The Fight for Party Democracy in Bermondsey

Those pushing for member-led local party democracy must be aware of the opposition they are likely to face, and to be prepared for it.

I moved to Bermondsey & Old Southwark (BOS) in 2016, having been a Labour Party member since 2010 but rarely attending meetings. I was pleased by the renewed possibility under Jeremy Corbyn to give members more power over the party and thus make our meetings more meaningful than they had been under previous leaderships, and so I therefore decided to start attending. I firmly believe that a member-led party could have averted many of the most regressive policies of the New Labour government, such as Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war or the introduction of tuition fees. The prospect of a genuinely democratic and socialist Labour Party therefore holds out much promise.

My first meeting was a well-attended AMM (All Member Meeting) of the BOS CLP (Constituency Labour Party), to decide its nomination for the 2016 Labour leadership contest. Owen Smith won the nomination by 104-94. However, in our CLP we have a GC (General Committee) delegate structure whereby almost all votes other than the leadership nomination vote are “delegates only” votes. My next meeting was my branch Labour Party’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), where delegates who can vote at CLP meetings are elected. There was one more attendee than there were delegate spots, and not knowing anyone in the room I was unsurprisingly the one who missed out. This is one very obvious way in which the GC delegate system puts off and shuts out new members.

The significance didn’t fully dawn on me until I had wasted my time attending the CLP AGM a week later. I couldn’t vote on any elections on the night, nor on any motions or elections at any CLP meeting for the next two years (we skipped an AGM because of the snap election). Being unable to vote, I attended just one CLP meeting in the following two years, when Keir Starmer came to speak. I know many other first-time meeting attendees who have felt similarly discouraged to return to meetings at the CLP after realising that the delegate structure barred them from voting. This is a major roadblock to participation in the CLP; it discourages new and inactive members from attending, means they won’t get to know people in their local party, and will be more reluctant therefore to attend campaign sessions and branch meetings, where they can vote. This is why some of us recently took matters into our own hands, submitting a motion proposing a change from the delegate structure to all-member meetings.

Getting our mass membership active is a major problem in our CLP. In his speech on the night of our AMM meeting, the MP - Neil Coyle - told us that just three local members turned up at a recent ‘National Campaign Day’ in the constituency. He and I were two of them. In May, we narrowly lost five council seats in the constituency, all by less than 170 votes, on low turnouts. A more active membership could have helped swing those seats to Labour. Thus, I proposed the AMM motion with a view to encouraging more members to become active, but also to simplify the unnecessarily complex party rules. I suspected there would be some opposition from the Corbynsceptics, as they currently have a majority of GC delegates. However, I was quite surprised by the nature of that opposition. To see the lengths to which they were willing to go in order to defeat this motion, and ensure that new members were effectively discouraged from becoming active and barred from voting on issues in their own CLP, was genuinely surprising and deeply disappointing.

In an email sent to a selected group of members, whose contact details were presumably gained through access to the membership list, the MP informed those who he deemed to be his supporters of the date and time of the meeting - some 16 days before the CLP Secretary sent a notification email to the whole membership list, which went out only seven days before the meeting. The MP also offered to have members of his “local team… give you a call” in the email. Some members did subsequently receive calls from people who are not permitted to have access to the membership list. In the email, our MP also wrote, “The proponents of the changes are the same people who backed an anti-Semite for the NEC and refused to back a motion to support Black and Ethnic Minority candidates.”

Neither myself nor the other proposer of the AMM motion supported Pete Willsman (who I assume he was referring to) in his candidacy for the NEC, neither publicly nor privately. What was particularly insulting was that both I and the other proposer have Jewish family background, which the MP was well aware of in my case. To be falsely accused of “supporting an anti-Semite” by someone who isn’t Jewish, and has a great deal of influence, for simply proposing a common rule change was extremely hurtful. In addition, I have never been at any Labour Party meeting where a motion “to support Black and Ethnic Minority candidates” was debated, nor would I refuse to back such a motion. Having spoken to other members of my CLP, they do not recall a motion of that description ever being debated.

On the night, a huge 221 members turned up. Arguments were made by trade unionists that this would disenfranchise trade union members. This is false, as every current trade union delegate would still be able to vote at CLP meetings if the motion had passed, as well as hundreds more of their rank-and-file members. I don’t know why, with this knowledge, some trade unionists would choose to vote against enfranchising many more of their own members. It was also claimed that all affiliated unions and Socialist Societies are in favour of the delegate structure. This is also not true - most do not have an official position, as delegate structures are relatively obscure, practiced by less than a third of CLPs who returned Democracy Review Surveys. My union, the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), is not in favour of the delegate structure, and why would it be? It has zero GC delegates of its own in BOS.

An argument was also made that AMMs would not be gender balanced, and that the GC delegates were. This is not true in BOS: whilst branch Labour Party delegates have to be gender balanced, trade union and Society delegates do not. The vast majority of our trade union and Society delegates are men, thus the current GC in BOS is majority male. So voting against the motion did not protect a gender balance; instead it entrenched a gender imbalance - the exact opposite of what the delegate system’s defenders claimed to be doing.

The vote was 110 in favour, with 111 against. After the result was announced, there was an exodus of members leaving the room as they could not vote on the rest of the meetings business, including motions on Heathrow expansion, Grenfell and elections of delegates for conferences. We were left with just 70 members for the rest of the meeting. It was such a shame to see so many usually inactive members leave the meeting, unlikely to return, and quite unlikely therefore to make new comrades or attend campaign sessions or meetings to debate policy in the future. This enormous waste of potential energy, talent and commitment was largely because Corbynsceptics were worried that new members are more left wing, and hence wanted to shut them out of active involvement in the CLP. I remember when hundreds of thousands of new members joined the party to support Jeremy Corbyn, and these same people complained that the new members weren’t coming to meetings. Now they are doing precisely that, but the Corbynsceptics are desperate to keep them out!

After the meeting, the MP took the opportunity to add insult to injury. He sent another email out, this time claiming that “those who sought to change the system” had been “attacking” supporters of the delegate structure, saying that “women members are facing most of the criticism. This is very disappointing but speaks volumes.” Again, nobody I have spoken to is aware of any abusive language used by any members towards each other at the meeting or afterwards. His email also specifically criticised affiliate delegates who spoke for the motion, being two soft-left councillors who are Southwark Cabinet members.

To see so many, including our own MP, go to such great lengths in order to exclude such a large amount of people from full participation at their own CLP meetings, and to then wrongfully misrepresent those seeking the change, has made me question the values of the Labour Party. Thankfully, the 110 members who voted in favour of the motion, and the fact that the vast majority of CLPs do not use the exclusionary delegate system, gives me hope that a strong democratic tradition is still alive amongst socialists within the party. But those pushing for member-led local party democracy must be aware of the opposition they are likely to face, and to be prepared for it.


James Bower (@JamesBower93)

James Bower is secretary of Borough and Bankside Labour Party, and a representative on the Bermondsey and Old Southwark CLP executive committee.