Thursday, December 07, 2017

Savaged by an anonymous (dead) sheep?

I was going to blog thanks to those members of Brighton Pavilion Constituency Labour Party (CLP) who attended last night’s Annual General Meeting (at which I was re-elected as Chair) for the comradely conduct of the meeting – but my attention has been taken by the report in the Argus of last week’s inaugural meeting of our Local Campaign Forum (LCF).

This is an odd story (as one online commentator on the Argus site has pointed out) since it mixes sensible factual reporting of the functions of the LCF, and the (surely inoffensive) aspirations of the officers of that body, with a concocted story of controversy based entirely on the reported comments of a single anonymous individual (though seasoned liberally with extracts from an earlier post here).

So, on the one hand the Argus explains that “the LCF runs the process to select potential council candidates. Anyone who wishes to be selected as the Labour candidate in any of the city wards must first put their name forward to the LCF” (which is true) and reports that “no qualified candidates will be refused a place on the panel, but that efforts will be made to encourage as many candidates as possible to stand, including more LGBT and ethnic minority candidates than have stood in recent years” (which is certainly what the officers of the LCF want to see).

On the other hand, the headline describes the election unopposed at an inaugural meeting of people who (in common with the majority of local Party members) support the politics of the Party’s national leadership as a “take-over” and quotes an anonymous source characterising this as a “grab for power” by a “Stalinist group”. Our anonymous friend either has a very lively imagination or was the wrong side of one too many drinks when they gave their views to the local paper.

Whilst I am always in favour of newspaper reports which quote from this little blog, the truth about the LCF (of which I was honoured to be elected Chair without opposition) is both more boring and more exciting than the Argus – and its secret interlocutor – would have you believe.

It is more boring because it will not be the site of internal strife within our Party, but a vehicle for encouraging the participation of Party members, as candidates and in selection processes, as well as for encouraging the campaigning which we will need to get to a socialist Council in our City.

And it is more exciting because we are going to build a large and diverse pool of potential candidates from whom we will be selecting representatives who will be part of the continuing transformation of our Party and our society. 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Which way for Labour Party democracy and effectiveness?

It has been good to hear of the victories of left-wing candidates supportive of the direction of the national Labour Party under its current leadership at the recent Annual General Meetings of Hove and Kemptown Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs). We shall see if Brighton Pavilion CLP also continues to be left-led later this week.

(It’s not modesty that prevents me mentioning the victory of the left at Brighton and Hove’s Local Campaign Forum last weekend, at which I was elected Chair – rather, much as I want to comment on the future of our campaigning across Brighton and Hove, I have something different to say just now).

There is a debate within today’s Labour Party about the two choices for organising at a local level which are permitted by our Rule Book. The first is the “traditional” model of branches electing delegates (along with delegates from affiliated organisations) to a General Committee (GC) (which is itself managed by an elected Executive).

The second model is the model of “all member meetings” (as applied by supporters of Militant in 1980s Merseyside and in the short-lived an ill-starred “City Party” in Brighton and Hove) which annually elects an Executive. Advocates of this latter approach genuinely believe that it is “more democratic”.

I think they are wrong for a number of reasons.

First, “all member meetings” do not of themselves increase participation by members in decision-making. If anything, they tend to do the reverse. Take a CLP with 3,000 members in six branches as a hypothetical example.

A monthly “all member” meeting would do well to attract 300 members to a monthly meeting lasting three hours (allowing the opportunity for a maximum of 60 members to make a three-minute contribution to discussion if there were no other business and no one spoke more than once).

Were those same 300 active and engaged members to attend six branch meetings to engage in similar discussion then (based on the same assumptions) it would be possible for every single member to have their say. This is because there would be (in aggregate) six times as long for debate in six separate meetings as in a single meeting).

Secondly, smaller branch meetings provide a safer and more conducive environment for contributions from members who may lack the confidence to speak in front of a very large audience. This multiplies the benefit of a branch structure for member participation in meetings (and whilst splitting an “all member” meeting up into groups could replicate this possibility to increase contribution such groups could not be decision making units of our Party as branches are).

Thirdly, a non-negligible point is that “all member” meetings exclude representation of Party affiliates from discussion (whereas affiliates, of which the trade unions are far and away the most important, can have a voice at a GC alongside branch delegates). This is not just a point about respecting Party tradition – the relationship between the political wing of the workers’ movement (the Labour Party) and our industrial wing (the trade unions) is central to the Party’s reason for existence. For all the imperfections of the often undemocratic relationship between the Party and the unions, this relationship is what distinguishes our Party from other Parties which merely seek to govern an unjust society (rather than mobilise those in whose interests it may be transformed).

Finally, and most importantly, a branch structure, in which branches are not simply “top down” channels of communication but are the basic unity of Party democracy, holding to account their GC delegates on a monthly basis, is the model which can entrench democracy not only within our Party, but also – through our Party – our wider society.

What we need from our mass membership Labour Party is a social force capable of defending our Government, when it is elected and faces sabotage from the forces of reaction (whether by a “run on the pound”, pressure from “international allies”, mobilisation on the streets by the far right, attacks in the media or a conspiracy within the “deep state”). To build this we need roots deep in each community, in every street and neighbourhood.

Building up our branches is the most important thing which we can do. More important than any election or any selection of any candidate (whether for local or Parliamentary elections). If we can succeed in building a mass democratic Labour Party then that Party will suffice to hold to account our representatives. If we cannot build such a Party then the project of our future Government cannot succeed.

A branch based delegate structure, in which vibrant branches hold delegates to account and assert the authority of the rank and file membership over the structures of the Party, is the best guarantor of Party democracy (and therefore of the effectiveness of the Party as a vehicle for the transformation of society). “All member” structures cannot possibly replicate these benefits – but provide the illusion of mass membership influence over a local leadership which (as we saw in Brighton and Hove) is able to distance itself from meaningful accountability if it will.

An “all member” structure may be an acceptable substitute for effective local organisation in areas where the local Labour Party is not (yet) a mass membership organisation – but it is very much second-best to an effective branch structure.



Saturday, November 25, 2017

Tomorrow?

Tomorrow is the inaugural meeting of the Local Campaign Forum for the Labour Party in Brighton and Hove.

This is where we will move forward the campaign for a socialist Council for Brighton and Hove, and continue the debate about what we want from Labour in local government.

I won't say anything more about this right now.

Because we have a recent bad experience of (what was at the best) an incredibly ill-judged post on a personal blog doing avoidable harm to our Party.

So we'll wait for tomorrow.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

What do we want from Labour Councillors?

A few weeks ago I blogged about the dilemma which faces socialists in the Labour Party (now that it has a socialist Leader) in relation to Labour Councillors and what it is we want from them.

I have, since then, held off blogging a fair bit because (as the Chair of a CLP in Brighton and Hove) I haven’t wanted to express (in public) my opinions (even personal opinions) about the conduct of a “leading” local politician.

And I still won’t reward that sort of attention seeking behaviour with comment here.

However, I do think that socialists need to be thinking much more about what we should be doing with local government, as we have not for a generation.

In my last comment on this topic I observed the following;

“In Poplar in the 1920s, Clay Cross in the 1970s and in Lambeth and Liverpool in the 1980s Labour Councillors were forced to make the choice between “breaking the law” and “breaking the poor” – and in each case a brave minority made the right choice and were defeated and subsequently denigrated.

Last year’s Party Conference sadly agreed a Rule Amendment which sought to lock Labour Councillors into perpetual support for austerity where this is dictated by Central Government (a decision which must inevitably be reversed as soon as possible) – but the decision of whether or not to support a “lawful budget” if that means savage cuts to local jobs and services is one which is unfortunately worlds away from our current concerns.

What has happened since the defeat of “municipal socialism” in the 1980s is that Labour Councillors have learned that their mission in life is to mitigate the damage being done to local services by Central Government (or, when they can, to come up with some imaginative jargon to make such damage limitation look both imaginative and progressive).

Of course, this has made local government unappealing to those whose purpose in engaging in political activity is to change the world. It has also forced Labour Groups to become embattled minorities, circling their own wagons against enemies on the left as well as the right.”

I think that if we are going to work out what we want from Labour Councillors as we draw to the end of the second decade of the twenty first century we need to reflect a little more on what has happened over the past generation.

The last time that anything really significant (from a socialist point of view) happened in local government in the UK was the 1980s, when the Livingstone-led Greater London Council (in particular – but alongside the Metropolitan County Councils and some London Boroughs) tested the boundaries of what progressive Councillors could do with their positions.

Those (and they are many) who would decry the experience of the so-called “loony left” Councils of the mid and late 80s need to be reminded that these were the pioneers of equal opportunities, who stood for anti-racism, and flew rainbow flags for Pride, when such expressions of opinion were not only not mainstream but were marginalised and ridiculed. As important as the equality commitments of left-led Labour Councils of that period were the attempts to broaden the concerns of local government, whether that was through the London Industrial Strategy, the Nuclear Free Zone movement, or progressive town twinning.

I am personally proud to have worked for Lambeth Council for many years precisely because Lambeth was one of the centres of the (mostly) defeated municipal socialism of my (relative) youth. We cannot go back in time to the 1980s (and should not try, not even for the far better music). We can, however, try to recapture some of the spirit which informed local politicians then and to apply it to our contemporary concerns.

If we can hope to do this we need to understand the harm has been done to local democracy in the decades since the defeat of 80s municipal socialism. This harm has been done in the relationship between central and local Government, in the structure of local government and within the Labour Party itself.

The defeat of the struggle against ratecapping in the mid-80s was a defining moment in the domination of local government by the central state, ushering in a period in which central government has controlled the spending of local authorities whilst simultaneously instructing them as to how they should spend what little they have.

When New Labour inherited the country from a discredited and worn-out post-Thatcher Tory Party in 1997 the idea of autonomous activity from the local level was anathema to both its Blairite and Brownite wings. New Labour encouraged the “Cabinet” or “Executive” system of governance (where it could not drive through the even less democratic model of an elected Mayor).

New Labour needed “Cabinets” because it could not rely upon the majority of (then) Labour Councillors to do as they were told. The Cabinet system has demoted the role of most backbench Labour Councillors and created a small cadre of full and part time Councillors who appear to exercise power (by doing what they are told by Council officers). They are paid allowances which generally exceed the expenses Councillors used to receive (and which provide a material basis for an interest in collective discipline for each individual within the “leadership” of a local authority).

Over the same period the Association of Labour Councillors has been created as a body to which all Labour Councillors must belong, creating both a mechanism whereby the central Labour Party could discipline recalcitrant individuals if their local Group would not and also a vehicle for Labour Councillors to be an affiliated organisation and claim representation on the National Executive Council which representation is neither use nor ornament from the point of view of socialist struggle.

Since 2010 a pitiably small number of Labour Councillors have stood firm against cuts in jobs and services (which conduct, in the case of those who are part of a Labour administration would now of course get them disciplined by the Party in any case). Councillors Against the Cuts were isolated and defeated (with the local government trade unions playing a disgraceful role in ensuring their defeat).

It is deeply ironic that, now that Labour Councillors face none of the risks and threats which Ted Knight and the surcharged Lambeth Councillors faced in the 80s they are generally both much less likely to stand up to Central Government – and also much more taken with the idea that they are really important people who make dramatic sacrifices to our movement and therefore deserve disproportionate respect. We want many more Labour Councillors but (with some noble exceptions) we certainly do not want more of the same.

But what do we want?

These are just personal opinions about the basic principles of what we want, and only the beginnings thereof, but here they are;

1)    Labour Councillors are shop stewards for their local communities first of all;
2)    Labour administrations are representatives of the local working class first of all;
3)    Labour Councillors are an integral part of local Labour Parties, to whom they are – and must be - accountable on a day to day basis;
4)    Labour Councillors are not separate from other Party members, who should support Councillors in their work as representatives of their ward constituents;
5)    Labour administrations should use such power and influence as they have to do what they can to prefigure what we want a Labour Government to do;
6)    If compromises have to be made these should be acknowledged for what they are and agreed in advance by the local Party.

I intend to develop these ideas further - and would welcome comments. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Evidence of life in UNISON...

For anyone else contemplating stepping aside from onerous trade union responsibilities after a quarter of a century, my advice is to give yourself some space and not to try to pay too much detailed attention to what is going on in relation to matters which are no longer your responsibility.

However, it is good to see that my friends and comrades on the left of UNISON’s National Executive Council (NEC) are making some headway in trying to drive UNISON forward – in spite of the deliberate stuffing of NEC Committees with those in the (very) narrow majority of the NEC who support the failing leadership of the Union.

The official report of this week’s UNISON NEC meeting tells you very little (as ever) – apart from the fact that UNISON is starting a campaign to beat the Government’s pay freeze (as it has been every year for at least the last five years). However, behind the scenes it seems that critical thinkers on the left of the NEC successfully pushed the NEC to take a vote on a proposition (albeit one that was amended on the intervention of the President).

Having spent fourteen years on that NEC I can assure you, dear reader, that getting a vote taken at an NEC meeting on anything that hadn’t been scripted in advance by officials is a very significant achievement – and the fact that the NEC could not itself call for indicative ballots for strike action over pay, but could only encourage Service Group Executives (SGEs) to take such initiatives is a consequence of UNISON’s long established structure.

Whilst anyone waiting for the leadership of UNISON to lead a fight to smash the pay freeze would be ill advised to hold their breath, reports from this week’s meeting show that there is still life within UNISON – and branches should be submitting motions through their Service Groups to keep up the pressure placed upon the leadership as a result of the discussion at the NEC.

If the trade unions are to experience the same sort of surge of growth and interest which the Labour Party has seen in the recent past then trade union leaders – at every level – need to show confidence and a combative spirit to members and potential members.

Good luck to those trying to achieve this.