By Omar Raii
There are many things to glean from the pages of the leaked dossier on Labour’s Governance & Legal Unit and its actions on antisemitism — from how deep the problem of antisemitism really was within the party (hopefully putting to bed any conspiratorial claims that it is all a smear) to how much senior bureaucrats were desperately hoping for an electoral loss. But one of the key lessons must be about the power of bureaucracy and the importance of democracy in a party that proclaims to be the political voice of workers.
It’s really quite remarkable seeing how much power is wielded by unelected functionaries working for the party, many of whom likely spent their whole careers working in similar roles either in the trade unions or in Labour. These included discussions about how panels can be selected so that Corbynites were not chosen as parliamentary candidates, and allocating resources to the campaigns of certain, right-wing, MPs and not others in 2017.
The party as such is of course not the only place in Labour where bureaucracy prevails. In Corbyn’s office we had infamous examples of Karie Murphy and Seamas Milne in Corbyn’s office, both of whom enjoyed annual salaries of around the £100,000 mark — on a similar level to the salaries of Ian McNicol and his successor as General Secretary, Jennie Formby. The overgrown power and role of the Leader’s Office is a whole other subject which needs to be visited. Starmer’s office will presumably operate on similar basic principles to Corbyn’s.
It is astonishing, or should be, that there is no rule in the Labour Party stating that no one who works for a labour movement party claiming to represent the working class should receive a salary that puts them above 95% of wage earners in the country, let alone in an unelected role with no direct accountability by members. Why would we ever expect an outcome other than careerism and bureaucrats who care nothing for ordinary Labour members’ wishes when this kind of practice is considered acceptable? Of course the party’s MPs do not object because they are on large salaries too.
Clearly Labour, like any other large organisation, will need staff members, but anyone working for the party in an unelected role should have specific responsibilities and only extremely limited power over key political and strategic decisions.
One key problem has been the lack of any real effort by the left to overthrow the bureaucratic make-up of Labour Party functioning, instead relying on getting the “correct” Corbynite people in the important positions. As far as I can tell there is no organisational difference between the Labour HQ in 2017 and the Labour HQ of 2020 other than that some of the people working there who probably had posters of Tony Blair up on their wall have been replaced with people who have posters of Tony Benn (or in some cases, at home or on their Facebook profile, Stalin).
Organisations like the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (I know) did very little apart from achieving minor changes to leadership ballot rules and blindly supporting the Corbynite leadership, even to the extent of trying to stop members’ overwhelmingly anti-Brexit views becoming party policy. Actual Labour Party democracy has not improved significantly.
Most of the left outside the critical-radical left circles of which The Clarion is part has given up fighting for the sovereignty of conference, surely a key demand.
Now that the leadership is no longer held by the left the inadequacies of this approach have been laid bare. The aim of creating a genuinely democratic party with a sovereign conference and other structures ensuring accountability to and power in the hands of the membership has never been more important.
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