Hundreds of thousands of new people, many young people, have joined the Labour Party to repel the anti-Corbyn coup. From being a scattering of individuals across society, grumbling to their workmates, talking with their friends, they have begun to become a political force.
The next step is for them to help each other, and already-established labour-movement activists to help them, to get organised. Five hundred thousand people organised to march together on the streets have much more power than the same five hundred thousand scattered in their homes. The same five hundred thousand organising in regular local meetings, debating, voting, campaigning on the streets, taking their ideas into workplaces and organising unions there, shaping a lively democratic political party, become a greater power again.
They can be a decisive power to mobilise millions. There is much inertia to break through. For decades, no-one contested that the decision-making centre of the Labour Party should be the party conference, as the coming-together of countless discussions and votes in local Labour Party and trade union branches. Parliamentary leaders often finessed and manipulated conference proceedings, or used claims that they should decide how to implement conference policies in fact to negate those policies. But even Neil Kinnock, in his efforts to neutralise the enlivened early-1980s Labour Party and hand it over tamed to Smith and then to Blair, felt he had to push the conference into voting his way, for example to abandon unilateral nuclear disarmament in 1989. Blair changed that.
In his early years he made a point of publicly, ostentatiously defying conference decisions. And he made it more difficult for the conference to make decisions. Motions to conference were limited to a few, and they could only be “contemporary” motions, about events in the couple of months before conference. The Conference Arrangements Committee’s standard letter to the many local Labour Parties whose motions it rules out starts by telling them that the main way for members to get a say on policy is by making a submission online through a website, www.yourbritain.org.uk. Then your thoughts may be considered by a “policy commission”, may go to the “National Policy Forum”, may be rubber-stamped through annual conference (which is barred from amending NPF documents), and may then be taken up by the real decision-making centre, the “leader’s office”. In practice, probably no-one ever even reads your submission.
After 2007, for a couple of years, Gordon Brown banned any policy motions at all from Labour Party conference. Since motions were restored, lots have been “ruled out” even before reaching the floor of conference: half of all those submitted in 2014, over a third in 2015. Those “ruled out” are not even printed out, or put on a website, so that their movers have no chance to challenge the “ruling-out” effectively.
In the Blair and Brown years, many local Labour Parties gave up debating policy motions, or even having local branch (as distinct from constituency-wide) meetings. The Blairites eagerly instructed them that meetings, debates, democratic procedures were “boring”.
A culture of debate and democratic decision-making is only in the first stages of being restored. Many left-wingers, even, still find the idea of a democratic decision-making conference, focused on debate rather than photo-opportunities for leaders, too radical. For many younger left-wingers, efforts like “38 Degrees”, a movement with no meetings but instead an office which consults its activists only by individual electronic communication, may seem pretty much a model. “Crowd-sourcing” and “digital consultation” by teams of appointed professional political functionaries is the nearest they have known to democracy.
The most important thing to be done in the Labour Party is to restore organisation, structured debate, and democratic decision-making. Digital communications can be used to vastly improve information, but they are not a substitute for structured debate. We must first win arguments among the left.
Sadly, neither Jeremy Corbyn nor John McDonnell, nor the biggest Corbyn-supporting Labour left movements, have approached this year’s Labour conference as a chance to let the members have their say. If the leadership proposes democratic rule changes, or new left-wing policies, to the conference, it will only be by last-minute decree-from-above, not by a process of taking debate on those rule changes and policies through the movement from the base upwards.
The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy has made its valiant efforts to promote timely rule changes and “contemporary motions”. Momentum NHS has pushed a model motion on the NHS; Stop the Purge, one on democratic rights (which has now been “ruled out” by the party machine). Solidarity has done its best to support those efforts. But the biggest Labour-left movements have paid no attention to those processes.
The Corbyn leadership’s main announcement before conference has been the one, on 19 September, that it will seek “digital consultations” with members on policy — which already exist and are no substitute for real decision-making through democratic debate. Organise! Join the organised left; organise the Labour Party’s newcomers; organise living Young Labour groups; organise structured and democratic decision-making!