Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 2 March 2012

Internal party democracy - let's have a heated debate

Recently I corresponded with my friend and Labour activist Emma Burnell who blogs at Scarlet Standard. I was interested in her views on internal party democracy in the light of some recent stirrings on that theme in the blogosphere.

Here are our exchanges:

Dear Emma

I recently read Alex Hilton's recent piece on LabourList "Losing Faith" which strongly criticised the approach of the Labour Party and given our previous conversations about internal party democracy regarding Lib Dems and Labour, I was interested in your views.

As an active member of the Lib Dems, one of the things I find most satisfying is knowing that my views and my vote as a voting rep at conference can and does have an effect on party policy and of course more recently on government policy.

One of the most striking comments from Alex's piece about Labour for me was this:

"We’re an illiberal elitist capitalist party with no taste for democracy and a misplaced belief that the masses are better off in our care than that of other parties."

I only became active in politics a few years ago despite having been interested in (some would say obsessed with) it for nearly 20 years. I could not have considered joining the Labour Party though, not just because of the policies it was pursuing that I profoundly disagreed with but because the members of the party no longer get to make its policy so I'd have no chance of changing this. When Alex says the party has no taste for democracy I suspect this is one of the things to which he is referring.

I understand why Tony Blair wanted to wrest control of his party from its members. I recall watching Labour conferences in the years before he became leader and I can appreciate that to some it would have appeared unedifyingly divided. But that is the price of democracy. The Tories have always been a very top-down party. The tragedy is that Labour have followed them down this road, rather than reforming its internal democracy in a way which could have allowed its members to still have a big say in its direction and policy.

Instead we have had the even more unedifying sight of policies being announced that have clearly been scribbled on the back of a fag packet by a junior SpAd 30 minutes before the leader's speech to conference on far too many occasions (Gordon Brown's supervised communal houses for teenage mums anyone?).

Ed Miliband's "Refounding Labour" project appears to have petered out to very little effect and one of his "boldest" moves was actually to further reduce internal democracy by ceasing elections to shadow cabinet.

If I was again looking to join a political party I could still not contemplate making it Labour even if I agreed with lots of its current policies.

I think that should worry dedicated and committed members of the party such as yourself.

Best regards,


Dear Mark,

I too read Alex’s piece on LabourList, though with more sorrow than recognition.

I am sorry Alex has worked himself up into this state, but his characterisation of both Ed’s leadership, and the changes to the processes of the Labour Party are unrecognisable to me. I fear both yourself and Alex are looking for a “big bang” in a Party that has long accepted a gradualist approach to our evolution.

Some of the changes in Refounding Labour will make an enormous difference to Labour in the long term, without having an immediate effect the day the ink dried on the document.

There are real changes to the nature of the relationship between the central and local Parties. Empowering Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) to organise in the way that works for them locally will ensure better engagement with our power and decision making structures from all CLPs including those in areas that don’t have a Labour MP, and will give them better resources to organise themselves. These may seem small, but over time, will change the culture of the Party.

Equally, the Shadow Cabinet elections are a complete red herring. They aren’t elected by the Party, but by the tiny electorate of MPsThe Leader is democratically elected though our agreed internal processes (the only process of any Party which brings in those outside the Party, by giving the vote to individual union members). He has far more of a mandate to shape the Party, including who he wants to take each issue forward, than the tiny electorate of MPs.

Refounding Labour has finished the aspects that looked at Party organisation, but continues to look at our policy making processes. Opening these up more to Party members and strengthening the role of the National Policy Forum were both agreed by Refounding Labour, but the more complex details of how are being consulted on now.

So for me the picture of internal Labour Party democracy is neither as settled nor as bleak as you or Alex makes out.

Balancing competing democratic mandates in these situations is not clear cut, as your Party is discovering to its cost on issue after issue. Post Refounding Labour, we are improving, if gradually, where other Parties are not, and in fact are reneging on the things, in the past, activists like you have been so proud of.

You and I are in very different political parties because we have very different political priorities. I am happy to accept that sometimes liberal outcomes come from enforced means. You seem happier to accept unequal outcomes as long as the means are ostensibly fair. I think that’s probably true of our approaches to internal democracy. I want something that will have an obvious and claimable output in Government. You seem happy to set policies for a Party that will never, ever enact them, despite being in Government.
Kind regards,


Dear Emma

I admire your faith in the processes set in train by Refounding Labour but I fear that without a solid democratic process underpinning it (e.g. reps voting on policy at conference) then it will be all too easy for the party leadership to ride roughshod over what members such as yourself want.

You are correct in your assertion that we have very different political priorities. For me and most fellow Lib Dems, liberty is a fundamental part of my political philosophy.

I find your final comment rather strange: “You seem happy to set policies for a Party that will never, ever enact them, despite being in Government”. This is difficult for me to reconcile with the facts. Research by the BBC last year showed that 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto is included in the government programme as opposed to 60% from the Conservatives. Lots of policies voted on by myself and my fellow Lib Dem members are now being implemented and making a difference to people’s lives.

Where I agree with you is that it is a difficult call to determine what gets priority and that is one thing that I very much think needs reform within the Lib Dems. We need an agreed mechanism for communicating which policies are most important to the members to ensure they end up being the “red lines” in any future negotiations. This won’t be straightforward as showing your hand early makes negotiating harder but who said politics was easy?!

Labour had 13 years of untrammelled power with large majorities and was able to implement its programme in full. The Lib Dems only have about a sixth of the MPs in government and hence have to compromise. It’s in the nature of coalition. I think sometimes Labour activists and politicians such as yourself (perhaps sometimes willfully) forget this with calls of “betrayal” and “selling out”. The logical conclusion of those saying that is the Lib Dems should never be in government unless governing alone. And of course had the party eschewed the opportunity in May 2010 those same people would be deriding them as a “wasted vote” and not a party serious about power.

It’s almost as if we can’t ever win!

Best regards,


Dear Mark,

The Labour Party does have a process whereby elected representatives discuss and produce policy on a year round basis. It’s called the National Policy Forum (NPF). It has representative elected from all the different sections of the broad Labour family, including members, MEPs, MPs, Socialist Societies and the unions. While sometimes this body doesn’t work as well as it might, it does come into its own during the manifesto process which is negotiated through this body. Policy papers proposed by the NPF are also ratified by a vote at conference. It is this process that is continuing to be strengthened in the last remaining part of the Refounding Labour process.

Sometimes, it’s not about “winning” but about doing the right thing and being honest. And you aren’t being honest – I suspect even to yourself.

The research you refer to is incredibly flawed. In practically every piece of legislation ever enacted there are good and bad things. There is even some good in the appalling Health and Social Care Bill, though not nearly enough to make it worthwhile or to convince me it shouldn’t be dropped. You managed to get some fairly innocuous measures into what are otherwise terrible bills. Equally, counted as part of these figures is the AV referendum: A classic example of claiming a victory while changing precisely nothing. Next stop, Lords reform.

You claim a democratic mandate from your members to the Government – or at the least the MPs and Peers who represent your Party. Tell that to the delegates to your conference who voted overwhelmingly to protect ESA who have had their “faith shattered” and are wondering whatever happened to democracy in the Lib Dems.

Equally, you also told voters one thing and then did another when elected. This is where you miss the point on “betrayal”. You haven’t betrayed Labour – you’ve betrayed your voters.  

As Labour struggle towards improving our internal processes for the 21st century, yours are  crumbling under the new strain of Government. Unless that is recognised and dealt with now, you will lose for good any sense that activists have a say that makes a difference.

Labour isn’t perfect on this score. We have a long way to go. But of the two parties, I’m confident that we’re the one moving in the right direction.

Kind regards,


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