Defending Labour’s democracy matters – Simon Fletcher


“Although the systematic blocking of candidates is aimed against the Labour left, it is also very much about fixing selections for favoured candidates.”

By Simon Fletcher

Last night (June 14th) I spoke at an event: The case for Labour Party democracy – for members’ rights & the union link, as part of Arise festival 2023 – the other speakers were Jamie Driscoll, North of Tyne Mayor; Mick Whelan, ASLEF General Secretary; Rachel Garnham, Co-Chair of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy; Kathy Bole, Chair of Disability Labour; Jon Trickett MP; and Nabeela Mowlana, Chair of Young Labour.

Reproduced below are my speaking notes for my contribution, slightly tidied up, with some points that were not made added back in.

The exclusion of North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll from standing in the North East Labour mayoral selection is the most high-profile exclusion of a candidate for selection other than the case of Jeremy Corbyn. It has attracted huge national and local news coverage.

Imagine Joe Biden’s office sitting around determining who is allowed to stand in mayoral contests all over the USA. It is ridiculous when you think about it.

It undermines the very point of devolution.

Although the systematic blocking of candidates is aimed against the Labour left, it is also very much about fixing selections for favoured candidates. So individuals beyond the politics of the Socialist Campaign Group-left have also been hit by the exclusions.

It also means many candidates strongly supported by the trade union movement are unable to get onto longlists and shortlists.

Thus the the issues of Labour party democracy, members’ rights and the union link are connected.

The key thing in all this is that long-established norms of the party are being torn up.

The party’s democratic norms were themselves built on labour movement norms inherited from the trade unions and the socialist bodies that formed the party. Every democrat – not just the left – has an interest in pushing back against the erosion of these norms.

Or, put the other way, not to push back cedes the ground to machine politics and drags down the whole position of democracy and pluralism.

When we view the exclusion of candidates from Labour party selections, there are broadly three ways of looking at them.

One. Some support each exclusion of every single candidate in all circumstances, within a framework of saying that it demonstrates that Keir Starmer is making the Labour party electable. This group is a minority within the party.

Supporters of this view seek to impose the terms of how the exclusions are made, not through open explanation in transparent and accountable party bodies, but in briefings to the media or allies in the party.

Two. A larger body of opinion takes each case individually and judges it on specific arguments. But these arguments are often determined by lines that have been briefed out by the machine – and within the framework of the highly restrictive procedures as they currently stand.

A problem with this approach is that it tends not to attempt to place these developments within any theory of what is happening, or their place in any historical framework, or a sense of a process that is unfolding.

The really big new shift against members’ rights has happened in the last two years, since the parliamentary selections got underway.

What we are seeing includes:

  • Candidates with broad labour movement support blocked from standing for parliamentary selections, including with the effective imposition of shortlists;
  • Suspension or expulsion of individuals based on retrospective application of the proscription of groupings or publications;
  • numerous council candidates blocked from seeking re-selection;
  • and ignoring Labour conference policy – such as supporting inflation-proof public sector pay.

This is the erosion of democratic norms.

Standing behind it is an intolerant political culture.

Under the present NEC the central party has granted itself considerable new powers to decide in advance who is permitted to stand for selection to be an MP. The powers are being abused.

Multiple former leaders of the Labour party and leading party figures with radical backgrounds would almost certainly not have made it into parliament if these vetting powers had applied in the past.

Let us take just some recent cases:

  • Broxtowe. Labour councillor Greg Marshall was barred from contesting the Labour selection. He was backed by eight affiliated unions. He had attracted broad political support from Labour parliamentarians, by no means only on the left.
  • Bolton North East. The chair of the North West Labour Party, Leigh Drennan, was blocked form standing, although he had the support of Unite, GMB, Unison and CWU.
  • Milton Keynes North. Lauren Townsend – a local council cabinet member – was endorsed by several trade unions including ASLEF, the FBU, the CWU, UNISON and the TSSA. She was blocked.
  • Now the mayoral selection for the whole of the North East of England.

And so on.

I said there were three approaches. A third approach is to view the exclusions and impositions in terms of the line of march – ie where these stand within the history and direction of the labour movement, where this is taking us, and what the overall implications are not only for the Labour as a party but in relation to the wider movement (and politics more generally).

By approaching it on this basis are we able to step back in order to look at the full picture. The process itself has to be opposed and alliances need to be built to overturn the present dominant ethos.

It is especially welcome and important to have Mick Whelan here as part of the discussion because the unions are central to this debate.

The Labour Party was established to ensure that candidates backed by the trade union movement could be elected to parliament. But candidates backed by the unions are now repeatedly blocked.

So opposition to machine politics has to involve an alliance between the left; all those who wish to protect members’ rights; and the trade union movement.

Why does all this matter?

It is far from a niche concern. There are a number of reasons, but here I want to zero-in on just one.

In a recent PoliticsHome podcast, in a discussion involving journalists Michael Crick and Alain Tolhurst, NEC member Luke Akehurst elaborated on the thinking behind the NEC due diligence panels. The key point setting out the present ethos is as follows. Luke Akehurst stated:

“If we’re in a very tight parliament, a hung parliament situation, or a very narrow Labour majority in the next election I don’t want to have allowed people to become Labour MPs that effectively are not solid votes for the Labour Party, they’ve got an agenda that’s about, you know, damaging Keir Starmer and his leadership, or about, you know, constantly voting against us.”

By definition, this draws political decision-making of huge importance to small groups within the NEC and the party centre.

Luke Akehurst preceded this by saying factors for deliberation include “previous behaviour as a politician,” and including possibly if applicants had been “publicly disrespectful of the current leadership and done it not in a polite way but in a in a damaging and disruptive way”. This of course involves a highly subjective political judgements. He raised whether people have a record of breaking the whip, or an implication they might break the whip.

Many of these criteria constitute very broad and subjective notions. What is being set out here – openly – is an intention to predetermine the composition of the next Parliament to insulate it from opinion that on some matters may differ at some point from that of the party leadership.

Such a method can have real consequences. The most prominent occasion on which Labour MPs rebelled during Tony Blair’s government was on Iraq. It was an important debate. It was essential that this debate was reflected within the Parliamentary Labour Party itself, given the strength of feeling amongst Labour voters and supporters.

Those who opposed the government’s line were one hundred per cent right. The Labour government was wrong.

If the vetting ethos of today had prevailed in the past it would have had the effect of reducing the presence of members of the PLP who gave expression to deeply-held and totally legitimate concerns over the build-up to war in 2003.

A range of opinions in the PLP strengthens it, not weakens it.

In conclusion.

There is a case for closer co-operation and the coming together of all democratic forces in the party and the labour movement, or some form of wide coalition, to agree a framework to push back, not only immediately – but through into the next parliament, to correct the abrogation of the party’s norms.

Each arbitrary and unfair candidate exclusion advances the machine politics of command and control. Pushing back advances a more pluralist position based on the labour movement’s democratic norms.

Featured image: North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll. Photo credit: Jamie Driscoll/Twitter

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