Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Democracy delayed?


Now that my political activity is focused on the Labour Party in Brighton and Hove I blog a lot less.

As we approach the most realistic possibility of a socialist-led Government in my lifetime all those of us who hold any position in the Party, at any level, must be persistently cautious of giving any ammunition, in any way, to the many opponents of such an outcome.

This also requires us to be circumspect in commenting upon internal Party controversies (which will themselves increase over the coming period). However, those of us who have been active in the movement for decades do owe our comrades the benefit of that experience and must occasionally risk comment if we are to communicate this.

I was encouraged when the Party established the Democracy Review, both by the fact of the Review and that responsibility was given to a friend and comrade, former UNISON employee and former Labour MP Katy Clark.

I was further encouraged by the leaked details of the Review, particularly in relation to local government, which is currently my major area of interest. The proposal to replace the current structure of Local Campaign Forums (and the absurd privileging of Councillors over members) with Local Government Committees composed entirely of delegates from CLPs and affiliates was an excellent and appropriate improvement.

Therefore it was disappointing to read reports from the Party’s National Executive Council suggesting that there was – and is – not a majority for the bulk of the Democracy Review proposals. Disappointing – but not surprising.

The trade union delegates on the NEC are not ever going, collectively, to be a force for radical change (unless and until the changes which have been wrought in the Party as a result of the transformation of our membership in recent years are repeated in the trade unions themselves).

The relationship between the Party and the trade unions is the bedrock on which the Party rests. It is the most important reason why our Party could never be completely transformed into a purely pro-capitalist political organisation, and socialists should always defend, and seek to deepen and democratise the relationship between the unions and the Party.

However, it is very important not to have illusions in the role which representatives of the unions within the Party will perform, as long as the unions are themselves, to a large extent, controlled by their own bureaucracies.

Historically the Labour Left has often been very poor at understanding the political nature of the trade unions. The Campaign Group of MPs were traditionally deferential to trade union General Secretaries – and much of the Labour Left shared the inability of the Communist Party to comprehend the role of the bureaucracy in the trade unions (or, I suppose, the former Soviet Union).

Union members can influence the conduct of our trade unions, and their representatives, who have to be mindful of our views as members – but we do not exercise meaningful control over the paid officials whose day to day practice is what trade unions (as political organisations) “do”.

The best we can hope for, as long as the unions remain as they are, is for the activists in the Party to be able to broker compromises and form tactical alliances from time to time.

That is not to say that change is impossible, just that it hasn’t happened yet.

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