After three months of lockdown, Labour members are beginning to question why the party has failed to adapt to the new conditions imposed by the pandemic. The party has rightly suspended all physical CLP and branch meetings in accordance with lockdown safety measures. However, no attempt has yet been made to roll out an online alternative across the party.
This is in spite of the fact that smaller organisations – such as local Momentum and Labour left groups – have continued meeting online throughout the lockdown, using platforms such as Zoom.
Many Labour branches and CLPs are also already hosting informal online events and meetings for members. But these are not officially recognised by the party, nor do they have any democratic or decision-making powers.
Keir Starmer and the Labour right wing are taking advantage of the situation to go on the offensive against the left. Grassroots members need to campaign for democracy and accountability to be restored. We must organise by every means necessary, and begin the fightback.
There is no question that the Labour Party has the resources and the apparatus to provide a functioning and accessible online alternative to physical meetings. Indeed, the executive committees of CLPs have continued to meet behind closed doors to deal with business matters.
Nor is this the first time that the question of digital democracy has been raised in the party. In 2018, the NEC's Democracy Review suggested that technology should be used to encourage the participation of those who may struggle to attend meetings physically.
These recommendations were then implemented into the Party's 2019 Rule Book, which gave the NEC the opportunity to invite CLPs to trial online participation in their meetings. The precedent has clearly been set for such meetings to take place.
It therefore comes as no surprise that members are growing impatient at the party’s inaction. Local CLP meetings provide members with a place to debate ideas and current events; submit motions to Labour’s ruling body, the NEC; and crucially, to hold their MPs and councillors and the party’s leadership to account.
In short, these meetings are vital in ensuring that the party is the democratic, member-led organisation that it claims to be.
Setbacks for the left
The Labour right wing are in no hurry. The current absence of democracy plays straight into the hands of the party bureaucrats, who would prefer to keep a lid on any opposition within the party.
This is part of a wider shift taking place in the party under Starmer’s leadership. The Labour leader is cynically taking advantage of the fact that CLPs can’t meet in order to change policy on the hoof, and roll back the gains made by the left during the Corbyn years.
This process began with the purging of the lefts in the shadow cabinet, and continued when the scandalous revelations contained in the leaked Labour report were swept under the rug. The recent removal of Rebecca Long-Bailey from her post as shadow education secretary is the latest attack on the left.
Evans, a resurrected relic of the Blair era, has been a vocal opponent of democracy within the party. No doubt he is rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of grassroots members not being able to meet for the foreseeable future.
Not long after Evans’ appointment came news that the party had opted to replace the 2020 Labour conference with an ‘online policy event’. So far there has been no indication that this will include any of the usual democratic procedures, such CLPs being able to vote for delegates and put forward motions.
Back to Blairism?
The Blairites want to return the party to how it was back in the New Labour years, when the rank-and-file were subordinated to the top bureaucrats at the Southside HQ. Without a large support base amongst the membership, the right-wingers are forced to rely on the party apparatus and shady, bureaucratic manoeuvring to maintain their grip.
By purposefully restricting democracy in the party, they are attempting to circumvent members and deliver the party back into the hands of the establishment. They want Labour to be once again a reliable Second XI for the British ruling class.
However, the Labour right wing will have a hard time turning back the wheels completely. Hundreds of thousands of members flooded into the party under Corbyn’s leadership, standing firmly for socialist policies and party democracy. Labour was transformed thanks to the efforts of grassroots activists, with the left winning control of CLPs across the country. These positions won't be given up easily.
While many Corbyn-supporters ‘lent’ their vote to Starmer in the recent leadership election, they did so on the basis of his promise to ‘unite’ the party. Now, however, it is clear that Starmer’s promises weren’t worth the paper they were written on. With his sacking of RLB, the Labour leader has crossed the Rubicon and declared war on the left.
As the lockdown lifts and party structures are restored, we need a renewed struggle inside the party. There needs to be an organised fightback by members against the new Labour leadership, and the rightwards turn that they have attempted to implement in recent months.
Fight for party democracy
In order for the left to launch a counter-attack against the Labour right wing, it is essential that CLP meetings are restored in an online form ASAP. Otherwise, we could be facing months without any democratic participation from the rank-and-file.
It is clear that the leadership has no interest in carrying this out. The pressure must therefore come from below.
Rank-and-file members should organise and campaign for the immediate restoration of CLP and branch meetings in an online capacity, in the interests of party democracy. Moreover, we must demand of the NEC that these bodies be able to pass motions and elect delegates to the proposed ‘online policy event’, set to take place in lieu of this year’s conference.
Left-wing Labour MPs inside the Socialist Campaign Group should give this campaign a national voice inside the Parliamentary Labour Party. And affiliated unions (such as Unite, the CWU, and FBU) should spearhead efforts to involve their members in the party, and fight on the NEC to hold the Labour leadership to account.
This would be a first step towards pushing for long overdue democratic reforms – like open selection and accountable elected representatives. Such measures aren’t just ends in themselves, but are necessary in order for the left to sweep the Blairites and bureaucrats out of the party, and to put power in the hands of grassroots members.
Educate, agitate, organise!
In the meantime, grassroots activists must get organised, using every means at our disposal. Already, large online rallies and meetings are taking place amongst Labour lefts, particularly around the ongoing elections inside Momentum. These meetings should be used as an opportunity for left-wingers to regroup, and to prepare the ground for a renewed offensive.
At the same time, we should use the opportunity of the lockdown to provide political education. Again, many Labour members are already meeting online to discuss ideas, history, and policy. The new Momentum leadership should help to organise this across the country, structuring education around a bold socialist programme that activists can argue for in the movement.
Socialist Appeal supporters are actively participating in these events, organising activists inside the labour movement and on the streets around genuine socialist ideas. Only by building a strong Marxist tendency can we complete the transformation of the Labour Party begun under Corbyn’s leadership, and take the fight to the Tories and bosses.