Richard Burgon is right about Labour democracy – Aaron Bastani and Michael Walker are wrong

There is plenty to criticise in the politics of Leeds East MP Richard Burgon, who is standing for Labour’s deputy leadership. Burgon is close to the Stalinist Communist Party/Morning Star. However, the case for extending Labour Party democracy, and in particular establishing the sovereignty of Labour Party conference, which he made in his recent interview for Novara Media is worth quoting (despite potentially contradicting other aspects of his politics…)

It is noteworthy that the Novara interviewers, Michael Walker and Aaron Bastani, are extremely keen to talk Burgon out of his argument, but he repeatedly stands by it – eloquently making a case that not many others have made. Credit to him; and also, in a way, to Walker and Bastani for being open about their objections, but their arguments are extremely poor.

The exchange is below. You can watch the full interview here – the section we republish is roughly 7:00-17.25.

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Richard Burgon: I’ll be clear. There’s a lot of rubbish talked about how much MPs know… MPs aren’t privy to any secrets beyond anyone else… Some MPs… know less than Labour Party members or any members of the public…

Michael Walker: A running theme throughout your candidacy is that it should be Labour Party members who are in charge of Labour Party policy. I suppose that leads to the question, do you think members are always right? … Do you have reservations about putting Labour Party policy in the hands of Labour members, do you think they’re ever oing to get it wrong?

RB: Well, who else’s hands would it be in, that’s the question? At the end of the day, democracy is not about presuming the outcome of the vote is always what we’d like… I think we do need to a members-led party… When it come to democracy, we can’t have a situation where members are like unpaid postal workers for the party, delivering leaflets in your own spare time, but have no democratic say about the policies that end up on those leaflets. I actually think that MPs get it wrong a lot of the time. We can’t be elitist in our approach to these things. The Parliamentary Labour Party is not the Labour Party, the Parliamentary Labour Party is part of the Labour Party, and an important part of it, but of course… most people don’t wake up in the morning and say I’m going to sell out; the system seduces them, they get out of touch with reality without realising it. I think that members, who live and work in constituencies across the country can help Members of Parliament to stay in touch with what people think, in the same way that trade unions can as well.

MW: The Labour Party can’t just be idealistic about the idea that Labour Party policy should be made by Labour Party members, because the Labour Party is also competing with another party. If you think about how the Conservatives were so successful in the last election, it was because they hired a lot of professionals… there was almost a scientific approach to how do we win this election. If you try to assemble a manifesto on the basis of what do people vote for at a conference, and these aren’t experts in public opinion… how are you going to make sure that member democracy isn’t something that encumbers the Labour Party and gives the Conservatives a permanent advantage when it comes to connecting with the wider public?

RB: Well, I don’t think the programmes of political parties should be led by an elite, never mind a self-appointed elite. Our so-called betters ended up pushing us into supporting the war in Iraq, with disastrous consequences, pushed us into supporting PFI and a whole host of other things. Tony Benn said… “If you allow the right-wing press to choose the Labour and deputy leader of the Labour Party, what that amounts to is allowing the right-wing press to choose Labour Party policy, and once you allow that to happen, what’s the point of the Labour Party?” If it’s not our members that choose our policy, in reality what will happen is it will be the right-wing press that choose our policy…

MW: Do you think that everything passed at conference should make it into the manifesto?

RB: I think conference should be strengthened up, and whatever gets passed on conference floor, whether it’s about private schools or international policy, should end up in the manifesto.

MW: So do you think in last year’s manifesto there should have been a commitment to actually abolish private schools and extend freedom of movement, for example?

RB: I think that if we’re going to be a democratic party, we’ve got to go with that, and have the discussions at conference on the basis that whatever’s decided at conference will go in the manifesto. Moving forward that’s what I’d like to see.

Aaron Bastani: 1979, the Tory party manifesto, I was looking at it, it was very minimal, it was very slimmed down, it wasn’t saying we’re going to privatise everything, we’re going to go to war with organised labour… It didn’t say we’re going to fundamentally transform the country over ten years, which is what they did… Should Labour do something similar? … Is it smart in opposition to say we’re going to do all of this? …

RB: I believe in openness and transparency: I think it’s important the Labour Party decides its programme democratically, and puts it to the people. I think there’s very little that’s admirable about Thatcher… The fact she managed to hoodwink so many working-class communities by keeping some of this stuff concealed is not something we should emulate. We should be open about our policies. We should do a better job of convincing people they’re the right thing to support. In the general election it’s good to have a pledge card, for example. I don’t agree with the analysis that’s there too much in the manifesto, but I do agree we should have boiled it down. I argued we should have a pledge card with the top five or ten policies to raise living standards, and we should have gone out across the country arguing it till we’re blue in the face… Then people might associate them with us rather than the rubbish they’ve read in the right-wing press.

AB: For Michael [open selection is important but democratic policy making not so much – MW: “Absolutely”] whereas for Richard you want the complete democratisation of both. So I’m wondering, where’s the consensus?

MW: I’m very keen on accountability for MPs, on open selections, but I think making a manifesto from the conference floor is impractical… You can get some fundamental principles maybe, some temperature checks, this is what we believe in – but ultimately the manifesto is going to be written by the democratically-elected leadership, who are going to be a bit more strategic…

AB: And the reason that would be sufficient is that MPs would have more of a delegate role… So maybe conference shouldn’t be sovereign, but if members do have misgivings about the composition of party policy, they can get rid of the parliamentarians.

RB: I think the party needs to be more democratic. If we’re going to really be a mass movement, so it’s just rhetoric talking about a people-powered movement, then people need to feel collective ownership of that movement. I think one of the things in this argument… is this assumption that MPs know far more than the members…

MW: MPs don’t, but their professional advisers might do.

RB: [Laughing dismissively] Maybe…

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