One of Open Labour’s core principles is to strive for more democracy, not less. Fighting for a more democratic and inclusive Labour Party can at times feel like an uphill struggle, but we cannot afford to roll back the tide of progress.
Any attempt to water down the votes of ordinary members in favour of Westminster parliamentarians is inward looking, divisive and a terrible signal to send across the movement. It is an undemocratic step backwards and a kick in the teeth to party members which will damage morale at the worst possible moment.
It is a recipe for catastrophe in Brighton and a field day for a media whose favourite story is “Labour civil war”.
We should be striving to democratise the party, not introducing old systems which would leave Labour members (the largest socialist party in Europe) with less party democracy than Tory members.
Those whose true wish for Labour is to turn it into a corporate fan club should recognise that they are looking for an era and an electorate which doesn’t exist anymore. If Labour is to win, it needs an active, engaged and involved membership – attempts at uncoupling members from leaders is not a recipe for success in 2021 and beyond.
The proposal to end one-member-one-vote and replace it with an electoral college system for labour leadership elections will rightfully appear as privileging a parliamentary elite over ordinary members.
MPs already have the final say of who gets on the ballot for Labour leadership elections. Some of their regrets today about the way they chose to use that power in 2015 does not seem like a reasonable or logical excuse for changing the entire system by which Labour elects its leaders in a way which privileges MPs and disempowers ordinary members.
The idea that MPs – who under this system would have hugely inflated power equivalent to around 2000 ordinary members’ votes – will vote in the Labour leadership election on behalf of their constituents and not in their own interests, particularly their own careers and friendships, is a suggestion so laughable that it hardly bears repeating. This clearly isn’t the solution to a healthier relationship between a leader and their MPs.
The idea that trade unions have benefited from this proposal, which will be incredibly divisive within their own executives, sidesteps the real work needed to build better relations with unions, particularly those who have suggested withdrawing vital funding from the party. Several have already spoken publicly against the proposal, including Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham who has called on Labour to “focus on the issues that are facing workers and communities, not rule changes to elect a leader”.
Under the current system, leadership candidates must be nominated by at least 2 Trade Unions, one of which realistically needs to be a big one in order to pass the 5% of affiliated membership threshold. Levy-paying trade union members already have the right to opt-in to voting in the Labour leadership election. Trade unions should be at the heart of Labour, and this proposal has bounced them into a difficult position, with the electoral college inevitably spun by the right-wing press as ‘handing more power to trade union barons’.
When the electoral college was first introduced in the early 1980s, it was a demand of the left to establish the principle that it should not only be MPs who vote for leader. Fast forward to much greater democratisation in the party today as well as a big world outside of Westminster whether that is our devolved Parliaments in Scotland and Wales or the flourishing of regional labour leaders across England. We have one-member-one-vote, attempting to revert to the old system is much like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.
It’s the worst type of navel gazing – one which has grabbed the last 24 hours of news coverage, a gift to the Tories and a handy distraction from the Prime Minister having to assure the public that the lights won’t go out at Christmas. Those cheerleading this move are not ‘allies’ or helping our party to rebuild and reach out to the country.
This is Labour’s first in-person conference since the COVID-19 pandemic shook the very foundations of our society, the first since electing a new leader and the first since we overtook the Tories in the polls during that time. That the UK is dealing with a number of crises, including an ongoing pandemic, increasing issues with food shortages and sharply rising gas prices amongst other things, makes the navel gazing all the more self-destructive.
This weekend is a chance to energise Labour members, those who campaign for us and those who might donate to support our work. Conference is our place to establish what our values mean in addressing the issues of the day – from fixing social care, to tackling the housing crisis, reforming the broken British state to ending poverty.
Getting Labour back into power at a UK level is what changes lives. Time to start laying some serious groundwork and set out a clear vision of hope in the run up to the next general election.
Let’s take the fight to the Tories and win.
Tessa Milligan and Keiran O’Neill are the national Co-Chairs of Open Labour.