Chris Williamson: The Labour party must learn to trust its members

Posted On: 
12th October 2018

While we have taken steps to make our parliamentary party more accountable, at a local level, things are going in the opposite direction, writes Chris Williamson

Jeremy Corbyn addresses Labour members at conference. The thousands that have joined the party since 2015 "have brought with them a new spirit, a new culture, and a new way of doing things", Williamson writes
Credit: 
PA

It will come as no surprise to those who have been following my Democracy Roadshow that I am bitterly disappointed that our 2018 conference missed a historic opportunity to adopt Open Selections. Despite 90% of Constituency Labour party delegates wishing to debate open selections, other delegations took a different view.

It would be easy to dismiss out of hand the changes to the trigger ballot system for parliamentary selections that were approved. But that would be to make the mistake of seeing this improved outcome as the enemy of the best one.

Under the reformed system, it will be easier for grassroots members and affiliated trade union branches to trigger an open selection, which is a significant advance. Under these rules MPs who previously believed they had carte blanche to act as they pleased in parliament will now be required to pay much more attention to local members and trade unionists.

Nevertheless, although progress has been made, the desire for open selections has not been expunged. 

Improving democratic reform in local government was another opportunity missed from this year’s conference. Ironically, while Labour has taken steps to make our parliamentary party more accountable, at a local level, things are going in the opposite direction.

Council seats, which used to be subject to open selections now operate a trigger ballot system. Local Labour manifestos, which used to be ratified by the membership, are now decided on by Labour Group Leaders and their nominated Cabinet. There is no longer any requirement to seek approval from the membership.

Labour in local government needs to embrace the grassroots enthusiasm that has invigorated the party since Jeremy Corbyn made it onto the leadership ballot three years ago. Membership involvement needs to be expanded not curtailed. One way we could do this is by introducing One-Member-One-Vote (OMOV) to elect Labour group leaders. This system already operates in local authorities with an executive mayor and has led to the selection of some successful Mayors like Marvyn Rees in Bristol and Sadiq Khan in London.

Local Campaign Forums (LCFs), the bodies that draw up a panel of candidates for council seats, have, in some places, become nests of factional interests. In my journeys around the country, I’ve heard numerous accounts of longstanding members being excluded from these panels on spurious grounds such as signing a petition opposing a library closure. The one thing they all had in common was that they supported Jeremy Corbyn. This cannot and must not be allowed to continue.

That is why the LCFs need a radical overhaul to make them politically inclusive instead of being used to exclude members. These reformed LCFs should then be given the responsibility of facilitating a dialogue with grassroots members and convening policy conferences to give members a meaningful input into local manifestos.

The case for open selections to determine local council candidates is just as strong as it is for parliamentary candidates. Open selections would serve to better root Labour Councillors and MPs in the communities they serve and improve accountability.

Since 2015, the Labour party has irrevocably changed. Hundreds of thousands joined the party and continue to do so. They have brought with them a new spirit, a new culture, a new way of doing things.

Were it not for the good judgment of the membership, who stood by Jeremy in the summer of 2016, Labour would have almost certainly suffered the same fate as other European left-of-centre parties.

So, my message is this: trust the members. If we had trusted our members when we were last in government we wouldn’t have gone to war in Iraq, introduced tuition fees, created academy schools, accepted deregulation of the housing market and financial services, allowed private healthcare into the NHS etcetera.

In short, if we had trusted our members we would have still been in government.   

Chris Williamson is Labour MP for Derby North