It is time to take a stand for a democratic Labour Party representing workers, not big business
No-one would argue that the labour movement ought to remain stuck in the past. Change is necessary to adapt to the new times we live in. The 24/7 media culture for example requires our leadership to exercise speed, subtlety, and agility.
But recent developments in the Labour Party have led to alarm bells ringing for everyone concerned at the erosion of democracy.
We are now at a tipping point. It is time to take a stand.
Too often London-based operatives are intervening in local party matters. A sitting Labour mayor was removed by fiat as a potential candidate. The action against Jamie Driscoll has provoked even the Guardian to label this action as “McCarthyite”.
This is an assault on the party’s pluralistic character, democratic structures and its culture. It’s also a worrying move away from the party’s very purpose: to represent the interests of working people in Parliament and the country as a whole.
There are three central reasons to be deeply uncomfortable with the party’s current trajectory.
Firstly, it undermines our democratic principles, both inside and outside the party.
Secondly, we’ve seen many local, working-class socialists excluded from standing as elected representatives.
And lastly, there has been a reorientation away from working people – in the broadest sense – towards wealthy donors and the interests of business.
Given the corrupt and increasingly authoritarian bunch of Tories who occupy the seats of governmental power, we need a laser-like focus on removing them from office. It’s time to stop spending time and effort in pursuing an inward-facing ideological vendetta.
We need discipline, yes, but we also need unity and mutual respect for our pluralistic traditions. It is unjust too that rough treatment seems to apply to the left and centre-left whilst members on the right of the party are treated differently.
Double standards, top-down interference, along with command and control actions, in candidate selections are now the rule, not the exception. Indeed, they gloated over the fact that they removed the democratically-elected leader of Scottish Labour. They took control from on high of the Birmingham Labour Group. They even changed the party rules so that natural and legal justice no longer apply.
It is all too easy to imagine similar decisions to the one in the north-east being taken on confected grounds when other prominent Labour leaders in the regions come up for re-election. It is a dagger at the throat of the integrity and autonomy of local government.
It never used to be like this. The party’s representative posts – MPs, councillors, even school governors – were determined locally. It was a movement for social justice, rooted in communities and profoundly democratic. Our representatives were meant to give expression to the wishes of the movement, not vice versa.
Nor is this authoritarianism an isolated phenomenon in the party. Already long-standing local campaigners backed by nearly all our affiliated unions have been blocked from consideration for parliamentary selections on the most specious grounds.
Labour was founded to be a party of working people, drawn from all areas of the country. So, a London-based clique determining who can or cannot stand for the party in the north is a profound mistake.
In order to win the general election, Labour must win back communities in the north of England. This will simply not happen unless it listens to voices in the north. And the same applies to other parts of the country.
But this is not simply about regional representation. The tendency to impose top-down candidates with a purely professional background is an error. We need representatives from every region, class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity. The small number of manual workers now in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is lamentable and helps to set up an unnecessary gap between our representatives and the people we seek to serve.
Our unique link to the working class comes through our affiliated trade unions. The PLP always had a strain of people who had fought for working people on the shop floor and is a better place for having them as MPs.
The PLP always had a heterogeneous character – socially, ethnically and regionally. But it also tolerated and embraced the different wings of the party’s ideological heritage. Socialists, social democrats, trade unionists, Christian socialists, and so on.
The leader’s job was to secure unity in the voting lobbies but not to enforce a dreary ideological uniformity in the place of active debate. But some Labour MPs have told me that the threat of a purge is suppressing free speech and inhibiting their ability to do their job properly.
A small group is attempting to change the character of the Labour Party. Moving it away from one traditionally rooted in local communities, workplaces and social justice.
Recent news suggests the party is becoming increasingly reliant on big donors – such as the former Autoglass boss announcing he is giving £5 million in donations and Lord Sainsbury donating £2 million. These are huge contributions to the fighting fund, and no one argues that the party should lack money to fight this appalling Tory government. But history shows us what might happen when the party relies too heavily on wealthy individuals: the cash for honours scandal under Blair comes to mind.
A totally different scenario played out in 2017. We raised millions, and the average donation to the party was only £22. In 2019 working people, through the trade unions’ political funds, gave over £5 million.
This has now fallen to £2.3 million. What would happen to the nature of our party if contributions from tens of thousands of working people were to be replaced by one-off donations from the super-rich?
None of this is internal navel-gazing; it’s about the party’s commitment to wider democratic reform and social justice. How can we expect a Labour government to devolve power in the country when the leadership has centralised power in the party? And how can we guarantee the interests of working people are prioritised if the party is relying largely on huge amounts of money from the wealthiest?
It may be that the Tories will implode and thereby hand the next election to us on a plate. But we can’t be complacent. We strengthen our hand if we both fight the Conservatives and turn our attention to these internal issues at the same time. I believe all democrats need to take a stand against the trashing of our party’s traditions.
I was a Labour leader under Mrs Thatcher in the great city of Leeds. The then party leadership supported us. I say that Labour leaders in local government ought to come together in defence of their traditional autonomy. Local parties whose rights have been overridden likewise need to unite in support of membership rights.
To my fellow back-bench MPs on the left and beyond – you know that what is happening is wrong. It is time to fight back in an organised way.
And above all I appeal to the affiliated unions. More than any other part of our movement you have the power to call a halt to the undemocratic actions of the present party hierarchy, and more than anyone you appreciate the value of working-class democracy.
If the leadership of the party gives the impression that it doesn’t trust our members or our affiliates then how will we persuade the public to trust us?
This article was first published in the Morning Star