1980s. However, in 1988 OMOV was introduced for the constituency section of leader and deputy leader elections and in 1993, under John Smith’s leadership, the trade union block vote was removed from elections to select parliamentary candidates and replaced with OMOV (without any attendance requirement). The ILP maintained its campaigns for more democratic change, arguing in the pamphlet Taking the Party to the Cleaners that annual conference was overly dominated by trade union block votes, often operating in cahoots with party leadership.
With the advent of Tony Blair’s leadership, the process of democratic reform was put into reverse and the new Labour leadership set its face against the party membership. Despite his previous championing of OMOV, Blair oversaw cumbersome and leadership-dominated processes for selection of mayoral, MEP and devolved assembly candidates with disastrous results. Blair also sidelined conference from any significant role and created the National Policy Forum as a mechanism for taking policy debate out of public view. When the NPF and the Party into Power initiatives were introduced, the ILP argued that the processes needed to be made simpler, more direct, with more room for minority views to be heard and with conference having a key role in debating and deciding on options – all ideas that have returned to the forefront of thinking about reform to the party’s policy process.