A 21st-Century Party? Labour’s Democracy Review, Reviewed

We take a closer look at the most important measures outlined so far by Labour's Party Democracy Review.

After an extensive nationwide series of consultation events and around 11,000 submissions from individual party members as well as trade unions and campaigning groups, a fuller picture of Labour’s Party Democracy Review is finally emerging. The report submitted by Katy Clark, tasked with overseeing the process, could form the blueprint for a lasting shift of power towards grassroots party members, and bring a decisive end to the culture of centralisation which has plagued the Labour Party for so many years. But that shift of power is not yet set in stone, and we wait to see exactly what will be put before Labour Party conference in Liverpool next month.

The Review, if implemented in anything close to its current form, will lay the foundations for real improvements across a range of crucial areas, including member involvement and representation, diversity, and transparency. However, it is important that members are alert and mobilised to defend the substance of the review against the inevitable pressures to dilute and drop some of the key reforms proposed. In addition, we should be very careful not to allow the Democracy Review to set the absolute limit of our ambitions with regard to party reform, and there are areas where party members will most likely need to go beyond its recommendations. For example, the Democracy Review says nothing on selections of parliamentary candidates. But with Unite rumoured to be pushing separately for mandatory reselection at this year’s conference, all the main organisations of the Labour left - Unite, Momentum and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy - are all calling for major changes to the current arrangements.

With all of this in mind, we will take a closer look at the central measures outlined so far by the Democracy Review, assess what they mean for the grassroots of the Labour Party, and advise party members as to which measures they should be prepared to support and defend against any pressures for dilution.


Representatives on the National Executive Committee (NEC) will debate and vote on the various measures put forward by the Democracy Review at its pre-conference meeting on September 18th. The NEC will then put its proposals forward to the party conference. It is highly likely that there will be continual private discussions between now and then, and these are likely in turn to result in some changes to the reforms proposed by the Democracy Review. It may be that some of these changes serve to improve the recommendations made, but there is also a risk that the Review’s proposals are watered down in important respects.

The Review makes a number of recommendations with regard to reforming the NEC itself. These include the introduction of by-elections where Constituency Labour Party (CLP) representatives stand down from the NEC mid-term. At present, CLP representatives who resign from their NEC seat are automatically replaced by the candidate who finished highest in the previous elections without winning a place on the Executive. This is what happened when Christine Shawcroft resigned from the NEC and was replaced by Eddie Izzard; Izzard had finished behind Ellie Reeves in last year’s NEC elections, but as Reeves was elected as an MP in 2017 she was therefore ineligible to occupy a CLP seat on the NEC. The introduction of by-elections would ensure that any incoming CLP representative had to secure a firm mandate from party members, while perhaps also serving to alleviate the bunker mentality on the Labour left regarding its slim NEC majority and allowing for more open debates. There is understood to be a broad consensus on the left in support of this measure.

Another change proposed by Katy Clark’s report is to introduce an electoral college system for the election of BAME and disabled members’ NEC representatives, as well as for Young Labour, which already operates such a system. There is also already an electoral college of 70:30 for BAME NEC representative elections, but membership of BAME Labour is very restricted. Under the recommended system, the electoral college for these three positions would be divided 50:50 between party members and trade unions. The introduction of a dedicated disabled members’ representative is to be warmly welcomed, and the proposed system of electing a BAME representative would represent an improvement over the status quo, where the position is in the gift of the highly undemocratic BAME Labour. However, the imposition of an electoral college for these two positions is likely to receive a mixed reception from a lot of party members, though Young Labour’s National Committee is understood to support its existing system. BAME and disabled members may feel that an electoral college could leave them inadequately represented on the NEC, in which case they should be prepared to argue for the introduction of full ‘one member, one vote’ (OMOV) elections.

The Democracy Review also gestures towards changes regarding the representation of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the front bench and councillors. However, it does not elaborate in any detail beyond a vague commitment to a ‘member-led’ NEC, and further clarification is clearly needed here. Any change to the existing system is likely to meet with strong opposition from the right of the party, but members should be prepared to challenge the powers of patronage the status quo grants to councillors, the PLP and also the party leadership. Furthermore, reducing the number of PLP and shadow cabinet representatives (or subjecting them to OMOV ballots) may risk the loss of some Corbyn-supporting NEC members, but it is important for party members to consistently make the pro-democracy case. In any event, the longer-term implications are likely to be highly positive for party members. It is also worth remembering that MPs and councillors already have other sources of power in the party, and indeed in wider society, which members of the party and affiliated trade unionists lack.

At present, Labour’s affiliated Socialist Societies share one place on the Executive between them. The Democracy Review acknowledges the flaws in this process, particularly the lack of effective internal democracy in many of these Socialist Society affiliates. However, any attempt to abolish this position would likely result in a major public row, with angry opposition from some affiliates inevitable. This means that for now there is unlikely to be any change relating to the Socialist Societies’ NEC seat or the current method of choosing their representative though, in the longer term, members should be prepared to push for OMOV ballots of all Socialist Society members to determine who occupies that seat on the Executive.

Leadership Elections

Last year’s Labour conference passed changes to the threshold for leadership ballot nominations, reducing it to 10 per cent of the PLP. This came after the initial so-called ‘McDonnell amendment’ - which would have reduced the threshold to five per cent of the PLP in order to secure a place on the ballot - was dropped, in favour of a wider compromise deal which saw three new CLP representatives added to the NEC.

Under the system proposed by the Democracy Review, to secure a place on the ballot would-be leadership candidates would have to meet a nominations threshold of:

  • 10 per cent of the PLP, or
  • 10 per cent of CLPs plus 5 per cent of the PLP, or
  • 10 per cent of trade unions plus 5 per cent of the PLP

This would most likely give a left candidate a very favourable chance of getting onto the ballot for any future leadership election. This formula is understood to have broad support from the Labour left, and though it can expect to meet opposition from the right, it should stand a good chance of coming through the NEC meeting intact so that it can then be put before the party conference.

The Democracy Review also proposes the retention of the ‘registered supporters’ category which was first introduced in the 2015 leadership election and allowed party supporters to pay £3 for a vote (this was, acrimoniously, raised to £25 for the 2016 election). There were some suggestions that this category could be removed altogether, but its retention is again understood to have strong support on the left. However, the Review also proposes fixing a ‘freeze date’ two weeks after the start of any future leadership election, and this could provide a potential window of recruitment for new full members. But a window of a fortnight would only provide a limited opportunity for recruitment in the event of a lengthy leadership campaign as in 2015 and 2016; in 2015, the freeze date fell only one month before the end of the leadership contest.

Equalities and Representation

The Democracy Review puts forward several proposals intended to improve the representation of marginalised and minority groups, and to facilitate their active involvement in the Labour Party. Among its recommendations is the proposed introduction of a job-sharing system for elected positions, which could make a significant difference for the representation of disabled members in particular. This measure is unlikely to meet with any serious opposition within the party.

As well as a dedicated disabled members’ representative on the NEC, the Democracy Review also recommends the establishment of an annual disabled members’ conference, with representation from both CLPs and affiliated organisations. As with the full party conference, the vote would be split 50:50 between the two. The report also highlights the need to ensure that the venues chosen are as accessible as possible and notes that in consultation, many disabled members argued that CLPs should have the right to send more than one delegate, given that some disabled delegates may not be able to attend every session at the conference. It also recommends having a disability officer on every regional board (London Labour already has one) so that disabled members’ concerns are represented at regional level.

Also believed to be backed by a broad consensus across all sections of the party is a set of proposals aimed at enhancing the power of women members. This would see the introduction of a stand-alone women’s conference, which would have the right to send two motions and a constitutional amendment to the party’s full annual conference. A new Women’s Committee would also be set up. There is wide support for these reforms among the organisations of the Labour left and the trade unions.

BAME Labour, meanwhile, would also be subject to major changes under the terms of the Democracy Review. BAME party members would be automatically registered with BAME Labour, as opposed to having to join separately as they do currently (a difficult endeavour in itself). Membership of BAME Labour would be restricted to full party members only. Again there is a broad left consensus in support of these changes, which could significantly enhance the power of BAME members provided they are backed up with sufficient resources and complemented by the ongoing self-organisation of BAME members at the party grassroots.

Policymaking and Conference

The Democracy Review proposes quite extensive changes to Labour Party policymaking processes, including conference. One of the more publicised policymaking recommendations made by the Review is the proposed abolition of the National Policy Forum (NPF). The exact workings of the NPF are highly opaque to the majority of party members; this is a feature rather than a bug. Indeed as Leo Panitch and Colin Leys have argued, the central role of the NPF in policymaking as initiated under Blair was part of a wider process of “disempowering activism”, with the intention of transforming conference into “an occasion to listen to the leaders, get educated on policy issues and show support”.1 The likely impact of its abolition however is unclear, and some on the left are wary of the dangers of potentially centralising policymaking detail if the NPF is scrapped altogether, as this could inadvertently keep rank-and-file party members in the dark (one of the main, and justified, complaints about the NPF). The reinstatement of policy commissions, in particular, would help to strengthen members’ representation in the policymaking process.

Conference’s ability to develop detailed policy is, however, inevitably limited. The NEC Policy Committee, which the Democracy Review proposes reinstating, would oversee the whole process. There are some concerns regarding this, particularly the amount of time the committee’s representatives would have to scrutinise policy documents and authorise research and consultation, as well as the role of the Policy Unit at Southside in providing briefings. If the Policy Committee is re-established, the role of CLP representatives is likely to be particularly important in defending members’ interests where there are clashes over policy (for example, environmental issues and foreign policy).

Greater policymaking powers for regional conferences are also recommended by the review, with these regional structures feeding in to the NEC’s Policy Committee, to which they would be able to send motions and which would again have political oversight. This potentially has a significant bearing on Labour’s regional policies, particularly the planned development of a network of regional investment banks.

Under the Review, three existing national conference rules face abolition: the one-year delay for rule changes submitted by CLPs, the three-year rule (which prevents party members from bringing a constitutional amendment to conference within less than three years of the rejection of any similar amendment by conference), and the abolition of ‘contemporary’ criteria for motions. All of these changes could potentially significantly speed up attempts at party reform in the future, with the latter in particular allowing for much freer discussion of policy issues at conference. They are likely to face some criticism, particularly regarding the risk of conference becoming excessively preoccupied with procedure and of its agenda becoming unmanageable. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that in the past, major procedural disagreements tended to happen only when members were denied basic democratic rights at conference; provided these are honoured in future, the levels of such conflict should be kept to a minimum.

It has yet to be clarified exactly what role conference will play - and how much weight it will hold - in the new policymaking process, and so more detail is required before we can accurately assess their exact importance. In particular, it remains to be seen how the reformed conference would work alongside the NEC Policy Committee and the Policy Unit.

Also proposed is a change to the balance of the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) - which has great influence on the setting of the conference agenda - to ensure 50:50 parity between CLPs and trade unions, so that the interests of both are equally represented on the CAC.

Local Government

Local government remains a stronghold of the Labour right and centre, largely unrepresentative of the new political direction of the party leadership at Westminster. The long-running struggle between party members and the previous local council leadership in Haringey indicates that the grassroots are growing increasingly discontented with this state of affairs. The Democracy Review therefore proposes several important changes with regard to Labour’s processes in local government.

In particular, it calls for a return to mandatory reselection (from the existing trigger ballot system) in local council candidate selections. This would, in all likelihood, dramatically improve accountability in local government and make it considerably easier for party members to select candidates more in tune with their perspectives and concerns. The Review also proposes replacing local campaign forums (LCFs) with local government committees (LGCs). This would also strengthen accountability by limiting the influence of existing councillors over candidate selection.

One of the most widely publicised - and most controversial - proposals the Democracy Review makes regarding local government is the piloting of Labour Group leadership elections. The exact method of doing so has yet to be decided: it could be via OMOV, a 50:50 electoral college or some other alternative formula. This has met with a rough reception from some sitting councillors and council leaders, but could also improve the accountability of Labour council groups. It has also won GMB’s support as a potentially effective check against corruption and abuses of power on Labour council groups. The left’s representation in local government remains weak, though, and for the time being it may, in many areas, be lacking in strong candidates for council leadership positions.

In terms of support for these measures, they are all believed to be backed by a fairly wide consensus on the Labour left. The replacement of LCFs by LGCs is also strongly supported by trade unions, with little serious opposition. Members should nonetheless be prepared to defend these proposals against pressures to postpone local government reforms altogether; given the obvious and fairly widespread discontent many party members feel towards Labour’s performance in local government, and the Tammany Hall-esque conduct of some council leaderships, reform in this area is a pressing necessity.

Members’ Rights and Disciplinary Cases

With Labour Party membership having expanded by more than 350,000 over the last three years, the need to reform those party structures which became ossified during the preceding era of shrinking party membership is well recognised. The Democracy Review aims to enshrine the rights of this new mass membership in a new Members’ Rights charter, to be incorporated into the Labour rule book. The precise content of this, however, has yet to be determined. Momentum has drawn up its own charter for members’ rights, which it may lobby for as a possible basis for the party charter.

The report also advocates the addition of new places on the National Constitutional Committee (NCC), with the aim of providing it with additional capacity to deal with disciplinary cases. The Review notes that there are “inadequate numbers of the National Committee available to hear cases” and recommends that additional members be added to the body so that individual cases can be dealt with more effectively. This seems like a sensible and uncontroversial proposal, but more detail will be needed on the likely composition of these new NCC places.

Young Labour and Labour Students

The Democracy Review notes that at more than 100,000 members strong, Labour’s youth wing is the largest political youth organisation in Europe. There has been much discussion of the need to reform Young Labour in order to reflect its recent rapid expansion, most notably in Max Shanly’s ‘Towards a New Model Young Labour’, which formed the basis of Young Labour’s submission to the Democracy Review. To give young members a more effective say in the party, the Democracy Review recommends the establishment of a yearly Young Labour conference (which will have the power to send motions to the women’s conference and full party conference) as well as annual regional conferences. It recommends that Young Labour agrees a constitution at its next annual conference and that this is then incorporated into the party rule book. The Review also advises building “a nationwide network of Young Labour groups organised at CLP level” to engage with young members and encourage them to get more actively involved in the party.

In addition, the Review puts forward a number of proposals with regard to Labour Students, much criticised for its lack of effective internal democracy. To tackle this, it recommends the introduction of OMOV elections for positions on the Labour Students committee. It points out that while this is in the organisation’s constitution, it has never actually been implemented - this has left the body firmly in the hands of the right while Labour’s youth and student membership as a whole has shifted sharply to the left, a clearly unsustainable position. This would therefore represent a very significant change highly likely to empower rank-and-file student members. The Review also calls for closer integration of Labour Students and Young Labour, with the latter given the right to organise on campus.


As already noted, it is as yet unclear which proposals contained in the Democracy Review’s existing recommendations will make it to Labour conference next month. The overwhelming majority of its recommendations are positive, and would deliver a decisive (though still incomplete) transformation of the Labour Party’s internal culture and structures if implemented. While some media outlets have picked up on some of the recommendations the Review makes, this does not necessarily mean that these would bring about the most substantial structural change. It is important therefore to be aware of those that have so far flown under the media’s radar, so to speak.

Members must be prepared to push for changes over and above those put forward by the Democracy Review. The matter of parliamentary candidate selection is particularly crucial. The PLP, as is well known, contains relatively few MPs who could be said to be genuinely committed to the Corbyn ‘project’. The pressures a socialist Labour government will face in office will inevitably be huge, and the leadership needs to be able to count on consistent support from its parliamentary party. However, the recomposition of the PLP has to be carried out by the party’s grassroots, and cannot be done from on high. It should be noted also that sitting left MPs need to be subject to regular, effective accountability as much as anyone else.

The existing trigger ballot system makes it difficult by design to remove sitting MPs, and necessitates negative, cloak-and-dagger organising by yoking affiliates’ branches (many of which have no internal democratic life of their own) to constituency parties. This allows these affiliates to effectively rig trigger ballots, potentially keeping sitting MPs in place against the will of the majority in their CLP.

Reforms to parliamentary candidate selection - preferably mandatory reselection, but at the very least some system that allows would-be candidates to campaign positively for nominations - is essential. There are three rule changes on the conference agenda this year which aim to address this issue: the ‘open selection’ rule change from Labour International, a rule change submitted by Worthing West and Bristol West and Hove CLPs, and another put forward by Rayleigh and Wickford, Hastings and Rye, and Kensington CLPs. Each of these rule changes would stand a very good chance of passing at conference if they were to earn the support of Unite and other left unions. Those members who are keen to see a PLP which reflects the broad political direction of the Labour Party should be prepared to make the case for and mobilise in support of such a change.

  1. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour, Verso 2001, p234.