Make Labour conference sovereign!

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By Michael Chessum, Streatham Hill Labour secretary

This year, conference will be dominated by two things: Brexit and party democracy.

They are, of course, linked. The left cannot go into a debate on democratic selection of MPs if it then tries to block members from having a binding say on the most important issue of the day. And, like Brexit, the Democracy Review is a superficially boring issue which provides a window onto a fundamental debate about the soul of the Labour Party.

The Democracy Review goes some way to institutionalising the Corbyn surge and fixing the worst aspects of our broken internal democracy. Standardising CLP processes will go some way to ending the fiefdoms of Labour’s local tinpot dictators. Most significant will be its changes to conference itself: re-establishing it, or perhaps really establishing it for the first time, as the sovereign policy making body and introducing a proper motions process. Under the current “Contemporary Motions” process, members face a labyrinth of bureaucracy and hoop-jumping and local parties can only submit text on a single topic or a rule change.

Beyond structural changes, we must insist that Labour frontbenchers and representatives carry out the policies conference rather than largely ignoring it and making up policy themselves as at present.

The Review’s recommendations are not new but a reversal of the legacy of New Labour. This year’s debates about democracy are the latest iteration of a much deeper division over the soul and purpose of Labour, a division that dates back to its earliest days. Is the parliamentary Labour party the party of a movement, accountable its members, or is it a set of professional politicians with some supporters tacked on?

Unless we go beyond the Democracy Review to more radical reforms, all we will achieve is a shift back in time to before the Blair leadership – and this does not solve the fundamental issue of the accountability of Labour’s parliamentary party. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan often flouted the will of party conference, sometimes pre-announcing that they would refuse to abide by its decisions or presenting it with fait accomplis in the form of IMF loans.

For the New Labour ‘modernisers’, stripping back the power of members and elected officers to make policy was about managing the party and staying close to the political centre as the path to power. The Labour right is in crisis because this narrative is clearly obsolete, even on its own terms, in the world of 2018. The policies of common ownership, taxing the rich and combating austerity are extremely popular with voters. In contrast, the electorate is deeply mistrustful of the controlled, managerial politics that promised so much in 1997 but in practice delivered a continuation of Thatcher’s legacy and rising inequality.

To really fix Labour’s democratic deficit, we must confront the idea that being an elected representative puts you above democratic control from the grassroots of the movement. The election of council leaders and local government policy-setting by party members could be a crucial step. And, whatever it is called, members must have the right to choose their parliamentary candidates before each election.

Reforms to Labour’s internal structures must be consciously linked to its intentions in government. From Tsipras in Greece to Mitterand in France, the left’s experience of power has shown the pressures of being in government lead to unhealthy compromises. The only real protection against this is the existence of a mass movement, in which members have the formal power to instruct their MPs and ministers.

Above all, Labour Party conference must become sovereign.

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