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Jeremy Corbyn will win the leadership contest. This much is without doubt, and the Blairites know it. The only thing that could stop his election now is if Jess Phillips decides to make good on her promise to “knife him in the front.”
But this does not mean that the fight is over. Far from it, in fact. Labour right wingers are now developing other means for retaining control of the party. Most recently, they have voted 83% to 17% to pass the power to select the shadow cabinet from Corbyn to the overwhelmingly right wing Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
Moreover, the Blairites have the party machinery working to their advantage. One of the main consequences of Labour’s swing to the right over the last thirty or so years has been to hollow out party democracy; this is an obstacle that endures to this day, and one which Corbyn supporters will continue to come up against.
With the Labour Party Conference convening on September 25 (one day after Corbyn’s victory will be announced), and with some on the left arguing in favour of increasing the size of the Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) – a policy which would have to be debated at Conference – it is worth considering some of these right wing obstructions.
National Policy Forum
The National Policy Forum (NPF) was established under the leadership of Tony Blair to transfer policy-making powers away from conference delegates and the NEC to the right wing of the party. According to Blair, the goal of the NPF was to allow more people to contribute towards policy making. In reality, the result was to shift decision-making behind closed doors.
In a 2001 book entitled Through the Looking Glass: A Dissenter Inside New Labour, Liz Davies, a member of the Labour NEC from 1998 to 2000, provides a detailed study of the cynical double-think which came to permeate the structures of the Labour Party during the Blair years:
The champions of ‘Partnership in Power’ claimed the new National Policy Forum would put an end to deal-making behind closed doors. In reality it has reduced the policy-making process to one exclusively shaped by deals done behind closed doors.
The National Policy Forum meets in secret. Its deliberations are not open to the media or to Party members (unlike annual conferences)… Reports of the proceedings are issued in heavily edited form by Millbank and cannot be challenged or corrected by participants.
The late Tony Benn echoes this, stating that the NPF is composed largely of New Labour flunkies and is designed to prevent real issues from coming to the national conference. When, for instance, motions considered unpalatable by Labour right wingers have been raised, such as those to renationalise the railways and Royal Mail, they are ignored by the NPF, and therefore not raised at conference.
One Member One Vote
As democracy in the party fell by the wayside, so too did the influence of the organised working class. Following the expulsion of socialists in the 1980s and 1990s, in particular those involved with Militant, in 1993 the Labour leader John Smith, under pressure from big business, introduced One Member One Vote (OMOV) for the selection of parliamentary candidates. This meant that trade unions were prevented from ‘bloc voting’, i.e. using the full weight of their membership, for preferred (left) candidates.
When OMOV began to be introduced, John Prescott correctly stated that it was more important than the abolition of Clause IV in the process of moving Labour to the right. OMOV enabled the right wing elements of the party to use the passive membership – sitting at home, viewing party debates via the capitalist media – against the more active layers who participated in the democratic structures of the party.
Three years later, Blair continued the offensive against trade union influence when he reduced the voting weight of affiliates from 70% to 50% (prior to 1992 affiliates made up 90% of the vote). This stands in contrast with the original premise of the Labour Party, which began as the Labour Representation Committee formed by the trade unions to provide an independent political voice for the working class.
The Need for Democracy
Although the Labour Party membership has been renewed by the flood of support for Corbyn – now at its highest since the 1970s – these members have inherited a party structure which is hostile to socialism and the left in general.
Corbyn has spoken frequently in support of democratising Labour’s structures. This could be achieved by restoring trade unions’ rights to collective representation and a role in party decision-making commensurate with their size. It could also be aided by returning to a more federal structure, open to a wide variety of socialist organisations and anti-austerity campaign groups.
This year’s Conference will be a crucial moment in highlighting the urgency of this task.
Indeed, the fact that delegates for Conference are required to have 12 months of party membership means that large swathes of the new membership are likely to be excluded; and the undemocratic ban on Constituency Labour Party (CLP) meetings during the ongoing, and bitterly fought, leadership contest means that many Corbyn supporters will have been stopped from proposing resolutions to be made at Conference at all.
The new membership need to back calls to end the spate of undemocratic suspensions and exclusions; to lift bans on holding meetings; and to reinstate mandatory reselection for MPs.
Corbyn is a principled leader, but he needs to be given the confidence to make the difficult decisions that lie ahead. The membership needs to wage a “relentless rebellion” against the Blairites; reselection and the right to recall MPs will be valuable tools in this process.
Corbyn needs to know that he has support for these policies, so make your voice heard.