Democracy now

I was surprised, midway through my local Labour Party AGM, to hear the name “Steven Fielding”. Could it be?

Yes, it could.

Point of information #1: I think the number I heard cited was 970. As of the 2019 local elections, the electorate of the ward stood at 10,452; if we carry on recruiting we’ll soon be up to one in 10 adult Chorlton residents. Plus 970 is actually higher than the number of votes received by the second-placed (Green) council candidate in 2019. We probably don’t need to bust a gut campaigning this year.

Point of information #2: the factions. Those subtle, subdued factions! (Very Chorlton – factions by Farrow & Ball.) I defer to Steven’s expertise here; my highest qualification in Politics is a Master’s, and my book is only incidentally about electoral politics and political parties. But it seems to me that there weren’t actually two factions visibly active on Monday night, just the one – and that its operations weren’t at all subtle, but rather overt.

Perhaps it comes down to definitions. Put it this way: here are statements on behalf of two groups of people, A and B, both of whom are members of the same party.

A: “We support the elected leader and thoroughly approve of the party’s current programme – and so do our allies who have been denied party membership!”

B: “We think the party’s policy is wrong and the leader needs to change direction – and so do our allies in other, rival political parties!”

Call me an old eccentric, but I’d always thought that the label of ‘faction’ applied properly to group B, but not to group A. Ten, twenty, a hundred people who are involved in collective lobbying for the party to change (and may have other loyalties): that’s a faction. Ten, twenty, a hundred people who are content with how the party is now and back it every time: that’s not a faction, that’s just some happy party members. Broadly speaking, I’d always thought that supporting the party’s policies and leadership was the one thing a party member can do which is definitely not ‘factionalism’. True, sometimes parties go into crisis – I might mention the Cultural Revolution, I might mention Comrade Delta – and under crisis conditions it might make sense to talk of a ‘leadership faction’. But the Labour Party certainly wasn’t in that kind of crisis at the time of the 2017 AGM; we’d just deprived the Tories of their majority, apart from anything else, and were averaging 42% in the polls. This is the AGM that Steven referred to in his second Tweet; it’s also the one where I stood for election as a CLP delegate and (as I wrote at the time) found myself in the absurd position of “effectively running as a left-wing outsider, on a platform consisting of supporting the party’s elected leader and its agreed manifesto”. Running, in other words, against the locally dominant anti-leadership faction. (And didn’t get elected – a record I’ve maintained at both subsequent AGMs.)

Steven for his part was elected as a delegate this year – as his Tweet says – and good luck to him. I noticed that his personal statement led with his involvement in Another Europe Is Possible, a group whose Labour members surely ticked every group B box: an organised group, lobbying for a change to established party policy, on grounds of principle rather than pragmatism. (Whether that principle was correct, and whether it was important enough to override pragmatic considerations, are separate questions.) But the Remain cause has been big in our ward for a while – the incoming Chair is an enthusiast herself, according to her report from last year – so a reckoning with that particular faction of ideological purists may be a long time coming.

There was a report from last year from the incoming Chair…? Well spotted, imaginary reader. The incoming Chair could write a report because she had previously been a branch officer; the branch clearly didn’t think this was a problem, though. In fact, several officers either stayed in post or moved sideways, and several posts were uncontested. Contested elections are a pain, of course, particularly when you’re using paper ballots (in a branch with nearly 1000 members, at that) – and who can blame officers who want to go on working with people they know, or else try their hand at a different role? Still, though; looked at from outside it might seem odd that, in a ward branch with a membership nudging four figures – the size of some entire CLPs – it’s only possible to find one person interested in any of the officer positions.

It might also seem odd – or at least logistically challenging – for a branch this big to hold an all-member AGM: what did they do, hire a sports hall or something? No need, imaginary reader, there was no need. We met in the same place as last year, and I think we were pretty much the same people as last year; we were certainly in very similar numbers to last year, viz. around 70. Which is very much not one in 10 Chorlton residents; it’s not even one in 10 of those 970 members.

Which also helps explain the uncontested elections. Seven days (the notice period required when calling a branch AGM) is not a very long time – and membership secretaries don’t hand out contact lists to anyone who might want to do a quick bit of phone-banking. This is all according to the rules, of course, but these ‘home team’ advantages (and others created by officers’ role in the AGM itself) mean that the likelihood of anyone disrupting the orderly self-perpetuation of the dominant faction is pretty slim. Back in 2017, those Corbynite hotheads might have thought they could change the world by publishing a slate (i.e. printing some names on a piece of paper), but these days everybody knows what’s what and acts accordingly. Groups that are out of power don’t bother putting up candidates for inevitable defeat; the group in power doesn’t bother mobilising its softer supporters; and the wider membership ignores the one email they’ve been sent, and stays away from what sounds like a tedious meeting. The result is a kind of political Sealed Knot, an annual reunion of the office-holders and their factional activists on one side and the diehards of the excluded group(s) on the other. They might as well take allegiances at the door, like ushers at a wedding, and declare the results straight away.

You could argue that all this is beside the point: the party has able and effective officers, many of whom have proved their effectiveness in previous years; we have three Labour councillors; our Labour MP was re-elected in 2019 with a majority of 52%; what’s the problem? True, the dominant political tenor of the branch has been out of tune with the leadership for the last few years, but that’s not a problem – we don’t go around suspending branches just because they disagree with the leader – and besides, it may not be the case for much longer, depending on whether Keir Starmer wins (and which of his supporters he betrays). And, let’s not forget, the local party has nearly 1000 members, and they don’t seem to mind; they certainly didn’t turn up to complain.

But this doesn’t represent a healthy democratic party. A hard-fought meeting at which you pull out all the procedural stops, pour your heart into your statements and end up defeated is depressing enough, God knows, but a meeting where almost nothing gets fought because there’s no point trying is ten times worse. And what kind of message do these conditions send to the membership – what kind of membership are we building, if members keep seeing the same names in the same posts, or else (for a change) the same names in different posts? Come to that, should we be concealing from members the fact that different people in the party – although we all support Labour – think different things about the best way to get a Labour government, or about what a Labour government should do when it is elected? Reading party mailings – and attending party meetings – I often get the impression that we’re concealing that knowledge from ourselves.

I’ve always believed that uncontested elections and musical-chairs rotation of posts were signs of a local party in decline – not of one that’s going from strength to strength, as ours apparently is. Perhaps the problem is precisely the apparent absence of factions – or rather, the impossibility of multiple factions arising when a single faction dominates for long enough. Perhaps what we’re seeing is how unchallenged factional dominance sows the seeds of decline. Depending how you define ‘faction’, of course.

Update The second Labour Party meeting this week saw Withington CLP’s leadership nominations go to Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, neither of whom I voted (or will be voting) for. These nomination meetings are something of a formality now – with three of the four leadership and four of the five deputy leadership candidates already on the ballot – and Withington’s nomination doesn’t actually have any effect on the vote, unless there are members out there willing to vote for whoever an email from the local party tells them to, which I would hope isn’t the case. (Then again, some people at the meeting were seriously arguing that we should vote for Starmer on the grounds that our MP supported him, an argument which to my ears sounds not so much unpersuasive as downright weird – we elected him, he didn’t delegate us.)

Anyway, it doesn’t matter greatly in the scheme of things that Keir Starmer won the vote over Rebecca Long-Bailey – although I feel compelled to mention that the win was fairly narrow and depended on transfers from Lisa Nandy’s supporters (so much for “time for a woman leader”) – or that Angela Rayner walked it for deputy (with Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler in distant second and third places).

The candidates’ statements – and the speeches in favour of them from attendees – were interesting, though. I’m not going to say much about the deputy leadership contest, but I do want to say a word for Richard Burgon’s statement; some really interesting proposals, particularly to do with democratising the party, which make me think he’d be a good complement to either of the main leadership candidates. His cause wasn’t helped on the night by his partisans, though – one went big on his (symbolic and easily circumvented) “peace pledge” proposal, while another said that Burgon would help Long-Bailey stay true to the “Corbyn project” (a phrase not guaranteed to win over the doubters).

More generally, there were some interesting contrasts between the speeches in favour of the three main candidates and those candidates’ statements. I tell a lie, there were some interesting contrasts between the speeches in favour of Keir Starmer and Starmer’s own statement. Long-Bailey and Nandy’s statements, and the interventions in their favour, both followed quite similar lines, viz:

Long-Bailey: policy 1, policy 2, policy 3, democratise the party, political experience, personal experience, local woman

Nandy: rebuild the party, unite the party, towns and cities, new, different

Starmer, not so much; his statement was quite policy-heavy and included some fairly explicit commitments to maintain the course set by Corbyn (which I found – in fairly rapid succession – surprising, gratifying and suspicious).

But – perhaps needless to say – this was not what made Starmer appeal to the people advocating him; the speeches in his favour (and there were several) could be summed up as three parts “unite the party”, two of “electability” and one “experience in senior roles”. As in Chorlton branch, there seems to be an odd association, for many members, between “not being on the Left” and “(correctly) having no position at all”. Later in the evening, as people ran out of more specific things to say and tempers began to fray, we were treated to several interventions on the theme of “you can either have the perfect ideological position [said with contempt] and be in opposition forever, or you can try and win the next election”. This is objectionable in a number of ways – it rewrites the history of the 2010-17 elections, which you’d think we’d want to learn from, as well as being quite extraordinarily insulting to members who are on the Left and have worked rather hard to try and get Labour MPs elected (thanks all the same). But what really stands out is the blithe assumption that they, the speakers, don’t care about having “the perfect ideological position”; that they’re a non-Left non-ideological non-faction.

(Nobody really spoke for Emily Thornberry, incidentally. It’s genuinely surprised me the way that she’s effectively dropped off the ballot; on paper it’s hard to see what Keir Starmer’s got that she hasn’t (ho ho). At one point somebody had the impertinence to ask whether Starmer’s “electability” had something to do with him being a white man from London who looks good in a suit. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an actual chorus of disapproval before.) 

The other interesting thing is how thinly attended the meeting was. This will sound like crazy talk to anyone who was there – we packed out a sizeable school hall, and the debate between loyalists and the anti-leadership faction was pretty lively. But consider: total attendance was in the region of 320. There are seven wards in the constituency and consequently seven party branches; one of them (as we’ve just seen) has a membership of 970. None of the others is that large or anywhere near, but total membership across the constituency must be around the 3000 mark. So: turnout at a meeting to decide, at least symbolically, who the constituency wants to see as the next leader of the party was approximately 10%. Which is 50% better than the 7% we managed on Monday night in Chorlton – but that’s a low bar.

The Labour Party’s half a million members are, still, a sleeping giant – even now, four years on from 2015. That’s an enormous, untapped asset; viewed less cynically, a membership that size has the potential to change the political culture of this country from the ground up, and at the very least to change the way that we think about political party membership. But if that’s going to happen, they’ll need to be mobilised, and mobilised politically – which means abandoning the pretence that everyone in the Labour Party thinks the same thing, or that all that any of us care about is electing good, hard-working Labour councillors and a good, hard-working Labour MP to represent all the good, hard-working local Labour voters. (Apart from anything else, how is that going to draw anyone in? Let’s face it, a diet of “re-elect Councillor X” and “what shall we ask the council to do about local issue Y?” is pretty thin gruel, even if you supplement it with events to mark key calendar dates.)

The trouble is that the keys to making that kind of mobilisation happen are, very often, in the hands of people who gained their current position in just the conditions of unchallenged factional dominance – with all its depoliticising and demobilising effects – which need to change.


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