Bristol West Fiasco Illustrates Anti-Democratic Direction of Starmer’s Leadership – Darran McLaughlin, Former Co-Secretary of Bristol West CLP

“Under Starmer we are seeing… unaccountable Labour Party staffers in league with right wing factions among Labour councillors & MPs… trying to stamp out members’ involvement & democratic decision making in any way they can.”

Darran McLaughlin

Bristol West Constituency Labour Party is one of the largest CLPs in the country. We have over 4,000 members, sent 17 delegates to Conference in 2019 and in the general election that year our MP, Thangam Debonnaire, was re-elected with the country’s largest majority.

We are a CLP with an active, campaigning membership – in 2019 we sent teams of activists out to campaign every week in marginal constituencies across the South West. But the vibrant culture we have created is now under threat from a Party right that is intent on suppressing democracy. The story of the last six months in Bristol West CLP is a warning for all Labour Party members.

Our 2016 AGM was a landmark moment for the left within the Party. We swept the board and have held the officer positions ever since. But a couple of weeks ago that changed. CLPs electing a different committee happens all the time, but how this came about is significant – and should worry members on all sides of the political divide.

Before Corbyn became Leader, the Labour Party was much smaller, with far fewer active members. With Corbyn’s elevation a huge wave of new members joined the party, and along with it came a new focus on bottom-up, democratic organising. To change the country we realised that we needed to build a mass movement that would democratise the Party and inspire a re-engagement in politics amongst working class communities. At one point there was talk of Labour growing to a million members. 

But under Starmer we are seeing this process set into reverse. Unaccountable Labour Party staffers in league with right wing factions among Labour councillors and MPs are trying to stamp out members’ involvement and democratic decision making in any way they can. 

Take the upcoming elections for the West of England mayor. Last summer CLPs in the Bristol and Avon region were asked to hold nomination meetings. But the candidates with the highest number of nominations were disregarded in favour of two candidates with fewer nominations. The common denominator between the two chosen candidates? They were on the right of the Party. In the end Dan Norris, an MP from the Blair years who was caught up in the expenses scandal, has been imposed as the candidate.

Then, days before our CLP AGM in November, the South West Regional Office cancelled the meeting alleging misconduct and incompetence against the sitting Executive Committee (EC). Regional Office said they would run the meeting themselves in February. They allege that some members weren’t receiving information about the meeting, or were being excluded purposefully by the committee – but have since made no contact with anyone on the EC to actually check if this was true. 

This undemocratic meddling reached its peak at the rescheduled AGM a couple of weeks ago. The event was an utter shambles. 

Members were told to log in by 17:30 for a 19:00 start, with the meeting due to finish by 20:30. It eventually came to an end just after midnight after over six hours, having faced a blank screen for most of that time. 

There was no one acting as a Chair usually would. They gave out very little information. They did not allow the chat function to operate. They did not accept or hear any points of order that were raised. They did not send out the minutes of the previous AGM or ask people to approve them. 

Some members did not receive their ballots. Some found they were able to vote twice. Many members went to bed because they had to get up early for work or to look after their children. Some disabled members said they were no longer able to stay up waiting indefinitely, as the deadline was extended over and over again with no indication of when it would finally end. 

If you were to design an event to deter member participation and disillusion your activist base then you couldn’t do any better than this. In the end around 420 people out of the 540 in attendance at the peak got to vote. Over 100 attendees did not. The right-wing slate won a clean sweep of all the elected positions.

Why does this matter? The past several decades have seen a technocratic elite govern however they wish without regard for democracy, leading to a gradual detachment from politics and a decline in Party membership and voter turnout at elections. This is a trend that only benefits cynical right-wing politicians who prey on that disenchantment with xenophobic and divisive rhetoric. Disillusionment with mainstream politics must be something that the Labour Party seeks to reverse, not reproduce.

Tony Benn is perhaps Bristol’s most beloved MP, and he famously said that in order to democratise the British state you would first need to democratise the Labour Party and the labour movement. What is taking place in the Labour Party at the moment is a conflict between the people who agree with Benn and see opening up Labour as the only way to truly change politics in Britain and those who think that member democracy has to be suppressed for the good of the party. These positions are fundamentally irreconcilable. 

But what can we do to stop this slide into irrelevancy? I encourage members to get involved. Stand for roles in your CLPs and branches. Get active in your Trade Union branches and Socialist Societies and stand for elected positions. Put yourself forward to stand as Councillor candidates and MPs. Fight to retain the principle of democracy in the party against those who wish to destroy it. 

  • Darran McLaughlin is former Co-Secretary of Bristol West CLP and council candidate for Bishopston & Ashley Down Ward.

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