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Who's afraid of the Democracy Roadshow?

IT’S been a grim summer for Labour if your main source of information is the mainstream media.

It began well, with a fighting spirit evident at the biggest Durham Miners’ Gala on record.

“This meeting is a message about power. The power of people. The power of hope. And the power of the unity of our movement,” Jeremy Corbyn told the enormous crowds.

That week saw Labour open up its biggest poll lead over the Conservatives since last year’s general election.

Sadly for the “unity of our movement,” that week also saw the renewal of the controversy over Labour’s alleged anti-semitism problem, with Margaret Hodge’s now infamous foul-mouthed outburst at her leader in the Commons.

The attacks haven’t let up since, with the usual suspects in Parliament lining up to put the boot in. As Stop the War Coalition convener Lindsey German observed this week, the left’s predictions from previous rounds of attacks have been vindicated.

Where previously Corbyn was accused of failing to clamp down hard enough on anti-semitism, the Labour leader, whose decades of anti-racist activism include co-ordinating opposition to the National Front at the “Battle of Wood Green” in 1977 and famously being arrested for demonstrating against apartheid in the 1980s, is now directly traduced as a racist and anti-semite on grounds that don’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny.

It isn’t clear this had much of an impact on public opinion.

The sorry spectacle of an infighting Labour Party doesn’t do us any favours and Hodge put paid to that poll lead quickly enough. But Labour support has remained remarkably steady.

Perhaps wall-to-wall media hostility is doing no more damage than it did in the 2017 election, when Corbyn led the party to its biggest vote increase for over 70 years. Perhaps the media is also misreading the public mood as badly as it did then.

But the whole mess is very demoralising, and most of us active on the left will have seen the hurt, bewilderment and increasing exasperation of Labour activists at the sustained bombardment of misinformation and the movement’s seeming inability to hold together under it.

If the aim of the masterminds behind the right-wing media offensive is to break the left’s spirit, it explains why an initiative like the Democracy Roadshow — brought to you by Chris Williamson MP and veteran trade unionist Tosh McDonald — might get under their skin.

And it has done with calls from Roy Hattersley this week — coincidentally or not, just after the Morning Star ran Williamson’s challenge to MPs to fight for a Labour victory or step aside on its front page — for Corbyn to intervene and squash the initiative. If Williamson proves unsquashable, Corbyn is asked to denounce him instead.
 

Hattersley spoke out in the name of party unity. Williamson’s call for open candidate selections for MPs could split the party, he charged.

No matter that Hattersley has not appealed to right-wing MPs mouthing off about Corbyn to pipe down for fear of “splitting the party.”

Nor that sweetness and tolerance were the order of the day when he was deputy leader in the 1980s, the days when those suspected of involvement with the left-wing Militant Tendency were purged.
Aslef president McDonald, whose involvement in the Democracy Roadshow is on his own initiative, is unimpressed.

“From what I’m hearing, people are looking to split anyway. It doesn’t change the fact that the party has got to be more democratic,” he tells the Morning Star.

Many Labour Party and trade union members feel the calls for unity are a bit rich from a party right that publicly howls abuse at the twice-elected party leader on a daily basis and protests that attempts to hold MPs to account are a form of bullying are even more hypocritical.

Accounts from within the notorious PLP meeting in 2016 when MPs lined up to try to force the leader's resignation suggest Corbyn’s enemies are more than guilty on that front.

“A non-Corbynista MP told me afterwards that he had never seen anything so horrible and he had felt himself reduced to tears. Nobody talked about Jeremy Corbyn’s politics. There was only one intention — to break him as a man,” Diane Abbott wrote at the time.

McDonald thinks MPs fussing about the Democracy Roadshow are guilty of exaggerating their own importance.

“None of the comments I’ve seen even mention the discussions we’ve had about local democracy at the meetings. The focus is all on our supposedly trying to deselect MPs, who are just 0.04 per cent of the membership.”

“We’re looking at democratising the whole party. We want to look at the way selections take place for councils, there are cases where members are not given full information on candidates.

“There’s the issue of directly elected mayors getting to hand-pick their own cabinet, but we think council leaders should be elected by the members. Union general secretaries don’t pick their own executives,” he points out.

Labour has grown hugely under Corbyn — its membership is now so large that it raised and spent £10 million more than the Tories last year, despite the governing party’s access to the deep pockets of business tycoons and hedge-fund managers — and McDonald looks to places like Haringey in London as an example of how local democracy can be revived.

The borough’s deeply unpopular Haringey Development Vehicle, the kind of corporate land-grab at the community’s expense that has become routine in modern Britain, was reversed after the left mobilised locals against it and managed to win control of the council.
 

Hattersley claims that reselecting MPs alienates the public, although the five million voters Labour lost between 1997 and 2010 may have been turned off by the frequent imposition of outside candidates by the party machine whether or not they had any connection with the constituency they were parachuted into.

One of Corbyn’s loudest enemies, London-born Liverpool Wavertree MP Luciana Berger, left locals unimpressed when she admitted in 2010 she didn’t know who Bill Shankly was. Local parties picking local candidates could actually revive public confidence in democracy.

And that’s what the Democracy Roadshow is all about, Williamson contends. “Enabling members to decide who their candidates should be before each general election is commonplace in other democracies around the world. Ceding power to members will strengthen Labour’s electoral prospects.

“Unlike many parliamentarians, grassroots members are embedded in their local communities and are the eyes and ears of our movement.

“It would make Labour more akin to every other public body in Britain, from local councils and trade unions to bowls clubs and community centres.

“Elected office holders in all these institutions are subject to periodic endorsements from their members.”

He dismisses Hattersley’s appeal to Corbyn to shut the roadshow down as “absurd hyperbole” and “the stuff of fantasy.”

Nor does he accept that the party leader could do any such thing, saying: “The Democracy Roadshow is a grassroots initiative that we established to discuss the ongoing Labour Party Democracy Review.”

For labour movement activists at the meetings — which Williamson agrees with McDonald have been “incredibly successful, with huge turnouts” — this practical and forward-looking politics is a welcome tonic to the endless abuse of a media desperate to make Corbyn distance himself from his entire political record, from his grassroots supporters, his peace movement work, his solidarity with oppressed peoples like the Palestinians.

It builds the courage of our movement to fight back against truly tremendous Establishment pressure. And if you doubt that a fightback, rather than continual retreat, is sorely needed, we can leave the last word to Hattersley.

“Democratic socialism will not succeed, and may even not survive, unless it protects its ideological frontiers,” he wrote last December.
Well said.

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