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Bleak times for Labour Party democracy

We need to stand up to Starmer’s attacks on party democracy and socialist policies, writes RACHEL GARNHAM, vice-chair of Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, ahead of Arise’s Solidarity, Struggle, Socialism Conference on December 10

THESE are dismal times for Labour Party democracy. The current leadership shows utter disdain for both its anti-Tory membership and trade unions in struggle and it shows no real understanding of what democracy is and the benefits it brings. 

There is no recognition that ordinary members and trade unionists embedded in communities across England, Scotland and Wales are a great asset in developing policy and selecting and electing representatives that are best placed to help win elections.

It is quite clear to me that the stated priority of winning elections takes second place to the elimination of the left from the party — the aim being, not the radical solutions needed to tackle the climate, health and cost of living crises, but a supine, “Tory B-team” Labour Party that can form a Westminster government without posing any real threat to the status quo.  

The evidence of the leadership’s complete disregard for party democracy is overwhelming.

Keir Starmer has entirely ditched his leadership pledges, from free movement, through public ownership to imposition of candidates; and he would have been unlikely to win the leadership on the right-wing “programme” he currently espouses. 

It could be difficult to escape charges of dishonesty and credibility come a general election campaign.

Issues with parliamentary selections and trigger ballots are well-documented — from Sedgefield to Stroud, Peterborough to Peckham, members have been denied a democratic choice through removal of favoured left candidates from long lists on spurious grounds. 

It reminds me of Tony Blair’s Labour, post-1997, where control freakery led to losses of safe Labour seats in places like Blaenau Gwent, Falkirk West and most famously losing the first election for mayor of London to independent Ken Livingstone — the choice of Labour members and trade unions for Labour’s candidate, but denied by anti-democratic fixing. 

I hope the current Labour leadership does not need to learn the same lessons the hard way.

Forde has exposed a damaging “monoculture” at HQ and serious issues with racism and sexism, which remain unaddressed. 

We have yet to hear in detail how the party intends to address these issues — if at all — but there are worrying signs of complacency, of consultation only with handpicked unrepresentative “stakeholders” and of the more challenging recommendations being set aside as “too difficult,” completely missing the point. 

There is complete disregard for natural justice and transparency in Labour’s disciplinary procedures, which are being used to wage war on the left of the party. 

The introduction of proscription of various Labour activist groups, the false criteria used to allege “support” for these groups and then its retrospective application mean too many brilliant local activists expelled for some association with the left. 

The recent expulsions of senior figures in Unite and Unison should be a wake-up call to those not yet aware how unjust these rules and their application are.

Despite progress in embedding equality structures for women, black, Asian and minority ethnic and disabled members into the rulebook, a lack of commitment to democratic engagement of Labour’s diverse membership is the reality. 

Despite plenty of time to set a date and make plans for a spring Labour women’s conference, no progress has been made and we expect to be palmed off with an annual conference bolt-on again despite Labour women’s committee being clear that this is totally inadequate. 

The situation is worse still for BAME and disabled members with no sign of either conferences or committees. Top-down online events that no-one knows about, or outsourcing equality to under-resourced, often unrepresentative socialist societies, is no substitute for properly resourced, democratic, self-organised equality structures.    

So times are grim, but we have been here before and there is still much to fight for, not least inspired by the industrial action which has widespread support in the population and Labour’s membership. 

Abuses of democracy take place because the leadership knows that in a fair selection process, candidates such as Emma Dent Coad, Lauren Townsend and Maurice Mcleod are exactly the sort of prospective parliamentary candidates that members, unions and voters support but who are too principled and committed to Labour values to be the lobby fodder that Starmer wants. 

In recent votes for the NEC CLP places the left secured around 40 per cent; and approximately the same percentage at conference voted to allow Jeremy Corbyn to face his trigger ballot. 

And on other occasions we have managed to beat back the attacks — such as Ian Byrne’s reselection, the failure of rightwingers to force the trigger of MPs such as Zarah Sultana, and the left’s overwhelming victory in the recent Young Labour elections.

Despite enduring multiple abuses of the rulebook, the left of the party stubbornly refuses to go away and we know many members who would not identify themselves on the left, do support the right of CLPs to select their own candidates, support women, BAME and disabled members’ right to organise and back the policy agenda agreed by conference but so lacking from Labour’s official announcements. 

Labour left activists will continue to build alliances for party democracy, while working across the party and beyond to support trade unions in struggle, and international, national and local campaigns for peace and justice. 

I look forward to discussing all this and more on December 10 at the Arise Conference for Solidarity, Struggle and Socialism.

The conference, Solidarity * Struggle * Socialism, takes place on Saturday December 10, 10am at Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. Join Rachel Garnham from CLPD plus John McDonnell MP; Sarah Woolley, BFAWU general secretary; Richard Burgon MP; Mick Whelan, Aslef GS; Nadia Whittome MP; Zita Holbourne, Black Activists Rising Against Cuts; Lord John Hendy KC; Hilary Schan, Momentum; Heidi Chow, Debt Justice; Steve Howell; Holly Turner, NHS Workers Say No; Jon Trickett MP; Diane Abbott MP; Dave Ward, CWU GS & more.

Register at bit.ly/ariseconference2022.

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