How democratic is Corbyn’s Labour?

06 September 2019

By Jeremy Dewar

THANKS TO NEIL KINNOCK’S  counterrevolution against the democratic reforms of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Blair’s in the 1990s and 2000s, Jeremy Corbyn and his team inherited a Labour Party in which the leadership could prevent the membership from either determining party policy or who should represent them in parliament.

For almost all of these years the leadership enjoyed the benefits of these bureaucratic obstacles, merely adding to them whenever they felt threatened… or merely embarrassed.

So on Corbyn’s leadership campaign in 2015, he made a point of opening Labour’s doors to all those socialists who had been expelled in Kinnock’s witch-hunt, denied membership by the party’s officious officials, or left in disgust at Blair’s wars and Brown’s privatisations:

“I was there in 1984 standing alongside the miners, and judging by the appearance of some of you, you were there with me. Welcome back!”

 Beyond that too, there was much hope for other basic democratic rights that had been stolen or had been key demands of the left over many years, like mandatory reselection (open selection) of MPs, sovereignty of conference (including over key planks of the manifesto), and the right of socialist tendencies and oppressed groups to form platforms or caucuses and fight for policies and reforms (instead the effectively closed list of affiliated organisation like the Co-Op Party and the  Fabian Society).

But these promises and hopes have borne little fruit. In the meantime there has been a co-ordinated backlash by the right which found in the bogus charge that Corbyn and his  followers were anti-Semites an opportunity to reinstate witch hunting and trial by the media. 

Let’s look at some of the key areas of Labour Party democracy, four years after Jeremy’s election and one year after the Democracy Review.


A lot of socialists, who had left Labour over the Kinnock, Blair, Brown years but now took Corbyn’s invitation to return were denied entry. Initially they were not informed why and were told they had no right to appeal. One 70-year old sister in my CLP was eventually told she was excluded for signing the nomination papers of a Left Unity candidate.

The world-renowned socialist film director was similarly excluded, presumably for his support for the WRP in the 1970s! What a waste of a great tribune for socialism. Comrades who supported socialist newspapers were regularly stopped from joining or expelled, because as  Tom Watson ridiculously claimed tens of thousand of “Trots” were infiltrating the party, attempting to undo Kinnock’s purge.

After the ill-fated and well-named “chicken coup” in 2016, this phase of the witch-hunt abated, as the right increasingly took a new turn, aimed at smearing the left and Corbyn himself with accusations of anti-Semitism.

Countless innocent anti-Zionists and Palestinian supporters were caught in the wide net that was cast, suspended or expelled. Many of them were themselves Jews, which helped launch the hugely useful Jewish Voice for Labour.

While there have inevitably arisen a few cases of real, vile anti-semitism – and they should be expelled for sure – and others have shown bad judgement, very few cases have deserved or needed the ultimate sanction of expulsion.

Shami Chakrabarti’s excellent report into the charge of anti-semitism in the party cleared Labour of being guiltier than other parties or the population as a whole on the issue, as did other surveys. But Margaret Hodge and Tom Watson (again) demanded more expulsions and said Labour was “rife” with anti-semitism and “institutionally racist”. The mainstream press – led by the BBC and The Guardian – gave blanket coverage to the accusers and silenced the defence.

When Corbyn let himself be bullied into accepting  the IHRA’s definition of anti-semitism this did not stem the tide of allegations: rather it encouraged them. The zenith came this spring when Chris Williamson MP was suspended for simply saying the party had apologised too much for its record of fighting anti-semitism. When he was found not guilty, 121 MPs and peers and virtually the entire media pack demanded the decision be overturned. Corbyn stood by, while Williamson was suspended again.

 These attacks have a purpose: to damage the Labour leadership in the eyes of millions of its supporters. They are signalling that they will not be loyal to a Labour Prime Minister who sides with the Palestinians against Israel’s military might and racist laws.

 Williamson is right; Corbyn has not defended himself and the party enough. And if he retreats under this kind of pressure in opposition, what will he do in office?

Open selection

Sixty-nine per cent of Corbyn supporters wanted the re-introduction of mandatory re-selection of MPs back in 2015. After countless displays of disloyalty from the PLP, that number has steadily grown.

It is a basic right: to choose our own representatives. Without it, it will take decades for the party to bring the parliamentary party into line with the views of the membership. And that means Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and co. trying to introduce radical reforms with a rebellious bank bench thwarting their every move.

We – and Corbyn’s whole project – are being held hostage.

Until this year any calls for re-selection or votes of no confidence in MPs led to howls of bullying, ingratitude and sexism, racism, take your pick – no matter what the crimes of the incumbents who have grossed it for years without a socialist principle in their bones.

 The “compromise” agreed at last conference merely tinkered with the arcane rules surrounding re-selection. The rigmarole of the “trigger” ballot still exists, where MPs first stand alone in a field of one (!), only now the left “only” need to secure 33 per cent of branch votes to proceed to consider other candidates.

With a general election approaching fast, only the first such trigger ballots are taking place, such is the slowness of the process. Labour could win an election outright this autumn and still be hamstrung with hundreds of right wing MPs, who have long lost the support of the members they supposedly represent.

Conference and manifesto

But it is in the field of policy that a party’s democracy must ultimately be judged. If a party’s membership does not democratically control its own programme, then all the other rights count for nothing. We’re not just asking to be treated fairly; we are here to fundamentally change Britain and the world.

But it is precisely here that the Democracy Review achieved so little.

The number of constituency motions at this year’s conference has increased from eight to 20, in recognition of – but not in proportion to – the increased membership, and added a day to the conference by moving the Women’s Conference to earlier in the year. But last year’s conference revealed the undemocratic pitfalls that await delegates.

First there was the ridiculous sight of the vote on mandatory re-selection being lost, after 90 per cent of constituency delegates voted for it but 90 per cent of union delegations voted en bloc against. The MPs understandably were overwhelmingly against.

Further anger erupted when it emerged that Unite’s Len McCluskey cast his block vote against the reform, despite his union having democratically agreed policy in favour. Union representation and the use of the block vote by overbearing bureaucrats have not been touched. We need to democratise the block vote to get anywhere near members’ control over conference.

Then we were treated to a 12-hour compositing session, held behind closed doors, which delivered the mother of all fudged motions on Brexit. The resulting piece of waffle, which left all options “on the table” but committed the leadership to fight for none of them, was passed unanimously. This wasn’t clever stage management but ducking a fight on the most important question facing the party: are we for Remain or Leave?

Polls, surveys and questionnaires have repeatedly shown that the party membership is in favour of remaining in the EU – and for free movement. Yet without any consultation and by depriving the Liverpool conference of a meaningful vote, to borrow the current jargon, Corbyn’s leadership has been allowed to steer the party against a second referendum until the last minute.

Meanwhile even Diane Abbott has introduced the idea of an Australian style points system to allow employers to decide which migrants can come and work here, which can’t and when they should be deported. Again, a complete policy reversal without any membership say.

Conference must fight to be sovereign. That means it must be empowered to decide on all major manifesto policies and to instruct its parliamentary leadership to take positions on all the big issues of the day.


 Jeremy Corbyn once promised to turn the Labour Party into a social movement not just a vote catching party. He stood on a platform of “straight talking honest politics”. He claimed under him the party would be membership-led.

But not only have the reforms been too little, too late, the right have been allowed to use their enormous privileges in order to undermine his authority. Without vibrant and autonomous youth and BAME sections, many of Jeremy’s younger and more diverse new supporters have left or didn’t see the point in joining.

Even in the current crisis, Labour is failing to give a lead and mobilise its forces and the unions’ troops to bring down Johnson and stop the No Deal Brexit he is forcing through against parliament’s will.

But the Boris coup and the  crisis it has unleashed has gives us another opportunity to turn Labour into a democratic, fighting party. If branches and CLPs rise to the challenge and organise action to stop the coup and stop Brexit, drawing in the unions and working class neighbourhoods, and organising direct, i.e. strike action this will develop the mass membership from passive Corbyn fans into activist sin the class struggle.

This would reinvigorate the party, attracting the best elements of our class, especially the youth, to its banner. But another “surge” in membership must insist that the party’s leaders, MPs and policies are under its control.

 However, as Boris Johnson’s coup shows, in any real political crisis, it is what the great mass of the people do that counts. If the Queen and the Tory right are prepared to suspend parliament to prevent Remain MPs from interfering in their plans, think what they would do to stop a Corbyn-led government.

 That’s why any democratisation of the party is inextricably linked to changing the kind of party Labour has always been –  one that sees elections as the be all and end all of politics. Important as defending parliament against a coup by the executive is, we have to understand that real power does not lie in parliament but in the unelected machinery of the state – the monarchy, the judiciary the top state bureaucracy.

 A party that focuses almost exclusively on winning votes will naturally tend to privilege its parliamentarians and make compromises to keep them on board and win the votes of the “middle ground”. A party focused on mass action, however, will focus on educating and preparing its cadres by involving them in all the major decisions and to control its MPs and councillors.

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