Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Democrats without democracy

Posted by Left Luggage on April 21, 2009

The decision of Alice Mahon, former MP for Halifax, to leave Labour will have dealt a further blow to the hopes of those socialists operating within the party that it can be “reclaimed” for the Left. Certainly one of Labour’s finer MPs for her 18 years in Parliament, the fact that she resigned from the party she had been with for virtually her whole life was significant enough. But of greater significance was the fact that she abandoned Labour not simply on grounds of policy, nor because of the current e-mail slurs scandal as has been reported, but largely because of its inherently “undemocratic” structures. Writing about her resignation, she made this clear:

A machine was put in place to crush anything remotely connected to Old Labour. Conference was changed beyond recognition, any dissent ruthlessly stamped on by the new spin masters. Delegates were sought out and pressurised into supporting New Labour policies even if they were against what the local party had decided. […] Party members have effectively been banned from any decision making. […] New Labour have done such a good job of demolishing our democratic structure that I realised there was nothing I could say or do to change things from within.

Members of the Labour Representation Committee report that even within this organisation there is a debate underway between those who favour a Labour-focussed approach and those who see the party as a lost cause, though for the moment it is firmly tied to Labour. Susan Press, LRC vice-chair and a councillor in Calder Valley, made clear that while she regrets Alice’s departure, she believes it was the wrong decision strategically, at least for the moment. At the same time, Susan admits there is basically no democracy within Labour. She recently stood as a prospective parliamentary candidate in both Keighley and Calder Valley, losing both elections. She says:

I feel more disillusioned than ever before. As Alice said yesterday, the old ways of changing policy just aren’t there any more. And, after what has happened to me as a candidate in Keighley and Calder Valley, I honestly think left-wingers do not stand a chance of beating the machine. The selection process would have to change radically to maje it a fair contest with a level playing field. […]

The truth is that at the moment democracy is not something we have, either as Party members nor as PPC candidates.It’s all decided in rooms which may not have smoke any more but which still serve to block anyone who might not toe the line.

I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing will change until after the General Election. If it doesn’t, then even lifetime Labour members like me may well vote with our feet. I am truly sorry Alice Mahon has left Labour, but I understand why she did.

Yet given what both Alice and Susan say about the party’s democracy, and what is apparent from recent selection battles in Greater London and in West Yorkshire, there is clearly scant hope of “reclaiming” Labour (whatever this would mean politically) if only because the party is structurally incapable of being captured through democratic means.

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