Democratise the party

Submitted by Matthew on 16 September, 2015 - 11:34

Pete Willsman, secretary of the Campaign for Labour Democracy and member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee, spoke to Solidarity.

What are the next steps for the left after the Corbyn victory?

We’re talking about all the various groupings on the left coming together. We need to get all the new members that have joined, all the supporters – and get them involved! Get some excitement going on, build at the base to keep the whole thing going.

We’ve got the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance, which won four out of six places at Labour’s last National Executive elections. That is a very effective base in the Party. If we want to get this challenge together, it needs to be an inclusive thing. If we have people from the centre in the left as well, you have a very strong base, and the Blairites will be isolated.

What about democratising the party?

The idea of democracy is that it should come from below. You can’t have it coming from the Leader’s Office, as under Blair. It must come from the party. At this year’s conference we want a much more relaxed attitude to contemporary motions — previously they have been ruled out on all sorts of grounds. We want a proper debate, with eight contemporary motions, four from constituencies and four from the unions. We want much more debate from the rank and file, and less from the platform. Last year, just 20% of the conference was given up to discussion from the delegates. We want to reverse that balance. We can have a much more democratic conference. We have a lot of rule changes on the agenda for next year already.

In the meantime, the National Executive Committee (NEC) can open up more liberal structures. We are moving towards getting more good people on the National Policy Forum (NPF). In the long run, we want to strengthen conference, but there may be a role for an NPF to discuss in more detail. It’s a balance that needs to be struck. The NPF needs to be properly accountable to the conference, and the NEC has got to have more involvement in policy, unlike under the Blair regime, which took all the policy-making powers away from the NEC.

What did you think way new members were excluded in the run up to the election?

It does look as if head office has been completely snowed under, and they’ve used a broad brush approach; if you’re not on the electoral register, they don’t give you a vote. But you can join the Labour Party at 14, and if you do, you won’t be on the electoral register. So I think some of the procedures they had for this election were not satisfactory and that has led to people getting excluded unfairly. The use of canvassing data to exclude people who didn’t previously vote Labour is totally unsatisfactory. Lots of Labour members vote tactically, and canvassing data is often not accurate. It’s ridiculous that, for example, someone could be disbarred because they spoke at a meeting.

There is an appeals procedure if you join the party. I imagine that quite a few of the appeals will prove successful. I think there’s an element of being under pressure here. But then, we’ve gone up from 200,000 to 600,000 [including supporters]. I think that things will get back onto an even keel now the election is over.

I would be very surprised if we had any witch hunting after the leadership election. I don’t think that’s going to be a major issue. Corbyn surely won’t stand for proscriptions of left groups.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the Corbyn leadership?

You can see that a lot of non-members relate to Jeremy. The idea that only a small number of lefties are impressed by Jeremy is not true. He’s not a machine politician – people relate to that. So he is doing well in the polls. The idea that he won’t be popular on the doorstep is wrong.

The most important thing is to be able to beat the Tories. A party under Jeremy has to be capable of winning the next election. That’s the big issue. If it’s clear that Jeremy is picking up support, and is seen as the person who can beat the Tories, then the vast majority of party members will back him.

There are elections coming up in Scotland and Wales, and they will be watched closely. I think there is every chance that he will do very well. That will reduce the stop-outs to a few die-hards. We’ll get a lot of nonsense from the Tories about him being an extremist and so on. The extent to which we can unite the party against that is the most important thing.

But we’ll be facing a fifth column of Blairites, and we will need to put them in a box.

What about policies?

There will be a process of discussing and developing his policies, a period of general discussions to get the policies agreed in the Party. It won’t be a top-down thing. The Tories will put down a lot of bait in an attempt to undermine that. The extent to which the Blairites obey the whip and so on is obviously a problem. But I think that the number of Blairites who behave like that will be a minority. We won’t be in a situation like we were in 1983, when the SDP could split off, create a party and do well.If the Blairites split off, they’d wind up in the dustbin. So they are trapped, really. I think a lot of what the Blairites are threatening will not come to pass.

As long as we can handle it well, we can marginalise the Blairites to the point that they become irrelevant. It’s a problem – but not that big a problem.

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