“Democracy is the foundation of the Labour Party. It is essential to a healthy, creative, and collective movement.”
In commemoration of 50 years since the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) was founded, Jeremy Corbyn describes how transformative polices depend on empowering the membership
I was at the founding meeting of CLPD 50 years ago. At the time, democracy in the Labour Party was lacking in almost every respect. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) elected the Leader, regardless of what Party members wanted, and once you became an MP your position was protected for evermore.
CLPD’s demands were simple: Party members should elect their Leader, and CLPs should be able to hold their MPs to account. As Tony Benn pointed out, these were not cold constitutional points, but fundamental to the cause of democracy, both in the labour movement and in wider society.
Thanks to the dedication of campaigners, we delivered significant advances in Party democracy: a wider franchise for the election of the Leader and Deputy Leader and what is now the re-selection trigger ballot system for sitting MPs. (We originally won a full re-selection process every Parliament; the current trigger ballot system was introduced later under Neil Kinnock as a retreat from a fully-democratic selection.)
Strength from empowering the membership
When I was elected Leader, I recognised that I had been put there by my fellow Party members. The main challenges ahead of me would come from MPs in the PLP hostile to my leadership, which took a great deal of time and resilience to resolve. Some people thought this should be solved by imposing candidates, imposing decisions, and imposing diktat.
To me, Party democracy was far too important.
Real strength comes from empowering the mass of the membership and the affiliated unions. My philosophy was to improve Party democracy; that’s why we undertook the Democracy Review and introduced more democratic ways of policy making. It is no coincidence that membership rose to 600,000.
Natural justice under threat
Sadly, the Party is now in a situation where things are going in the opposite direction. Numerous members have been suspended and expelled from the Party, and bans and proscriptions have been introduced. I received the same letter as others when my membership was temporarily suspended in 2020. I was reinstated unanimously by an NEC panel (which, it is important to note, was not dominated by allies).
Subsequently, my membership of the PLP was withheld and the ensuing story is well-known. I am immensely grateful to the Party members and the people of Islington North for the friendship and support they have shown me over many years.
We are now in a situation where Party democracy is up to the discretion of the General Secretary, who determines to which organisations CLPs can affiliate, what actions they can take, and which parliamentary candidates they can select. At the request of the Party Leadership, the Party has even removed the concept of natural justice from the Rule Book.
Party members are ignored when it comes to policy formulation. This is not coincidental to the drastic political shift away from our transformative programme. When I was Leader, I supported a Green New Deal, a foreign policy based on peace and justice, public ownership (including of our health service), workers’ rights, and the dignity of migrants and refugees. These policies were not imposed from the top. They were developed, formulated, and defended by members and affiliates.
Democracy is the foundation of the Labour Party. It is essential to a healthy, creative, and collective movement. And, ultimately, only a party that empowers its members can generate the transformative policies this country desperately needs.
- This article was originally published in the special 50th anniversary edition of Campaign Briefing, Read the full magazine here.
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