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Labour's democracy review should be about more than selection procedures

If Labour wants to shape the future, it must reinvent what it means to be a political party.

Image, Ren, Flickr.com, some rights reserved.

The looming Labour conference is, we learnt at the weekend, to debate and deicide on a  number of rule changes, which in the current climate are obviously seen as a move by the left against the right. Which of course they might be. The party’s factions, left and right, live and die by the sword in a cycle of retribution, all about who has the numerical upper hand. This instrumentalist approach to politics will be the death of Labour, whoever wins out.   

The more important issue is not whether the reforms hurt or help either side – but whether they deepen democracy within the party and ultimately whether they pave the way forward for a party political formation that is now way out of date for the 21st century.

On the first challenge, we should welcome rule changes that engage more party members in decision-making but also recognises the dangers of a permanent plebiscite on party representatives. On this basis the reforms going to the Labour conference look a mixed bag. Personally, I see nothing wrong with sitting MPs being challenged once every five years – better this than the stitch ups by party officials and the parachuting in of gilded ones, sweetened by offers of places in the Lords to get old MPs out and the new in. On the other hand, any shift to move to directly elected council leaders looks poorly thought through. 

There is one proposal I really support, that is the rule change to enable CLPs not to have stand a candidate at a general election if they vote not to. Standing candidates that only let in the Tories is self defeating and local parties should be allowed to excuse themselves from this waste of resources. If this had been in place at the last election, Jeremy Corbyn would now be PM. Of course, the only long term answer to our woeful first past the post voting system is a shift to proportional representation. And its great to see a flock of motions supportive of this.

So the reforms will mostly help, a bit, but they are a massive missed opportunity.  Why didn’t the Democracy Review led by former MP Katy Clark start with a blank sheet of paper and ask the question: if we were starting a political party now, what would its function and therefor its form be? If they did this then that could have led to a gap analysis between how to really influence power in the 21st century and where the party actually is now – suggesting a series of transformations over time.

In this they could have leant something from the Liberal Democrats and others.  The likely decision of the Liberal Democrats to open the leadership of the party up to non-MPs is a yet another signal of the revolution that needs to come if our political system is ever going to be fit for the 21st century. The move to elect a Leader who isn’t necessarily an elected member of parliament is in many ways seismic as it tacitly acknowledges three big things. First that the talent now lies elsewhere. This is not just because the Lib Dem pool of MPs is so small, finding real leadership talent in the whole of Westminster is now a tough gig. In part that’s because the life of the MP is not exactly that attractive. They get paid little in comparison to others doing similar jobs, work all hours and mostly get huge amounts of stick for not being perfect enough.

Second, and more importantly, the search beyond parliament reflects the fact that power has now escaped parliament. Nation states and certainly national economics are no longer to be commanded and controlled from the centre of government. Through the global economy and now the rise of social media and the network society, power and politics have been separated. If you want to change the world today you don’t join a political party but start a hedge fund to get rich and give it away, a tech company or new campaign organization. The Liberal Democrat’s presumably want to tap into this world and they are right to.

The successful party of the future won’t have a leader based in Westminster because that’s no longer the centre of power. Instead ‘the leader’ will oversee activity in the economy, civil society, the media (new and old), academia etc – at every point in which ideas are formed and coalitions for change built. 

And all this reveals the third and biggest shift, the decline in the dominance of representative democracy. Once politics was simple. We voted for people who represented us and managed the economy and public services, took us to war or kept the peace, all on our behalf. In the complexity of a globalized and networked  world it is impossible for the politician as technocrat to dominate.  Of course we need representatives to make many decisions for us, but we need a deeper sense of everyday democracy too, at work and in our communities. Representative democracy now needs to be augmented by more deliberative and, when appropriate, direct forms of democracy.  In the future we will shift effortlessly between these different forms in what is called Liquid Democracy.

The Liberal Democrats are trying to adapt to this new world in which the shift to proportional representation is essential. The Women’s Equality Party has already been leading the way as they allow their members to belong to other parties (who of course refuse to reciprocate) as they try to change the agenda and not just get their hands on old power, while the Greens show us the possibilities of ideas like co-leadership. Abroad party movements like En Marche in France, the Alternative in Denmark and Podemos in Spain are all part of the move to  21st century politics. With a new centre party coming down the track this party revolution is only just kicking off. This is the space Labour should have started to fill. Instead it is making a few tweaks when what is needed is transformation of the party political formation.

About the author

Neal Lawson is Chair of the pressure group Compass and has written many pamphlets for the organisation on the themes of democracy and equality. He was author in 2009 of All Consuming (Penguin) and was co-editor in 2001 of the Progressive Century. He serves on the Boards of UK Feminista and the AV Referendum Campaign.  He is a Contributing Managing Editor of the quarterly journal Renewal and writes for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He appears regularly on radio and TV.  He was previously a trade union researcher, an adviser to Gordon Brown, and a communications consultant. 


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