“A recipe for disaster”

We reproduce suspended CLP officer Darran McLaughlin’s speech to the Stand Up For Labour Party Democracy #StopTheLabourLockout rally held earlier this week

I joined the Labour Party in 2017 immediately after the General Election. I was not particularly political before that and was only drawn in because I was finally convinced that there was a point to taking part in politics. I grew up in a poor, working class family on a NW London council estate and party politics was way beyond my world view.

I didn’t do much other than attend a few meetings and join the reading group, until I decided to attend The World Transformed in Liverpool in September 2018. It was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. I attended one event that John McDonnell spoke at and I remember him saying that the only way that Labour under Corbyn’s leadership could win is if we developed our members into a well-organised and trained cadre who would provide the social movement to support our goals. I took that to heart.

When I got back to Bristol I heard that they were recruiting candidates for the local elections and were desperately crying out for more young and BAME candidates, so I put myself forward. I was delighted when I went through the panel interview and screening process and was selected for the longlist of candidates.

When the Labour Party announced it was establishing the Bernie Grant Leadership Programme, I applied for it and was delighted to be accepted onto it. For anyone who doesn’t know of it, it was established to train and develop a network of BAME leaders within the party, and especially to encourage more BAME candidates to stand as Labour councilors and MPs. And this work is badly needed. Labour has far too few BAME representatives and leaders in the Party in local or national politics. BAME communities have been neglected and taken for granted for too long by the Party, with the apparent attitude that they have nowhere else to go, as Peter Mandelson said of voters from the northern heartlands.

In June 2019 I stood for selection in my ward of Bishopston and Ashley Down, and was delighted to be selected in a competitive three way race by a clear majority of members. I had worked for the selection, phone banking and door knocking our members for weeks beforehand and speaking to them about my vision for the council.

What is this vision? Well, I founded and got involved in Labour for a Green New Deal, and was successful in helping to get Bristol City Council to pass a Golden Motion in support of the Green New Deal, and to be the first to appoint a Cabinet member for the Green New Deal. I have also been studying and working on developing Community Wealth Building policies, drawing upon examples such as the Preston Model, which shows how Labour in local government is able to help to improve people’s lives now, under austerity conditions, even when we aren’t in national government. I would like to see Labour councils working more closely with trade unions, supporting insourcing, building council housing, taking control over local transport networks to reduce reliance on cars, and supporting worker-owned businesses and coops.

However all of this could now be for nothing, because I was suspended by the Party on 20th November. I am the Co-Secretary of Bristol West CLP and we held a meeting at which we allowed a motion to be heard in support of Jeremy Corbyn. The motion came from one of our branches, and it didn’t contradict the guidance that David Evans had sent to CLP officers regarding discussion of the EHRC report.

My letter of suspension came without any accompanying evidence or specific allegations. I replied the same day to ask them to send me the evidence or allegations and didn’t receive a reply. I finally received a letter with a series of questions on 20th January, after waiting for two months, and there is no further information or evidence in that letter, which means there is no reason it could not have been sent to me two months ago. Two days after sending a response with answers to all of their questions, an email was sent out by South West Regional Office to all Labour members in Bristol telling them that they were planning to select a new candidate for my ward.

Regional Office have bypassed the democratically elected Bristol Local Campaign Forum, who refused to select a new candidate. They have bypassed the branch I am standing for. They haven’t communicated with the branch executive. They haven’t communicated with the members who voted for me. They haven’t communicated with me at all, at any stage of this process. They have completely bypassed any democratic process, any natural justice, and their own supposed aim to encourage more BAME, working class candidates and community activists to get involved in politics.

We have some idea of what their vision for the party is. Under Blair, the people who represented the Labour Party in Parliament were drawn less and less from the working class and the trade unions, and more and more from the professional middle classes; lawyers, PR people, NHS bureaucrats, etc.

Trade unions on the left of the party also expressed concerns over a 1999 report authored by the new man in charge which described local parties as “dysfunctional”. Evans also co-authored a report into Labour’s 2015 general election loss which called for the party to be more fiscally prudent and “small-c conservative” on family, work and the country.

 In the summer of 1999, David Evans presented his report to Blair and the Party leadership. It was designed to cut the influence of party members, by reforming what it described as Labour’s “ramshackle” machine. It stated that Constituency Labour Parties were “dysfunctional” and spent all their time talking to one another rather than to voters. The newspapers at the time picked up on the memorable phrase, “The majority of local Labour parties are more like Trotters Independent Traders than Marks & Spencer…. We are a ramshackle confederation of market traders.”

Evans’ report recommended a radical overhaul of the party to “empower modernising forces and marginalise Old Labour.” He recommended abolishing membership fees and turning members into supporters. While saving on the annual fee, members would lose their rights of determining policy and the political direction of the Party.

This sounds well in line with the events that have been taking place in Labour since Starmer and David Evans took over.

A couple of weeks ago at the NEC, the latest proposals for “high-quality candidates”, which give Labour’s General Secretary powers to ban candidates he deems “embarrassing”, look set to reinforce the problem.

It looks like the intention is to reverse any democracy within the party, reduce the influence of members on selecting candidates or determining policy. This is a recipe for disaster. We know how this plays out, because we have seen it before: terrible Labour MPs and Councilors with views way to the right of the general public becoming a roadblock to the Labour Party being what it is supposed to be – a democratic socialist party founded by the trade unions to represent the interests of the working class.

American politics has become reinvigorated by politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez winning a primary challenge against a conservative establishment Democrat with no connection to the lives of the constituents he was supposedly representing. Now issues like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are at the forefront of political debate and discourse. Cori Bush was elected in St Louis after rising to prominence as a Black Lives Matter activist, who shares the background of her largely black, working class constituents, and who looks unlikely to sell them out to join the establishment in exchange for personal gain.

I will leave you with the words of a local hero, and probably the most famous and celebrated MP in Bristol history, Tony Benn, who said, “Socialism was the necessary extension of democracy,” but also that, if democracy was to fulfill its radical promise, then, as he wrote in Tribune in 1973, “Our long campaign to democratise power in Britain has, first, to begin in our own movement.”

That means we need to democratise the Labour Party and the labour movement.

Darran McLaughlin was the Co-Secretary of Bristol West CLP and the prospective Labour council candidate for Bishopston and Ashley Down ward until his suspension last year.

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