Labour internal elections: in defence of “pledges”

By Ari Brookes

Have you signed a pledge yet? What began with an explosion during the 2019 General Election has quickly become a standard feature of left elections, with candidates in the Labour Leader / Deputy Leader, Momentum NCG, and Open Labour Committee elections signing up to a range of different pledges pushed by grassroots campaigns, committing to specific positions or actions. 

Broadly, this is a good thing. With the de-centering of policies and politics in internal elections, pledges allow some interrogation of candidates in races that are otherwise devoid of discussion and debate. For example, in the recent Momentum election, centrally organised opportunities to “get to know the candidates” consisted of statements of 200 words. There were no hustings organised by the central organisation, instead members had to rely on local groups. It’s not a structure that encourages critical thought around candidates and what they stand for, leaving people to base voting decisions on slates with no clear political stances, occasional “celebrity” endorsements, and who their mates were voting for. 

In light of these serious democratic deficits with elections as they’re currently run, pledges offer campaigns and voters an indication of a candidate’s politics on specific issues. This is particularly important if pledges can shine light on topics that might not otherwise be discussed as part of a campaign, such as neurodivergent issues, trans rights, or migrants rights. Pledges in these cases are a useful vehicle for grassroots campaigns to raise the profile of these topics, particularly those that may be considered red lines for support. But for all the good that pledges offer, they’re not a panacea. 

For starters, signing up to pledges doesn’t leave a lot of room for exploration and discussion of nuanced positions: either you agree with them and sign up, or you don’t. This artificial binary makes it harder to have proper debates on topics that need it or for people to hold varying views from those outlined in the pledges, even if they broadly agree with them. 

Pledges also can’t substitute for candidate personality and politics, which you will also struggle as a voter to get a sense of on slates. In this case, signing pledges can also offer candidates an “easy way out”. Rather than explaining their views, they can simply put their name to a pledge and shut down debate. Further probing of previous actions and opinions is more difficult, since they can refuse to engage further by simply saying that they’ve signed the pledges. 

Finally, it’s not always clear what honouring the pledges means and how people who sign up will be held to account. There’s a live example of this problem playing out right now, as new Momentum NCG members elected on the Forward Momentum slate (the vast majority of which signed up to the the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights pledges) are rightly receiving a lot of flack for agreeing a “united” left slate with the CLGA featuring two people who have been accused of supporting transphobic organisations. The outcome so far? Two NCG statements on the issue, stating their solidarity with trans people, but no retraction of the endorsement, a member consultation, or any acknowledgement from Momentum, the CLGA, or the candidates that their “united” slate is anything but. Oh, and a lot of people on Twitter are royally pissed off. 

But aside from a Twitter storm, what outcomes does the left want for those that don’t stick to pledges they’ve signed up to? What about those who don’t break pledges but just quietly never engage with campaigns they’ve endorsed? What consequences are expected or practicable and restorative? We haven’t worked out clear answers to these questions yet, but most critically, we need to ask if this is where the left wants to spend its energy, instead of addressing the structure that means pledges are needed in the first place?  

This isn’t a criticism of campaigns that put out pledges, and I still think that candidates should continue to sign and engage with campaigns. But I’d also like to see the broad left embrace more discussions as a standard part of elections. A lack of forums for candidates and voters to interact leaves us largely with the joint hellsites of Twitter and Facebook (famously noted for their high-level of articulate debate), a 200-word candidate statement, and now, pledges. The real task now is increasing the discussion of policies, ideas, and actual politics as standard rather than the exception during internal elections. 

Ideally, slates would be formed on shared political platforms with open debate and red lines that are agreed in advance, with candidates then signing up to the slate itself. This would be a huge step forward to the current system where candidates are endorsed for slates before the politics are agreed, with any politics actually involved in the slate almost never discussed in public.  

Left groups should also treat hustings as an integral part of internal elections rather than irritating distractions: we need proper forums where voters can challenge candidates on their views and actions before voting. With the rise of online meetings and calls, these are even easier and cheaper to organise than before. 

If we want to build a fighting left within the Labour Party or outside of it, we need to start properly interrogating people who want to lead or represent it, beyond mere endorsements, pledge signing, or apolitical slates. The left needs people with organisational vision and clear, solid principles that don’t marginalise groups we need to be fighting alongside and for. For that, we need electoral structures which encourage constructive critical examination of people’s ideas and mechanisms that continue to hold people to the principles they stood on for the duration of their term. 

In the meantime, pledges are a good start.

• Ari is a Labour Party, Momentum and UCU activist

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

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