ANALYSIS: Does the past predict the future?

The Katy Clark ‘democracy review’ wears its faction on its sleeve, believes Conor Pope

It is true that a mass movement behind the Labour party is desirable and provides a convenient well for a range of fresh ideas; new technology allows the opportunity for that mass movement to be participatory and grassroots-led in a way never before capable; and the party certainly needs to be more diverse to thrive and make the most of this opportunity.

In this regard, there is little to disagree with in Katy Clark’s argument. She is rightly vague about the outcomes; if she were not, it would not be much of a review. But it is fair to have concerns about what the end results are likely to be.

The review is very close to Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Clark, on secondment from her role as the Labour leader’s political secretary, is assisted by Claudia Webbe, elected to the National Executive Committee on the Momentum slate, and Andy Kerr from the Communication Workers’ Union, which officially affiliated to Momentum earlier this year.

In the past, such reviews into party reform have retained at least modicum of independence. This one wears its faction on its sleeve. To look to the leadership’s past form as a potential guide to the future, therefore, may not be unreasonable.

In late 2015, Corbyn sent out an email to Labour members, canvassing views on the upcoming vote on military action against Isis in Syria, in what was briefed at the time as an unprecedented sign of engagement with the grassroots. Yet Corbyn had already made his view known – reiterating it in the email itself – and it is hard to see the move as anything other than an attempt to wield the supportive feedback as leverage in shadow cabinet battles. It was not ‘involving members’, it was utilising them as a tool in an internal dispute.

Party reform was such an integral part of Corbyn’s first leadership campaign in 2015 that when I interviewed him that summer I questioned him over his support for making annual conference the main body for deciding policy. I put it to him that surely that would give greater power to people who just like going to lots of political meetings, rather than truly opening politics up? ‘At the moment it’s made by people who don’t go to political meetings and are just experts,’ he replied.

In that same 2015 interview, Corbyn suggested to me that the 1988 leadership contest between Neil Kinnock and Tony Benn – in which the Islington North member of parliament backed Benn – was a potential model for how future leadership elections might work. Yet when he himself was challenged for the leadership a year later, the precedent set by Kinnock that the incumbent should seek fresh nominations was no longer enough.

The NEC backed Corbyn on that, as it did on the plan to expand by three places to give new members a say, for which Momentum founder and owner Jon Lansman has been chosen for the hard-left slate.

It seems, then, that Corbyn and his supporters are not above using the language of democratisation for their own political ends.

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Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress

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Read Katy Clark‘s article on her ‘democracy’ review now

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