Unity can only be built on democracy

Submitted by Matthew on 19 August, 2015 - 10:44 Author: Jon Lansman

As ballot papers start hitting doormats and inboxes, there’s no doubt Jeremy Corbyn’s entry into the contest didn’t just ignite the debate about Labour’s future and shift it leftwards, but it defined the debate.

And whatever the outcome, that has already changed the Labour party beyond recognition. What has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to join the party as members or supporters is a yearning not only for a different type of politics but for a different type of politician.

The wider public too want politicians with honesty and integrity and passion who sound like they believe what they’re saying, not just tailoring different messages for different audiences. If Labour fails to deliver that, we will lose again and again. Those enthusiastic new recruits won’t stay and the SNP and Greens will reap the rewards. And UKIP will continue to win the support of working class voters who have lost confidence in us.

Liz Kendall is the only other candidate who does appear to be motivated by her political convictions. Unfortunately, even if we wanted her to, she can’t perform in 2020 the trick that Tony Blair performed just once in 1997 of winning the backing of right-of-centre voters in the South disillusioned with the Tories whilst retaining (or now winning back) our core voters, working class and liberal middle class, from the SNP, Greens and UKIP. Even by 2001, 2.8 million voters had deserted us.

So what of the others? And how would they lead us to victory? The consensus seems to be that unity is the key. It doesn’t seem to matter that achieving unity was exactly what Ed Miliband put greatest store upon and was very successful at but led Labour to a defeat after which so many rushed to disassociate themselves from so many aspects of the programme around which they united. The Mirror‘s editorial argues that:

Andy Burnham is the leader who will unite his party and deliver for the people who need Labour most. He combines proven experience with passion and principle. The boy from an ordinary working class background who went to Cambridge, he understands the everyday issues facing Mirror readers. He is deeply committed to Labour principles, but with the strength and leadership to make difficult decisions.

The Guardian‘s editorial on the other hand says Burnham “is personable and has passion, but has zig-zagged too often in this campaign to be seen as a leader” and so:

The right leader is the person who can bring both Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall together in one big, progressive tent, offering enough moral common ground to transcend deep disagreements on policy…. The person best placed to do that is Yvette Cooper.

Let us not dwell on the fact that these pleas for unity around a candidate are divided between which candidate that may be. The “Anyone but Corbyn” bandwagon has gathered pace and will have some effect (unless Jeremy wins on first preferences as many now suggest) though there are plenty of people too whose first preference is for Andy, Yvette or even Liz whose second will be for Jeremy. The important issue is whether unity around a leader can resolve Labour’s fundamental problem.

There are deep differences within Labour about policy, strategy and tactics, and about the professionalisation of politics.

But although many party members align themselves with a candidate, the deep differences are not so much between factions of left and right nor even between activists and less active members. Jeremy’s support includes people who voted for David Miliband last time and there is no clear difference between activists and grassroots members. The real divide tends to be between the professional politicians (elected representatives at every level and the people who are employed working for them) and ordinary members.

At nomination meetings, especially those comprising delegates rather than all-member meetings, the influence of the professionals is greatest. Back in the 1980s, the Labour establishment used to claim that activists were well to the left and unrepresentative of the members. Even if it was true then, it isn’t now. In the Labour heartlands at least, there is a payroll vote at every level. And one-member one-vote has proved to benefit the left.

The response of Labour’s political establishment has been to do what they have so often accused the left of doing after election defeats. Blame the electorate. They attack the concept of primaries — opening up elections and selections to registered supporters — that were introduced as a concession by Ed Miliband to their campaign which the Left opposed. We warned about “manipulation by the party’s opponents” then but were ignored; now they complain about it, though the numbers are a small proportion of those joining.

If they get a result they don’t like some have threatened a “coup on day one“. Hostile shadow cabinet members are meeting to plan the resistance even before the result is announced. The common feature of those planning to bring down a Corbyn leadership is that they are Labour members of parliament.

We mustn’t exaggerate how many would be involved because, in spite of the threats “not to serve” in a Corbyn shadow cabinet, you should never underestimate the desire of most members of parliament to advance their careers. For every one who declines to serve, there will be others willing to take their place. But it does highlight the problem that the threat to party unity comes not from the division between left and right, but from that between professional politicians and the grassroots.

Fortunately, there is a solution. The Labour party has a well defined structure of internal democracy, rooted in local parties and the internal democracy of its affiliated trade unions, internal elections based on one member one vote, with final decisions resting with party conference and an elected national executive. Electing the leader is not the end of the debate about the future direction of the party, it is the start. The position the party takes on important decisions will of course be greatly influenced by its new leader, but not decided. It is the members, collectively and through their representatives, who make our policy. If Jeremy Corbyn as leader wanted to oppose the renewal of Trident missiles, the best and perhaps only way to unite his party behind that decision is to win the debate and the vote.

Unity of purpose can only built on a foundation of democracy.

It’s been decades since Labour has practised this, so it will need the encouragement of our new leader but command and control cannot produce it. And in the battle ahead to defeat the worst Tory government in my memory, we will certainly need it.

• Taken from Left Futures blog

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