By Dan Jeffery, Streatham CLP and Lambeth Unison activist
On 31 January Streatham CLP voted to change from a delegate structure to an all member structure. The turnout was huge, with about 400 people attending. This was over twice the size of any other meeting I have seen in Streatham in the past five years and, despite not being not nearly diverse as it should have been, was more diverse than our normal CLP meetings (which sadly isn’t difficult). I was pleased at how many members took an interest and were actively engaging with the process.
At the start of the meeting there was an unpleasant incident where a left-wing member, Becky Crocker, was taken aside and told she couldn’t go in, despite being on the members list and getting an email that day from the CLP chair asking her to attend. The is because the Executive Committee has recommended her membership should not be accepted. The details about this can be found here. The chair was challenged and asked if their recommendation had actually been implemented by the national office, and if not, then surely, she was still a member. The chair seemed unsure about this and eventually let her in to the meeting and said she could have speaking rights, but no right to vote. It was bizarre to say the least.
The meeting started with a number of speakers from affiliated societies arguing in favour of the delegate system, although some acknowledged there were problems with the current set up. The subsequent debate was largely held in a good spirit, with only minor heckling from both sides. However the speakers from the right of the party (including a number of Progress people), didn’t really help their case by making totally over the top claims and false claims such as that AMMs mean union disaffiliation, that oppressed groups would be “banished”, that if you voted AMM you didn’t care about the working class, and that the whole exercise was an attack on our MP Chuka Umunna, and an attempt to deselect him (despite the fact that any reselection process is exactly the same under the delegate or AMM system).
I also don’t think it helped their cause that all the arguments were very much theoretical. The affiliated societies and affiliated union branches have barely been heard from in the last five years, and I cannot recall a single motion coming from any of them or members being mobilised for campaigns. Indeed, my local UNISON branch (who I am a delegate for) has taken to sending our motions in to the wards so they get more coverage because of the huge backlog of motions at the CLP, which has got even worse as two of the last three CLPs have been inquorate (again hardly a glowing endorsement of the current system). The two union delegates from the “steel worker” union Community who got elected to the Executive Committee have never turned up to the EC all year, and neither has the Trade Union Liaison Officer. There has also been no “liaison” with any of the union delegates and no reports. It seemed strange that there was such a passionate defence of these links, if those in a position to make those links a reality, do very little or nothing at all. For more on the trade union links see here.
I thought those making the arguments for the all member system came across far better. There was a powerful case put forward by two young BME members who said that because people on low wages, who are disproportionately young and from oppressed groups, have to move around so much, the delegate system effective permanently disenfranchises them. Others said that our delegate system means that people who can’t be delegates as they can’t commit the time, again disproportionately being from oppressed groups, can never have a vote and a real say on CLP issues. They also pointed out that while the delegate system gives a 50/50 ratio of men and women delegates, our CLP meetings are always dominated by the male delegates in terms of those who can turn up. Others said that under the AMM system there are still Trade Union Liaison Officers, that trade union branches and affiliates can still send in motions, can still send their members along and can still be represented on the Executive Committee. It was explained, rightly in my view, that involvement from the trade unions and affiliated societies was far more a political question and one of active campaigns, rather than whether people could be sent along as members or delegates. It was pointed out that the very meeting that we were in was a good example of how engaging and exciting all member meetings could be, where anyone can have a say and everyone has a vote.
Another underlying feeling from those supporting all member meetings was that the current system lacked any transparency or accountability. We are not allowed to know which trade union branches affiliate, let alone who the delegates are or who they represent. This has led to the odd situation where me and another union activist lost the vote for the Executive Committee positions 21 votes to 20 votes. Yet on the list put around before the meeting there are only 31 union delegates. Now there could be a good explanation, but given the total lack of transparency this obviously raises concerns. A lot of people who supported AMM don’t think that we should never go back to the delegate system, but that the CLP needs to have an AMM to ensure a level playing field in the here and now, and if we go back to a delegate system that it be accountable and transparent.
One of the issues raised (for and against), was how an AMM system would affect the wards. AMM supporters pointed out that again this was largely a political and campaigning issue in terms of how well wards function. Before Corbyn got elected the wards in Streatham hardly functioned, with four of them having to merge because barely anyone turned up. If you have wards that have active campaigns, send motions to CLP meetings, hold councillors to account and have interesting speakers and debates, there is no reason at all that ward meetings should not be just as active under an AMM.
When the vote came it was very close, but after a recount AMM won by 190 votes to 183. The level of organisation that Streatham Labour Left put in to getting such a turn out was extremely impressive. It was also heartening to see so many new people turning up, and people speaking from the floor for the first time; there was a very political and engaging feel to the whole meeting. As said earlier, while the CLP needs to do far, far better in becoming more representative, it was also good that it wasn’t just the usual suspects taking part.
One disappointing aspect was that I saw some members from the right of the party shouting in the face of the CLP Secretary (who is also to the right of the party), after the vote was announced. This was totally unacceptable and should not happen in any form. The abuse on twitter needs to stop as well. In one incident earlier this year I saw my ward chair and Labour First organiser refer to Owen Jones as “Theon Greyjoy” and “squealer” (see here, here and here). Anyone who has seen Game of Thrones will realise how nasty that is, and in the last status threats are made against Owen Jones without comment. Whether on the left or right of the party we should not accept abuse or bullying, and should value democratic ways of operating.
All member meetings are no magic bullet, and what will really count is the political basis and campaigning that we take part in going forward. However, I feel that this was a very positive meeting. The people voting for AMM were clearly those who wanted more democracy, and wanted a CLP that was far more engaging and outward looking. After the meeting there was a great feeling of solidarity and a feeling that people wanted to take forward socialist politics.
This is a small but significant step forward, with lots of hard work to be done. But everyone I have spoken to has said that we need to be engaging, put our politics to the forefront, build the trade union link and links to affiliates in a genuine and practical way, and do far more to get involved in campaigns and local communities. I think this will help in that.
• For an alternative view of the Streatham decision, see Urte Macikene’s article here.
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