Demanding All Member Meetings displays short-termism and dwindling ambitions

Urte Macikene, Dulwich and West Norwood CLP, continues our debate on All Member Meetings vs delegate General Committees.

This week’s vote to shift to an All Member Meeting (AMM) structure was proclaimed a victory by the bulk of the Labour Left in Streatham. They argued that AMMs are more broadly democratic, with the undeniable subtext that AMMs would allow Corbyn-supporting members to more easily break the anachronistic Progress stranglehold on party business in the constituency. This is a view now commonly held, as evidenced by a leadership-backed rule change passed at last year’s conference making it easier for members to initiate moves between AMM and delegate structures. But for serious socialists, the question is not whether a nominally Left leadership can cement its grip on the party machine, but rather on what principles we fight for power, and how we put them into practice. From this perspective, the call for AMMs is nothing but a shortcut to a dead end.

Under a GC structure, local branches are the lowest unit of party democracy. Attendees to branch meetings are practically neighbours, and local councillors attend to be held to account by local members. Less packed agendas allow for speakers to spread the word about local campaigns. Any member can bring a motion, and debates often shade into informal political discussions. In short, it is where the most accessible and localised level of political life can take place. In any vibrant mass left-wing organisation, small local units should be indispensable for contact with new members, democratic accountability of representatives, and organising for local struggles.

The switch to AMMs will make branches superfluous, merging all local democracy into the monthly constituency-wide meetings, which are more often a carefully choregraphed and managed display of procedure. Agendas overflow with the bureaucracy necessary to keep the party machine functioning, including nominations to national bodies and conferences, regional speakers delivering the party line, and stultified five-minute debates on motions. All this is necessary to give the party democratic legitimacy, but the meetings do not truly represent democratic life.

This does not greatly concern most of those whose single-minded task is to install a Corbyn supremacy at all levels of the party. It is of course maddening to witness the right wing of the party pack the room at branch AGMs, elect a full slate denying the left influence at GC for a whole year, and then never turn up again. Yet it should be no surprise – these members forged their party loyalties over decades of CLP meetings which consisted of five members meeting in someone’s living room for twenty minutes to rubber stamp the latest whatever-it-is before rushing off to their next consulting engagement. Political discussion, workplace organising, and community campaigning were virtually unheard of within the party.

Everything is different now, Corbynites say. But if the Left has truly built the mass social movement it so often proclaims, why does it have so much trouble out-organising a medium-sized clique of crusty Blairites at one branch AGM per year? After all, the election of delegates to GCs is fully democratic and representative, with any branch member allowed to attend and vote.

The answer is obvious when one witnesses the mindless bureaucracy and obsession over electoral process which exclusively occupies the time of many local Left groups. Leading members spend most of their time dealing with paperwork, hounding existing members about their attendance, conducting elaborate calculations about how many delegates they can count on, and engaging in petty personality clashes.

All this is done in the name of promoting Corbynism, with an absence of any local campaigning or political programme. Organising Labour Left groups to actively support a community campaign or build one of their own is virtually impossible. With heads buried in factional manoeuvring, no one can agree what to campaign for. Even if they do, the lack of any collective discipline or sense of responsibility means no one turns up and the initiative is soon forgotten.

Not only is this wrong on principle, it is self-defeating. Engaging in local struggles would provide a guaranteed opening for mobilising new people within party structures. For instance, publicly campaigning to end racialised injustices like stop and search or no recourse to public funds would surely increase the currently abysmal proportion of active BAME members. Fighting cuts to local services like children’s or youth centres shows migrant mothers and disadvantaged youth that Labour is on their side.

As it stands, activists who are involved in many local campaigns see no reason to come to branch meetings. This isn’t because they don’t support Corbyn over a right-wing alternative, but because they don’t have any organic connection to the party. Getting a call once a year from a local member they’ve never met asking them to come along and vote for the left slate hardly stirs enthusiasm.

In this context, AMMs really are more useful to the Left than a branch delegate structure – only one pointless meeting a month rather than two makes it easier to guilt people into attending out of a sense of responsibility to the movement. Monthly all-member mobilisations will require the right wing to organise on a regular basis rather than just once a year, something they will find tiresome now that their enemies are in charge, giving the left more opportunities for success.

The narrowness of this calculation is bleak. It shows that the ambitions of the Labour Left extend little further than voting through the Corbynite slate when they are told to, refusing to engage with the ever-deepening fractures in the Corbyn coalition itself or look beyond slavish loyalties to an independent politics.

It also spells a retreat for the entire project. The absence of a growing and independent membership base means the leadership will get away with its ever-increasing accommodation to Brexit-fuelled nationalism and blatant electoral triangulation. Even defending the progressive social democratic measures in Labour’s 2017 manifesto will become impossible without mass pushback when the inevitable compromises are proposed.

After the vote in Streatham, Chuka Umunna’s Progress cronies have been first out of the gate with accusations that the AMM structure is a cynical cover for de-selection ambitions and naked factionalism. Against such accusations we should not trouble to defend ourselves. There should be no moral objection from socialists to rebuilding organisational structures from the ground up to better serve as vehicles for struggle, and using everything at our disposal to do so. Nor, unlike the Blairites, have we ever had reason to hide our aims.

Instead we must ask: when we emerge on the other side, will we be proud of what we have fought for? Or will we sit victorious on a throne made of sand, no better than those we have just displaced?

For an alternative view of the Streatham decision, see Dan Jeffery’s article here.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

3 Comments

  1. The article is correct to note the campaigning and organisational weaknesses within Labour, ie. it is generally either low level for most members or diversionary in the issues it gets absorbed by. But it is wrong to counterpose all members meetings with the branch activity/meetings. I see no contradiction between CLP All Members Meetings and active branche activity/meetings. The CLP is not made up of the same members as each branch – it can easily be a different audience in its totality. The All Members Meetings just have to address issues that act in a coordinating fashion to branch activities. They should have a different focus – more on education, policy comprehensiveness rather than necessarily purely locally directed. We do not need Delegate General Committees as the means by which branch become active. Why can the All Members Meetings not be the instigator, stimulus and CLP – wide co-ordinator for branch activities. Once a month members meetings (necessarily) always at the same time/evening will not meet all needs. At least the option of a second once a month meeting in branches and CLP allows for exploration of different formats/content for the meetings without the obligations to attend (aside from the most active/enthusiastic).

    The two structures need their distinct focus that suits their level of operation. It is because this has not be addressed that we revert to delegate based structures, which reach too few people.

  2. The tone of this piece is really unhelpful. It’s simply not true that streatham’s AMM campaigners are all corbynite bureaucrats who have simply abandoned the idea of political campaigning, or would never dare criticise the leadership’s Brexit position (where did that come from?). I’d welcome a critique of how the local Labour left could be more effective, but this piece amounts to little more than an assertion that everyone else has the wrong mindset. I wish momentum did more campaigning too, but who doesn’t? I don’t think simply lecturing others on their bad attitude is at all a constructive intervention.

  3. Hi Sam, hopefully Urte and others will reply, but immediately it sounds like you would agree more with the other report we published here.

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