My Experiences in the Labour Party, Anonymous. Reproduced from Issue 1 of the journal.
Last October I did something that I would never have conceived doing in the remainder of my political life on this planet: I joined the Labour Party. This was after having resigned from the Socialist Party last year, so for anyone looking for Trotskyist entryist exposés, there’s nothing to see here folks. And the two events are not related.
I have since been to two local Labour Party meetings. Both of these attracted about 40 members, a significant turnout particularly compared to Branch meetings I was used to going to!
At my first meeting in October, I was very much feeling my way as to the lay of the land although I did know a number of party members already (all from the Left) from local anti-cuts campaigning and various cross-party Left groups which have sporadically sprung up in the past.
The meeting started with a talk from the local parliamentary candidate (and once MP). This 20-minute speech can be condensed to the old sound-bite of “we need to look at the reasons why we lost the last election”, although it later emerged that they “didn’t believe it had been lost by Labour not being Left-Wing enough”.
Then to business. The main business of the evening was the election of a Trade Union Delegate and delegates to the County Forum, an organisation which, as a new member, was a mystery to me and there was no enlightenment on offer from the Local Executive. The first of these passed without any incident and was won by a left-wing candidate. The second was a lot more fraught. The Executive had produced a leaflet which was distributed to the members at the meeting recommending six Blairite candidates for the posts, and proceeded to attempt to take a vote without members being made aware what any of the candidates stood for. A number of protestations were raised about this and after many attempts to brush them aside, the Chair eventually agreed to take a vote on a motion to defer this vote until the following month’s meeting in order to allow all candidates to put their case. This motion was passed. So, effectively two victories for the Left and much to feel optimistic about. However, I should have known it was never going to be that easy.
Subsequent to this meeting, I learnt that three left-wing members who are also standing for election to these positions had been told they were suspended with vaguely worded statements accusing them of disrupting the meeting and/or intimidatory behaviour following complaints from members. Now, I was at this meeting, and the suggestion that the behaviour of any of the members could have been “intimidating” beggars belief. The “disruption” consisted merely of challenging a somewhat intransigent Chair in order to further the democratic process in the Branch.
Consequently, a motion was put forward to the meeting in November against the suspensions and, as these suspended members were barred from attending this meeting, requesting a further deferment of the elections. The meeting started with the regular speaker slot, this time someone from an advice agency who was an apologist for Universal Credit. Stirring stuff! However, at this meeting, the Local Executive took the decision to invite a Regional Officer to the meeting who, despite not having been at the original meeting, said he was appalled by what had gone on, ruled all motions regarding the suspensions as out of order as the matter was now being investigated by the National Executive Committee and threatened the branch with “lockdown” if any more actions of this sort occurred. So no bullying or intimidation there then – and this is all prior to any ruling having been made on the complaints! He also managed to anger a number of female members by suggesting that these actions by men, resulted in women feeling less able to participate in the meeting. This Regional Officer was known to some in the room as a character who had a few years ago publically defamed an existing female (and left-wing) member. Further drama was provided by the Chair breaking down in tears whilst stating that at the last meeting there had been a 7-year old and 16-year old present and, because of what went on, they were too scared to come to this meeting. A number of comrades, myself included, spoke out against the travesty of these suspensions, but bureaucratic rule procedures were presented as to why the Branch was not allowed to discuss it! The original motion was therefore amended simply to request a further deferment of the elections, but this was defeated at the meeting and the vote took place. The end result was a temporary victory for the right as most of their candidates were elected. However, the fight is not over.
The Branch appears to be controlled by a right-wing clique at present that are determined to cling onto their positions by any means necessary. It has recently had an influx of new members on the back of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory; it was reported at the meeting there were now approximately 1,000 members in the Branch area, although most of these do not appear to have been engaged by the local leadership into becoming active. Whilst there is a good, vocal Left in the Branch, it seems that it still lacks sufficient support to convincingly push for change at the moment. There are other issues within the Branch that are of concern and may become the subject of future motions, such as financial transparency, lack of minutes of Executive meetings and the breach of a CLP resolution relating to re-admittance decisions being taken by all-member meetings.
Interestingly, there is a Momentum branch in my town as well, and the meeting I went to had about 30 members present. However, many still seemed reluctant to join the Labour Party and in light of the above events, it is not surprising. There are also question marks over the democratic structure of Momentum, or rather the lack of it, nationally and how it seems to already be having its wings clipped.
Jeremy Corbyn got elected to the leadership of the Labour Party on the promise of an open, democratic and all-inclusive membership and yet, at the time of writing, there have been few material actions on the part of the leadership at present to facilitate this. Many branches still seem to be tightly controlled by the old guard. The membership tripled with Corbyn’s campaign and election, so it is not unreasonable to assume that these new members support Corbyn and are looking for change.
The subject of whether to work within or outside of the Labour Party has, of course, been one of disagreement within the broad “revolutionary” Left for decades.
The Socialist Party/CWI perspective has been that the Labour Party was an irredeemably bourgeois party with no hope of reform. Whilst this process was undoubtedly ongoing, it appears that it has not fully completed yet and has at least been arrested by the Corbyn victory – which, in fairness, I don’t think anyone on the Left predicted. So, is it sensible for Marxists to now join the Labour Party? I have no illusions in the Labour Party as an organisation for revolutionary change, but with hundreds of thousands of new members looking for socialist ideas I think it makes sense to join, if your membership is accepted, in order to engage with them, support Corbyn’s policies but also to explain the limitations of his left reformist position with the evidence of Marxist economic theory, not forgetting the recent examples of France and Greece. This is far more productive than shouting at the Party from the outside. Activists within the party should also campaign for the admittance or re-admittance of socialists wanting to join but who were refused. Also, it would appear that both TUSC (Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition) and Left Unity may be facing meltdown. The Fire Brigades Union recently voted to re-affiliate to Labour and there are signs that other Trade Unions may follow. Also, one of the “Socialist Coalition” partners, the Independent Socialist Network (ISN), recently decided to no longer affiliate to TUSC. It was also reported in the press that the membership of Left Unity had fallen to 1,500 as a number of members saw working within Labour as a more productive option.
At the start of 2016, the right-wing press were full of the possibility of “purges” (a deliberately politically-charged word suggestive of Stalinism) by Corbyn of the Shadow Cabinet, encouraged by bleatings from right-wing Labour MPs complaining that their leader “ruined Christmas” for them! This is a welcome step but will be of limited value. Mandatory reselection of MPs has been ruled out by Corbyn despite the obvious contradiction between what many of them stand for and the majority of members in the party. However, this would seem to me to be something that most members would welcome and difficult to argue against from the point of view of an open, democratic party. Why on earth shouldn’t workers’ representatives be accountable on a regular basis to those who vote for them? This, and opening up the democratic structures of the party generally would be a far more effective action. It would illustrate more clearly the unpopularity of the old guard of MPs with the membership than any Cabinet reshuffle. What does seem to be clear is that activists cannot rely on the leadership to affect change in the Labour Party. This will have to come from the bottom up. There is a danger also though that without some clear action from the leadership against the voices of the right-wing in the Party, many new members may become disillusioned and leave. There will likely be many conflicts in local branches in the coming year. How the leadership reacts to them could be crucial in determining the future of the Party nationally.
The year also started with more shakiness in the world stock markets originating in China, and with the rising likelihood of a new recession, the political stage and justification for left reformist politics, already highly dubious, could change. Low profitability, high debt and now the likelihood of higher interest rates in the US are the order of the day. But that’s a different story.
STOP PRESS: Since this article was written, there has been a further Branch Meeting at which a Corbyn supporter was elected to the position of Branch Secretary. The favoured candidate of the existing Local Committee was defeated by a significant margin, thanks to mobilisation by the Left and support of local trade unionists. With more positions coming up for election in July, there appears to a real possibility of change in the branch this year.