Taking back control: a campaign for Labour autocracy?

The need for CLP meetings to be online due to Covid restrictions is being exploited by Labour officials at the expense of party democracy, argues Bryn Jones

Politicos everywhere are exploiting pandemic restrictions to bypass democracy. Using new powers that stifle democracy in local parties (CLPs) and minimise members’ participation, Labour’s hierarchy is following suit. These began with the controversy over the Human Rights Commission’s report into antisemitism and subsequent suspension of Jeremy Corbyn. They have been applied nationally, but probably nowhere as enthusiastically as in Labour’s South West region. Under various pretexts CLP officers have been suspended, meeting agendas censored and their organisation taken over by regional officials. Elections at these events have led to wholesale replacement of left-wingers by entire slates of centre-right candidates.

Though not unusual in traditionally radical areas such as Merseyside and East London, the current wave of officials’ controls to areas like the South West indicates a more comprehensive drive against ‘unacceptable’ ideas and members. As a member of a CLP muzzled by South West Region I had a ringside seat at the suppression of participatory democracy. In April 2020, the then Chair of Bath CLP resigned, making vague accusations, later withdrawn, of “unreasonable behaviour” against fellow officers. Regional office did not act until November 2020 when it asked the CLP Executive Committee (EC) to comment on allegations of bullying and unconstitutional practices made against six named officers. These sent detailed rebuttal letters and the Regional Secretary withdrew the allegations but declared that the six were ‘under investigation’ by the national Governance and Legal Unit. Despite repeated requests for clarification no details of the exact charges were given.

Then in March 2021, the EC organised a special members’ meeting to decide urgent matters, including a budget for 2021 and a donation to the election campaign for the regional Metro Mayor. Budget scrutiny was crucial so members knew the state of the finances before deciding how much to donate. Yet only three hours before the meeting was due, Region told the EC that it could only vote on the donation and nothing else. (The political backstory was Regional office’s omission of the names of the Metro Mayor candidates nominated by nine of twelve local CLPs from the final selection panel. Region’s preferred and successful candidate had received backing only from two CLPs.)

In May 2021, after Region had taken over the AGMs in two Bristol CLPs, it hosted a special CLP Zoom meeting for Bath, chaired by the South West Region Executive Committee Chair, to select delegates and motions for Labour’s national Women’s Conference. Some left-wing members were not notified and emailed Region for details, but were ignored. At the AGM members raised points of order asking for the rationale for Region’s takeover and its decision to impose an arbitrary deadline that enabled only one person to be eligible to be delegate. Unimpressed by the Chair’s vague replies to these questions, members moved and won a vote of no confidence in the Chair. Under Party rules, if a Chair cannot preside another member should be voted in as replacement. Neither the deposed Chair nor the Regional host did this. Instead the Chair closed the meeting, ruling that the CLP could send neither delegates or motions to the Women’s Conference.

In several local CLPs, advocates for anti-left ‘unity’ slates of EC candidates appear to have, illicitly, had sole access to lists of members. Before the Bath CLP AGM on June 15th, again organised by Region, a glossy PDF was circulated recommending a ‘unity slate’. Several regional officials, including the Secretary, attended this AGM. One of these controlled the chat functions and recording of votes. But this time all participants were muted and, despite the Chair’s invitation to raise points through the chat function, most questions were ignored. After online voting all positions were declared won by the ‘unity slate’ candidates.

Its candidate for Chair took over and moved to discuss the number of CLP delegates for Annual Conference. As Bath CLP is entitled to send six delegates, a motion to this effect was proposed and seconded. Instead of discussing this motion, as Standing Orders and Citrine’s ‘Chairmanship’ manual prescribe, the new Chair said that there were other proposals for different numbers of delegates. On the (unconstitutional) advice of the Regional officer, members were then required to ignore the motion and rank their preferences for either six, four, three, two or one delegates via an online polling site. He announced that the two-delegate proposal had received most preferences and in the subsequent vote the only two ‘unity slate’ candidates were declared elected as delegates. None of the vote counts had the usual independent monitoring, leading to suspicions of possible vote-rigging. Other Region-controlled meetings in South West CLPs also reduced the number of delegates to two.

The inescapable conclusion is that the Labour hierarchy wants to exclude non-compliant delegates who might challenge its Conference goals. More generally, democratic procedures, minutely detailed in Party rules, have been junked without clarification of the Region-controlled procedures replacing them. Such ad hoc rule-making denies a voice to ordinary members – those whom the Party’s constitution lauds. Basic democratic principles of transparency, accountability and dialogue have been deliberately denied. From Hong Kong to Hungary, Washington to Warsaw, popular democracy is being crippled. In their own backyard, Labour leaders, even if unintentionally, are furthering this trend.

Bryn Jones
Bryn Jones is the author of Corporate Power and Responsible Capitalism? Towards Social Accountability and co-editor of Alternatives to Neoliberalism: Towards Equality and Democracy., He is a member of Chartist EB.

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