One-member-one-vote (OMOV) is now within reach of local Labour activists currently locked out of Constituency Labour Party (CLP) decision-making. The move will open up the local party to the 90% of members currently unable to attend and/or vote at CLP-wide meetings, a disproportionate number of whom are young energetic recent joiners whose activism will be key to building socialism in our communities and helping to deliver a decisive victory at the next general election.
It was for these reasons that both of our branches of Streatham CLP triggered the first phase of a process to democratise our CLP last week, using new powers granted at this year’s Labour conference. If the wider membership in the local party agrees with us at a special all-member meeting (AMM) on 29th November, the full membership of the CLP will from then on be empowered to participate in CLP meetings and vote on the future direction of the local party.
The main drive for the change in our constituency and many other CLPs is rooted in the recent transformation of the Labour Party into a mass membership movement. Under the inspiring leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, party structures are evolving to prioritise grassroots power over top-down command and control systems. With this principle in mind, it becomes clear that the general committee (GC) system is not fit for purpose: the GC acts as a barrier to new members taking their place in the party’s decision-making structures because in order to vote at the constituency party meetings, they would first have to wait until the branch’s annual meeting next year and stand for election as a delegate. These elections naturally benefit members who have been around for years and have networks of contacts giving them the upper hand. Accordingly, the committee disproportionately fails to reflect the hundreds of new recruits to the local party in its composition. The all-member system offers an opportunity to open up the party’s decision-making process to all members, and in doing so embrace the zeal of the hoards of new recruits that have joined the party in recent years.
It has been said that the GC model ensures fairer representation for branches of the party and the trade unions that founded it. But this argument only holds to the extent that the model is administered fairly and transparently. In Streatham, it isn’t. We are not even told the total number of delegates eligible to participate in meetings, let alone see the list of who they are – that’s available only to the small coterie of political insiders close to our MP, as they occupy the senior officer roles in the CLP. If we want to campaign on a particular issue in our CLP, we have no idea how many delegates we need to convince to back us. And if one of us were to stand for CLP chair or secretary, the incumbent (with their knowledge of the electorate) would have a huge, unfair advantage.
There are many other ways in which the GC system is open to abuse. Delegates appointed by trade unions have been routinely stonewalled by the CLP’s senior officers, their emails ignored so that they are not issued with papers enabling them to take their rightful place at meetings, and their votes are not accounted for. The party’s rules mean that an affiliate organisation can be eligible to appoint delegates to the GC even when they have only a single member living in the constituency. At the general committee’s annual general meeting earlier this year, delegates voted hard-working shop stewards off the CLP executive in favour of representatives of a steelworkers union (who were not themselves steelworkers), and the latter have failed to turn up to all the executive meetings held since.
All nominations for the CLP executive made by one branch were arbitrarily annulled by the CLP chair because they had been made in February rather than January, despite there being no rule requiring otherwise. In perhaps the most significant misdeed of all, no supporters of Jeremy Corbyn were allowed by the local party to be on the panel of new candidates for the local council elections. An all-member system would bring an end to the ability of CLP officers to manipulate the composition of the meetings of the CLP as everyone would be able to participate and the membership would act as a guarantor against misuse of executive power.
Some argue that AMMs will be too large to be practical, making the far-fetched assumption that all 2,500 of our CLP’s members would attend. Others argue that they would be too small (a Bristol West AMM attended by only 35 members has been cited). But inquorate meetings are equally possible under the GC system: we have had two in Streatham in the last few months. And the positive experience of constituencies using the all-member system, such as Battersea and Cities of London and Westminster, where well-attended, constructive meetings with engaging guest speakers and wholesome participation from grassroots are held every month, show that these fears are unwarranted.
Following the motions passed by our branches, our CLP in Streatham is now obliged to convene a special meeting of all members in place of the planned GC meeting on November 29th. We fully expect the merits and demerits of each system to be subject to a rigorous debate within the local party between now and then.
To the CLP officials currently benefiting from the abuse of the delegate system, we say: are you prepared to stand on your platform in the fair contest that the all-member system would entail? Nobody currently able to attend and vote at the GC would be unable to do so in an AMM. The only change is that many others would be able to do so too. What could be more democratic than that? There is nothing to fear in allowing those voices to be heard, and if including them can catalyse greater participation and activism, there is everything to gain.
Axel Landin is secretary of Brixton Hill Labour Party and Andrew Collins is membership secretary of St Leonard’s Labour Party, both branches of Streatham CLP.