We’ve set up an activists’ assembly. Top-down leadership no longer works

Jon Trickett
©️ Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

There are many who feel that there is a determined effort to silence the voices of rank and file socialists in the labour movement. Numerous examples of this tendency are being cited. There has been no policy-making party conference since Keir Starmer was elected as leader. Many comrades were suspended for discussing resolutions in solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn. Edicts were issued indicating that some items may not be debated by local parties. Senior officials have now scrapped a whole shortlist of candidates without explanation.

The voices of the members must never be silenced, and a powerful idea like social justice cannot be erased. This is always the case, but at a time of national and international crisis it is especially true. Democratic socialism is the only hope for humanity, and our activists will make their voices heard. That is why my colleagues and I at No Holding Back have launched an activists’ assembly. The results show that our activists have a clear-sighted view of the economy we need to create and we will publish their views before next week’s Budget. It’s time to change how we do things.

The 21st-century ‘Google age’ has the potential to create an increasingly horizontal and networked world. But the labour movement remains stuck in the 20th-century hierarchical culture of command and control. This won’t work any more.

There’s been talk in recent weeks about Starmer moving to stage two of his strategy to win the next election. The story goes that the first stage of his leadership was about introducing him to the public, drawing a dividing line between himself and the previous leadership and projecting the image of a competent manager. In stage two, the Labour leader starts to set out his vision for the country.

The country needs Labour to offer an inspiring vision in this moment of crisis. But there is something that remains totally absent from current discussions about Labour’s electoral strategy: the role of the wider labour movement. These are the very people rooted in the communities that our party seeks to represent.

The local elections are getting ever closer, as are the crucial Scottish parliamentary elections. All elections in the democratic era require both an ‘air war’ and a ’ground war’. The latter clearly requires an active and confident party membership. Yet under Starmer’s leadership, there has been little attempt to engage with party members. His speech last week on the economy introduced two new policies, but these appear to have been generated by his advisers behind closed doors, with little input from the wider movement.

There are credible reports of tens of thousands having left Labour in the last year, and there are others in arrears on their membership subs. Many members are unclear about their own role within the party, or whether they still have a role at all. This confusion is not a new phenomenon. It reflects differences over the role of party members that have been present throughout our history.

Since the emergence of the mass party in the early 20th century, political parties have been too often characterised by their hierarchical and bureaucratic structures. In The Digital Party, Paolo Gerbaudo argues that the parties of the industrial era mirrored the factory system that dominated the economy of the time. Members were expected to follow the instructions set for them by the party’s leadership and staff in the same way that workers on the assembly line were expected to follow the instructions of company bosses and managers.

With deindustrialisation came changes in the structures of political parties. The decline of entire industries, the growth of the service economy and the onset of rampant consumerism and individualism led to a breakdown of the class identifications to which party membership was bound. In the neoliberal era, political parties underwent a process of professionalisation, with consultants and spin doctors assuming a much more important role than grassroots activists. With this decline of the party base, the top-down approach to leadership became more pronounced than ever. But it is clear that this hierarchical approach now runs counter to the zeitgeist.

At the turn of the current century, party membership was in what seemed like terminal decline, with Labour’s numbers falling below 200,000 by 2015. However, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to become Labour Party leader began to reverse this trend as hundreds of thousands of people were inspired to join. This ‘new politics’ aimed to create a new type of relationship between the leadership and the membership. Not only did this approach capture the new emerging ways of living, it also aligned with the ethical socialism and collectivist style of Jeremy Corbyn.

In this new world, leadership needs to inspire hope, vision and strong values, but it must also build consensus. For policies to resonate with the country, they cannot be imposed from on high and must be developed in partnership with a wider movement. Online forms of engagement cannot, and should not, seek to replace all older forms of democratic structures such as conferences and face-to-face meetings. But they can be a powerful tool for empowering people to shape the political process.

No Holding Back, the organisation I founded with Ian Lavery and Laura Smith, has begun trialling new ways of engaging with Labour activists. During our post-election virtual tour, we listened to and engaged with thousands of activists, trade unionists and members. We published our report based upon what they told us. Building on that initiative, we have set up a new activists’ assembly. The first iteration of which has focused on the forthcoming Budget.

It is reported that Rishi Sunak is set to announce an increase in corporation tax after a decade of Tory tax cuts. This is a sign that a window has opened for those of us who believe the recovery from the pandemic should be paid for by the richest in society and not by the majority who are struggling.

We asked Labour activists to tell us their priorities for the Budget and we have been blown away by the 1,100 responses. They have clearly signalled what the labour movement would like to see and we will be releasing the findings shortly.

There is wisdom in participatory decision-making, which strong modern leadership understands. Many leaders from all sides of the political spectrum often make the mistake of cutting links with the movement that elected them. This can be a fatal error, for it is only the movement that can sustain and strengthen a leader.

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