Corbyn’s shake-up of party democracy must ensure Labour stays a broad church

19th September, 2017 5:45 pm

labour activists

It is a ground-breaking attempt to give Labour’s army of members a greater voice than ever before in the way their party is run – or is it a backroom power grab by the leader’s office designed to shut out MPs of several decades’ standing?

Many activists’ views of today’s landmark reforms agreed by the national executive committee (NEC) will depend on their stance on Jeremy Corbyn, for whom the changes were regarded as a big victory.

The planned “party democracy review”, which was one of a package of measures introduced today – alongside a compromise on the “McDonnell amendment” – will divide member opinion, like so many of Corbyn’s initiatives.

With the review, which will be led by former MP Katy Clark, now set to go ahead, LabourList looks at some of the key issues which could be considered, and how to deliver the best result for party unity.

1. Electing the leader. This is the subject which has divided the party like no other over the past two years but it is now clear that Corbyn is secure in post. The opening of the democracy review was approved today at the same time as a 10 per cent compromise was reached on the threshold for leadership nominations – known as the “McDonnell amendment” – which could make it feel like examining the stable door after the horse has bolted.

For the process to work, however, it has to make the case for long-term reform of how the top person in the party is chosen and for it to come to a position which a majority of members could support. Optimistic? Perhaps, but in 1995 Tony Blair won the vote to ditch the old Clause IV relatively easily – and the party united around that position for more than two decades, even if cracks are starting to appear today.

2. Who will she be? While we are on the topic of the leadership, it is worth pointing out the yawning gap on our party’s CV: no permanent female leader. Any review that looks at leadership must consider why all of our figureheads have been male despite the stellar careers of such heavyweights as Barbara Castle, Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper.

3. Picking the MPs. Few subjects are debated as intensely the treatment of those fortunate enough represent Labour in the Commons. Chris Williamson, the shadow fire minister and core Corbyn supporter, has called for mandatory re-selection of our MPs but has, so far, won relatively little backing for his plan among parliamentary colleagues. Many members on the left like the idea – but the review must guard against hints that it could be paving the way for a “purge”.

Labour has always been a broad church and, yes, that even includes space for MPs critical of the leader, whether that is Tony Blair or Corbyn.

4. Selecting the candidates. Some members were furious at the way candidates were installed by special NEC panels in the scramble before this year’s snap election – although in reality Labour officials had little choice given the very short timeframe. The “exceptional selections procedure” seems to be a one-off, however, as the party has already committed to giving members a say when it chooses candidates for the 75 to 80 top target seats by the end of this year. Full details are not yet known, however, while the long list of marginals has yet to be published.

We do know, however that at least 50 per cent of the constituencies are likely to have all-women shortlists, however, as NEC member Alice Perry explained on LabourList this summer.

Whatever its successes in representation, and whatever the mechanism, Labour should still do more to ensure it has more MPs who are not white, straight, cis, able-bodied men. And activists must be give the chance to vote on PPCs for as many winnable seats as possible.

5. Policy – from debt to defence. When working together, Labour and the trade unions can provide an impressively broad vehicle in which members can influence policy. It does not always pan out like this, however, with leaders of varying ideological stripes succumbing to “command and control” tendencies at times.

We all know that activists are often engaged in the minutiae of policy and the motions on Trident and austerity crop up frequently in local branch meetings. Any reforms must include a fresh look at the national policy forum and whether it could be enhanced to give members an earlier say in the run-in to the manifesto.

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