Saturday 25 August 2018

Labour Democracy Roadshow in Stoke

On Thursday night, the Chris Williamson Democracy Roadshow rolled into sunny Stoke-on-Trent and pitched up at the Florence Sports and Social Club. Of course, yours truly couldn't pass the opportunity up and went along to hear what Chris had to say. Also speaking was Chris Spence, the secretary of Newcastle under Lyme CLP, and Heather Mendick from Hackney South.

Kicking off proceedings we heard first from Mark McDonald. Labour's PPC for Stoke South. As the topic of the meeting was democracy in the Labour Party, he led off with an anecdote of his own. Recalling running for a senior lay party position, he was called to a meeting by his opponent. Sitting at opposite ends of a boardroom table at his union's head office, Mark was asked directly what he thought he was doing and why. It was as if, as an ordinary member, he had no right to stand for election. He was also bluntly told he was going to lose even though a single ballot had not yet been cast. Mark's opponent said there are members and unions voting in this contest, and he'd spoken to all the other affiliated general secretaries. They had all agreed they weren't going to vote, leaving just him to cast his union's bloc vote to vote for himself and thereby guaranteeing him the position.

In the past, we've talked about dodgy practices, but what to do about them? This was the theme of Chris Williamson's talk. He argued that far from stoking tensions and damaging the party, as per Barry Sheerman, democracy holds leaders to account. If there was proper democracy in Labour we would not have seen the Iraq War nor the kinds of policies that allowed Tony Blair to boast that Britain had the most restrictive labour laws in Western Europe. These mistakes wouldn't have happened if Labour MPs had to pay attention to Labour members. What party democracy offers then is a way for the party to reflect the thinking and the interests of the electorate because, despite what MPs might tell themselves, members are better informed and closer to the people Labour has to win over than our esteemed politicians. Chris also - rightly - argued that not once did Jeremy Corbyn vote against the party as a backbencher. Rather he voted with the party against the direction New Labour imposed on the party. What we have now then is a fruit of the democratisation that has already happened - Labour's common sense socialism reflects where the public are politically, on the economy, on housing, on austerity, on the utilities, and so on, and is why we did so unexpectedly well in 2017.

On what a democratised party should look like, Chris took aim at the National Policy Forum which he branded "not fit". This was brought in by Blair as a sop to member-led policy formation, leaving conference to be "hero worshipping nonsense" with its cosy chats and Good Morning Britain sofas. Not only should policy making be returned to conference, there is real potential for digital democracy and we need to think about how to utilise it. Chris also spoke in favour of directly-elected Labour Group leaders to ensure councils are closer to the public, and of course when it comes to mandatory reselection members are perfectly entitled to determine who should be their local party's candidate. After all, even the secretary of Jeremy Corbyn's allotment association has to submit to periodic re-election. But democratising accountability of Labour MPs helps ensure the party selects people who are resilient and are not going to oppose the transformative programme the party is elected on. Labour, after all, is not just about getting elected, we're trying to change the course of history, and finishing with a flourish, Chris said "... and you are the history makers, comrades!".

It was then the other Chris's turn to speak. He too spoke about his experience with party democracy as someone who was interested in and now sits on the party's regional board in the West Midlands. He started with his first 12 months in the party and found it strange how no one explained to him how things worked. New members were either expected to 'just know' or be left in the dark. And so it was when he got wind of the regional board's existence. He asked around and various party worthies said it wasn't worth bothering with, it was just an administrative body, etc. This evasiveness made him check further and found it was, potentially, a way of holding representatives and party officials to account. However, in the WestMids there were no elections, its membership was picked by the regional office and was supposedly open only to Labour Group leaders. Small wonder then that there is a Birmingham CLP that has been in special measures for 26 years and serious allegations of corruption are doing the rounds. Without any kind of accountability, this sort of thing is bound to happen sooner or later. Chris also talked about his struggle to get hold of the rules for the regional board (which are separate from and don't get a mention in the Party rule book), and that reading them - just like the party rules - are vague, contradictory and deliberately open to interpretation. Part and parcel of the Democracy Review is the need to put these rules on a proper footing.

In her contribution, Heather said she had been out of the party for 16 years before returning when Jeremy stood for the leadership. The first thing she did was get involved in a Corbyn phone bank, and she found it a transformative experience. It was welcoming, friendly, convivial, bottom-up and it a place where activists learned from each other. She contrasted this with her first CLP meeting, which she described as negative and exclusive. Initially then Heather preferred working through Hackney Momentum simply because it was much more inclusive, but through that comrades found confidence and solidarity to stick out the meetings. By attending and organising, the left won all the executive positions at the June 2017 AGM. Heather said being secretary is an unrewarding task, but she has strived to knock the unwelcome edges off the meetings. The constituency regularly uses PowerPoints to explain what's going on, as well as videos and tries keeping foreboding jargon to a minimum. She also noted that the one thing a right winger hates the most is a leftie who knows the rule book. In sum, while leftwingers in position and on executives are important we need a movement - a Labour MP can only ever be as good as the people behind them.

In the questions, we had queries about the period of special measures, the absence of women from meetings (including this one) and how this is as much a democracy as it is a gender issue, the networks of nepotism and protectionism near the top of the party that tie together elite cliques, the indifference/hostility toward new members, how CLPs should be the pinnacle of party democracy, how regional officials were there to look after the MPs and were largely uninterested in councillors, let alone ordinary party members, and how we engage new members. Some of these involved relatively small things (an annual physical letter to members, an effort to speak to new members at meetings), to what's being done at higher levels. Chris Williamson, for example, noted a special counsel had been brought in by the party to look at the rules.

Summing up, Chris said the party's ongoing Democracy Review shouldn't be seen as a one-off but rather the beginning of a process, a first step. Again, finishing with a nice line, he said a "new world isn't just possible, it is in touching distance." Indeed it is. While there was nothing at all controversial said by Chris, Chris and Heather, a few years ago such a criticism of how the party is organised wouldn't be heard at any but the rarest of left wing CLPs, and certainly not in the WestMids region. To feel the rumblings of democracy throughout the party, to have people running scared of a bit more democracy here, a bit more accountability there is a very useful pointer to those on board with the wider project, and those who are not. Of course, more democracy doesn't mean the end of Labour's broad church - but it does number the days of privilege and unaccountable power. No wonder the old guard are running scared.


Anonymous said...

This is a very exciting time.

I'm a branch secretary and the rules are crap. People take them as a straightjacket or just ignore them. What is worse is how prescriptive they are; I wanted our AGM to support remote participation and received an intervention telling me only those physically present could take part. In 2018!

Anonymous said...

Good to hear Chris Williamson in sunny Stoke on Trent- he went down very well with Labour Party members . Excellent and important account and Sunday read.

Jeremy Corbyn (Parody) said...

I don't remember seeing Snell or Smeeth at the recent Corbyn gig. Nor do they seem to have attended this one. Running scared?

Anonymous said...

No HM Queen Elizabeth II, I think they are both sick to the back teeth of the antisemitism which Chris Williamson and others condone.

Ralph said...

Not as sick as we are of the usual slanderous rubbish from Zionist infiltrators.

Another Anonymous said...

It will be interesting to see the reception people get from the Labour party members come conference time.

I suspect Snell or Smeeth and the other Tory lites will be sick to the back teeth then too, or as normal humans who are not deranged say, running scared.

I really hope this being sick to the back teeth translates to getting their asses out of the party some time soon. I am actually sick to the back teeth of Blairites whinging but staying put!

Meanwhile in Israel the duck shoot of Palestinians continues apace!

Unknown said...

Anonymous - the last one. When has Chris Williamson ever condoned antisemitism?

Anonymous said...

Plenty of LP members and unpaid LP volunteers there - nothing wrong with their morals they just made a bit of effort to attend.

BrynHill said...

I've found my way here after reading a piece in The Guardian about Roy Hattersley urging Jeremy Corbin to persuade Chris Williamson to stop his Democracy Roadshow. On my way I read the Democracy Roadshow's own blog, their "SO… YOU WANT TO
ORGANISE YOUR CLP?" guide - and a few further clicks brought me here.

You people seem interesting - so I thought I'd find out what it's like to swim in these particular waters. Oh boy.

In reading Chris Williamson's and The Democracy Roadshow's material I seem to have stumbled into an alternative universe in which a guide to filling a local political party with a particular brand of activist is called democracy.

I'm almost numb with the pain of seeing the party I've voted for all my life fail to beat the very worst Tory government of my life. Never has a Labour win been more essential.

And never have I been more angry that the party seems incapable of pragmatism on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.

What a shower of ordure political ideologists - of all persuasions - have turned out to be. Time to get real and beat the Tories. Or see a whole generation of young people abandon a Labour party which cares more for ideology than feeding, clothing, housing and educating our people.

Anonymous said...

Well said. Couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

Brynill , would that be the same party who increased it's share of the vote by 40% , the biggest share since 1945 !
The biggest increase in % of youngsters joining since Blair , the largest membership since the Blair now at 800,000 ! and the best EVER Manifesto that does a whole heap of things for the feeding, clothing, housing and educating of our people.

Why are you afraid of the membership having a voice and input as to who represents them ,far far better this than as under Blair complete strangers were parachuted in to CLPs , just rather like Tristian Hunt now buggered off to Lovies paradise in London when he came from .Did nowt for us here in SOT .

Chris Williamson is doing a fine job helping and informing us , pity Garath Shnell wasn't here as well when CHris visited , tho he was happy enough to take the massive help that the Momentum activists gave to get him elected , you know the one's you are slagging off as the particular brand of activist. We are not the enemy the Tories are but by god sometimes the attacks from the RW and Blairites make us think we are !

Tmb said...

A Tory-lite Labour party appeals to very few people.

A Labour party that purposely disengages from its grassroot members and voters is undesirable.

A divided Labour party is desirable to Blairites and the right wing establishment at large, because the Tom Watsons and John Manns and Lizzy Kendalls et al will be well paid off for destroying any credible chance of a left wing Labour party.

The obsession the 'left' has with PC, identity politics, transgender etc is all very commendable, but I and most other people vote on 'bread and butter' issues that affect me and mine, and the wider community and nation. Some of us may start to think that obsessing over minority issues is more about distracting us from the widening economic divisions in the UK, and the rather careful avoidance of the issue of class. Leave class and skewed economics out of the left and particularly the Labour party, and all you have is a privileged talking shop, going round in ever decreasing circles. Same with international issues, which seem more about ignoring economic divisions at home than any real concern for poor people here and there. I vote for parties that cater for my needs, not to worry inordinately about Africa, India and Israel etc etc.

Which brings me nicely on to my next point. The Labour party may or may not have a problem with anti-Semitism, like any other party, group, institution or person, but boy(!) the ever-so-impartial BBC and MSM in general never stop banging on about it! Let's take a look at the Tories hatred of poor people, disabled people, working class people, Muslims, most people who are not like them shall we?

The fight for a left wing Labour party is as much a fight for more grassroots democracy, or it is the continuation of Hard right and soft right Thatcher-Blair clones, drones and lickspittles, doing the dirty work of a corrupt, greedy and increasingly amoral establishment. I prefer imperfect democracy, to perfect tyranny.

Impressionist said...

BrynHill Many people are indeed trying to "get real and beat the Tories". They often have different ideas about the best way to do it. You didn't share any ideas with us about how this might be done. Do you have any that might be useful?

Tmb said...

Here's some handy pointers for the Labour party. Who knows, perhaps Jezza is looking in??

Become a left of centre party again, and become an opposition to the Tory party.

Restore some much needed balance to this society, which is economically divided, far too polarised (but with one hard right economic system) and accept that the present system, where most of us are disenfranchised from any say, has ended badly already. How much worse does it have to get before people see the folly of allowing handfuls of people, whoever they are, to make unaccountable decisions for millions who didn't vote for them?

Focus on bread and butter issues, workers rights, a proper minimum wage, small and medium businesses and nationalising necessary utilities.

PC, identity politics etc are seen by most people as a diversion, and identity politics is not about unity but intersectionality. Not all of us plebs are stupid, and most of us see through this. Please reengage with ordinary people, and stop talking down to us.

Listen to all kinds of people, particularly those who want more fairness and economic justice.

England, and politics, does not begin and end at wealthy and suburban London. Engage with the North, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Stop taking us for granted, or we will stop voting for you.

Stop thinking in terms of right and left, and more right and wrong.

Most of us want social mobility. Accept this and move forward. Restore the Social Contract.

So, some ideas for you, for free.

SimonB said...

If we succeed with these reforms to the party then trade unions must come next. If anything they will be the tougher task as far too many are rife with undemocratic practices, cronyism and possibly worse.

Jim Denham said...

Most of what Williamson says about party democracy is fine: in certain respects I'd go further. But the fact is he *does* associate with some very dodgy characters (eg the Assad apologist and anti-Semite Vanessa Beeley) that the serious left should steer well clear of:

George Carty said...

Jeremy Corbyn lost in 2017 with as many votes as Tony Blair won with in 2001, and far more than Blair won with in 2005.

The reason was that the "swing voters" which the Blairites think they are so adept at winning actually vote for whichever of the big two didn't have the last house price crash happen on their watch: in 2005 that was Labour but in 2017 it was the Tories.

Actual policies have little to do with how those voters vote (although Tory-lite policies do dissuade a lot of proper Labour supporters from going to the polling station).

BrynHill said...

Hi Anonymous 1. Thanks

Hi Anonymous 2. Thanks also - I appreciate any serious response, even if I disagree with it.

would that be the same party who increased it's share of the vote by 40% , the biggest share since 1945 !

Yes - and I celebrate that. It's very exciting and uplifting.

The biggest increase in % of youngsters ... educating of our people.

I applaud both but it might be wise to separate the increase in membership (which came first) from the manifesto (which came second). I think it would also be wise to recognise the diversity of that membership and the probability that very many of those new members are motivated by social justice rather than socialist politics.

Why are you ... nowt for us here in SOT .

You misunderstand. I'm afraid of the membership not having a voice and input as to who represents them - because those who take over local party politics have an agenda with which much of the new membership would disagree and would therefopre use the power of their membership to act against their wishes. We can be fairly confident, for example, that most new members disagree with the anti-EU views of Tony Benn who is prominent in the CLP-Take-Over document.

I entirely agree that parachuting-in is a really bad idea. I suspect, however, that it's a really bad idea which is sometimes unavoidable. It's overuse by any government removes such legitimacy it may have through necesity. But the parachuting of ideological left-wing candidates by a process of local party control (as set out in that interesting document) is hardly better is it?

What I'm missing here, and what you may be able to provide, is data on the values and desires of the (new) membership. I doubt that many are "traditional" socialists or share many of the ideological underpinnings of the Labour left. They probably enjoy shopping, want a nice car, a nice house and a secure job - and they are burning for decency and social justice just as much as you and I. In other words they are contingent capitalists who want everybody to have a fair chance, a strong safety-net, and a balance between private and public enterprise which maximises the value of both. They hate the Tory right as much as any because it has betrayed capitalism, and they recognise the Labour party as the party to put that right, not get rid of it altogether. They are also, overwhelmingly, in favour of EU membership and, I suspect, the reform of the EU from within. Thus the prominence given to Tony Benn in the Let's-take-over-the-local-Labour-party leaflet seems designed to alienate rather than represent the majority of members.

Chris Williamson is doing a fine job ... but by god sometimes the attacks from the RW and Blairites make us think we are !

I don't know much about internal Labour disputes so I can't reply about the rights and wrongs of Gareth Snell's attendance. It's certainly great that Labour MPs are getting elected because of the activism of members. But I think it's important to separate the ideological, political socialist activists (who have a history of taking-over left-wing power bases in order to enact their own vision of a socialist future) from the non-ideological, pragmatic activists who want to build a just country and can see what that would consist of but don't think much of political -ism's and distrust political theorising.

Thanks again for replying to my original comment - and for making me think about why I agree, and disagree, with your points.

BrynHill said...

Impressionist: Thanks for your comment.

I don't doubt that "Many people are indeed trying to "get real and beat the Tories"". What concerns me is that some, with their own itches to scratch (including an unfulfilled desire for ideological socialism as an end in itself), view politics as a means of personal fulfilment and enjoy it because it gives them power - whether local, regional or national. They shouldn't be allowed within a mile of a party which truly aims to serve the people. The document to which I've referred reads as a manifesto for "-ism", not for persuading a centrist, contingent capitalist electorate to vote for a party which represents their aspirations for decent lives in a decent world.

And if they don't vote Labour as a result the poor stay poor and the hungry stay hungry.

Much of what we should do is in the Labour manifesto. Fighting for a better EU from within should be in there too. But most of all the Labour party should make Socialism its inspiration, not its aspiration.

CCAAC said...

In Jim Denham's deranged world anyone who says anything that contradicts the imperialist narrative is either an Assad apologist or a Hamas supporter or an apologist of any other creation of failed and damaging imperialist policy. This is the irony of pro imperialist Palestinian haters such as Denham, they decry all the symptoms of imperialist policy while being its most servile apologists!

The left should all support the great work of Vanessa Beeley and absolutely drive the likes of Denham out of the movement.

The committee is writing a radical manifesto for the 21st century, here is the opening excerpt,

A spectre is haunting the Western world, the spectre of anti Imperialism.

A holy than thou alliance of uber chauvinistic pro imperialist, pro war drone supporting leftists [that you Denham, Boffy et al], to centrist careerists liberals defending middle class privilege and the right of their offspring to inherit this privilege, through the dark foreboding sewers of the Tory party, full of bile, ignorance, bigotry and Mary Berry cookbooks and out to the poisonous islands of the far right where this overflow of Tory sewage reacts with alienation and false consciousness (minus the Mary Berry cookbooks).

So what unites this seemingly disparate group, what horror do they see in this spectre?

This group is not so disparate; all are products of white European supremacy and are imbued with these prejudices, unable to properly critique them. They also have in common a fanatical belief that Western values are superior to all others, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary and that these values are worth spilling other people’s blood for. The far right differ to the uber chauvinistic pro imperialist, pro war drone supporting leftists in that for the far right these values are somehow part of the essence of the white race and the inferior races can never raise themselves high enough to share these wondrous values. And therefore must always be treated as inferiors. The uber chauvinists instead see the path to true progress as the installation of these values everywhere and for always, and in themselves they see the true enlightened human. They present a ahistorical, idealistic and anti materialist view of the world and even a superficial critique will show that these Western values and this chauvinistic outlook are what the revolutionary classes must overcome and combat...

TheOnlySanePersonOnPlanetEarth said...

Let us be clear what Jim Denham and his ilk are up to here, they are trying to force out of public discourse, of public life, of public liberty actually, anyone who casts doubt, shows concern for or is openly hostile to the imperialist narrative.

This is an attempt to blacklist, ruin careers and put an end to dissent.

This is why Denham trots out these accusations like confetti.

I think leftists should be disgusted by this and should be very clear about what Denham is trying to do.

Anyone not utterly disgusted by Jim Denham is not fit to be a leftist.

Anonymous said...

40% is all well and good. But Labour LOST. To Theresa flipping May. The more you say that the more disastrous it gets. If they lose the next general election too then Corbyn should resign. Like Kinnock did after two defeats on the trot (no pun intended). Though Kinnock was an honourable man of course.

TheOnlySanePersonOnPlanetEarth said...

“40% is all well and good.”

I think anon is missing where we are in history, the juncture we are at. In this post austerity, food bank reliant dystopia we are now in the tactic of Blair, to appropriate the policies of your enemy to win (an illogical tactic as it happens, why not simply join your enemy or be delighted your enemy wins given you want to use their policies?), will simply not make any traction. We are in for an extended period of hung parliaments if you ask me, whoever is in charge of the main parties.

I would say sticking with the real labour values is the way to go, even if for now decades of propaganda make those policies unpalatable to 50% of the population. This is for 2 reasons,

1) Simply aping the policies of the Tories is illogical as already mentioned.

2) Given the decades long propaganda against the left it is no small miracle that they achieved 40% at the last election. The idea being that over time this could go up.

It is more than a little disingenuous to think a couple of election defeats means the whole show is over and the whole project should be abandoned, after all given Labour lost to Thatcher 4 times and then Major it was probably tempting to say Labour should simply give up.

No lets stick to the principles and if people want to vote Tory let them, and lets not pretend that would be the end of the world, because if anon had his way the only choice for the electorate would be 2 versions of the same thing!

Dialectician1 said...

As Graham Souness said, 'show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser.

Labour will only win the next election if it concentrates it focus on class. Right up to the mid 1970s the Labour Party was not afraid to use the term 'working class'; even moderate Labour leaders would express their values in term of a class struggle. Since then, it has lost its nerve and its direction (mostly distracted by promoting the Blairite narrative of capitalism as a 'functioning meritocracy', with just a few tweaks required to ensure greater fairness/openness: identity politics).

The slogan: 'For the many, not the few' is quite effective but vague. It gives no clear indication of who the 'many' are. 'The few' are an equally indefinable group. Although, it helps construct a narrative around 'fairness', it gives the voter no clear indication that 'the few' have been around for a long time and have constructed effective methods to safeguard their wealth and power over many generations. They are not just a random (meritocratic/entrepreneurial) 'few' who happened to have got lucky. They are a ruling class with a long history of exploitation and domination. The 'many' are, particularly since the crash of 2008, an increasingly immiserated group whose life chances are beginning to polarise, particularly for the young educated precariat (see Savage). The purpose of the Labour Party is to represent and defend this group (as as a definable working class) and to express their current experiences as part of a longer historic struggle. This is a winning narrative.

Anonymous said...

Note you say to another commentator: "I appreciate any serious response, even if I disagree with it."

This is the problem with the present Labour party, dissent just isn't tolerated (despite Corbyn being a dissenter almost all his political life).

Phil said...

Please explain how "dissent isn't tolerated" when everyday party members, including MPs, attack the leadership and often make national news in doing so?