Until Labour becomes democratic, it doesn't deserve your membership

Delegates to the Scottish Labour party conference listen in silence. The fiery debates which used to typify conferences are a thing of the past.
Delegates to the Scottish Labour party conference listen in silence. The fiery debates which used to typify conferences are a thing of the past.
Ian Dunt By

After elections, the losers get a surge in membership. It seems ironic, but emotionally it makes perfect sense. In despondency, people need hope. So the Lib Dems have enjoyed a spike in membership sign-ups and many are talking about joining Labour.

But Labour is not ready for people's support. It remains a profoundly undemocratic party which goes out of its way to prevent its members having a say on policy. Why join a party interested in your money but not your voice?

Labour was never particularly democratic. It reflected the authoritarianism of its socialist roots, in the same way the Tory party reflected the authoritarianism of its paternalist roots. Union barons wielded disproportionate influence, deciding at the stroke of a pen what their thousands of members apparently believed. Tony Blair and his predecessors worked hard to get rid of that union influence, but they were not democratic crusaders. Blair's only concern was centrism – the road which he (rightly) believed led to Downing Street. But  members were as much of a problem in this regard as unions, so while he reduced the latter's influence, he also dismantled any remaining democratic structure in the party.

The Labour leader always had the final say over what went into the manifesto, unless two-thirds voted against it at conference. That was a high hurdle for members to get over, but the votes provided regular ammunition for the press to talk about how chaotic and left-wing Labour was. So Blair neutered conference and turned it into a vague consultation exercise with small set-piece speeches from front benchers. The heat and noise of the old conferences, of members shouting down ministers and making policy, were gone. It was described by the press, almost universally uncritically, as 'professionalisation'. Even now, the supposedly free-speech press mocks Lib Dems for voting on policy, typically by saying they're 'washing their dirty laundry in public'.


Lib Dems still vote at their conferences and have a 'triple lock' mechanism for coalition formation

Under the current Labour system, the National Policy Forum receives delegates from constituency party associations and has a debate with the shadow Cabinet and affiliates about policy positions. A year before the election they create a big document with the various agreements from which the leadership can create policy. But the document is extraordinarily vague. For instance, it will say Labour believes in a system of fairer rents, from which the leadership would come up with something specific, like longer tenancies.

It is a theatre of democracy. The members – or those lucky enough to be selected for the forum - only have a voice in creating vague aspirations. The policies themselves are decided by the party leadership.

The process by which parliamentary candidates are chosen was also reformed so that trade unionists could be frozen out and replaced by young Blairites – people whose soft hands demonstrated the fact they had never worked in industry, or indeed anywhere except in think tanks or parliament.

This is worth bearing in mind when you see the countless vox-pop interviews with working class voters who used to support Labour, saying they feel the party's MPs are nothing like them. That last generation of working class Labour MPs – the people whose political career started as a shop steward rather than a special adviser – mostly left in 2010. On the level of simple accents, parliament changed a lot that year. The voices one would hear in the pubs and diners became noticeably posher overnight.

Labour has also stubbornly refused to introduce open primaries. At one point, Ed Miliband seemed open to the idea of using this system to pick the London mayoral candidate, but then quietly retreated to only giving London members and affiliate members (who pay a £3 fee) a vote. The party's controlling tendencies defeated its better nature.

Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, who was selected by open primary, has been a fiercly independent voice in parliament

Open primaries, not just for the mayoralty but also for parliamentary candidates, are one of the easiest democratic moves a party can make. Yes, they are expensive, but they are also self-serving. By opening out the vote on who stands for election to the community, you have a far better chance of getting someone the community is liable to ultimately vote for at election time. It also helps undo some of the democratic deficit caused by Britain's many safe seats, where voters have been effectively disenfranchised. Tory MP Sarah Woolaston, who was picked by open primary, has proved independent-minded and brilliant. She is so independent-minded and brilliant, in fact, that the Tories never did another open primary. Labour is tempted to make the same mistake. It doesn't want to give up on parachuting its favoured sons and daughters into safe seats. It cannot give up control.

Finally, there is the process for electing a Labour leader. To his credit (although he had to be forced into it) Miliband did a commendable job reforming this system. The previous structure gave votes to three blocks – MPs, trade unions and other affiliated organisations, and party members. Someone who was an MP, a party member, a member of an affiliated trade union and another affiliated organisation, like the Fabian Society, had four votes. It was madness.

This has now been changed to one-member-one-vote, although affiliated trade union members can sign up to become affiliated members and get a vote that way. It's a fair system – the trade union member has to proactively sign up for affiliated status.

But before they get to members, the candidates must secure the support of 15% of MPs. That means only six candidates can stand, but also that anyone with popular support who struggles to get backing from the parliamentary party is hamstrung by the system. Why have MPs able to authorise leadership at all?

Only a candidate with support from 15% of Labour MPs can stand for the leadership

Of course, all of this is defended by the argument that it's the only way to win an election. How to stop the party shifting left if members have control? How to surprise your opponents with policies if they’ve been decided in public at conference? How to ensure a sensible leader is found without giving MPs some control over who can stand?

But where has this control freakery got Labour? Policies so bland no-one is inspired by them. A rock with aspirations no-one could possibly disagree with, such as a 'strong economic foundation'. Leaders and candidates its supposed core vote cannot empathise with and barely tolerate. The exodus of Scots and the white working class in its industrial heartland, who no longer feel the party is for them.

It's simply not true that democratic structures are politically damaging. Look at Liberal Democrat votes during their time in coalition. They forced the leadership to consider gay marriage, leading Lynne Featherstone to take the idea forward with the Tories. They voted to review the bedroom tax and scrap its use against social housing tenants who didn't have an offer of a smaller property. Perhaps if the Lib Dems had responded to their members concerns about this sort of policy earlier in the parliament they could have avoided their annihilation last week. Big public disagreements with the Tories would have done a lot to preserve their reputation.

Labour is unwilling to build bridges with grassroots campaigners to rebuild the party

There is a great, vibrant world of online activism for Labour to tap into. The soaring membership of campaign groups and charities shows the eagerness for participation in the democratic process among those who want a fairer country. But Labour doesn't have the courage to build bridges with grassroots politics and create a party from the bottom-up.

Instead, the usual Blairite suspects tour the media studios, talking about 'wealth creators' and refusing to confirm that they're even standing when it's quite plain that's precisely what they are doing. This slippery, secret-message, all-things-to-all-people rhetoric is precisely the sort of passion-sucking nonsense which makes Labour so uninspiring in the first place.

The top-down approach doesn't work and is in fact a large part of why Labour has failed so catastrophically over the last few years. Until Labour reforms its internal democratic structure, it does not deserve the new members banging at its door.

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