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This year’s Labour Party conference has the chance to take an historic step in democratising the party. Such a move will not only set the Labour Party on the road to greater electoral success, it will also lay the foundations for a shift in the balance of power in the country.
Labour is now the biggest left-of-centre political party in Europe and has considerably more members than every other political party in the UK put together. Labour’s members are the eyes, ears and voice of our movement.
The last 40 years have seen power being siphoned from the democratic political sphere into the unaccountable corporate sphere. Public services and utilities have been used as a cash cow to generate private profit. The casualties of this approach have been the workers in these sectors, who have been forced to accept inferior terms and conditions of employment and the quality service provided has invariably suffered too.
But why is the democratisation of the Labour Party connected to a shift in the balance of power in the country?
It is because, as Ed Miliband once said when he was standing for the Labour leadership eight years ago, if we had listened to our members when we were in government, between 1997 and 2010, we wouldn’t have made as many mistakes.
What a profound statement that was. Just imagine if Labour Party members had had more influence over policy and a greater ability to hold their constituency MPs to account when Labour came to power in 1997.
Had that been the case, the railways, gas, electricity and water industries would have been brought back into public ownership. All the anti-trade union legislation would have been repealed and collective bargaining would have once again been put centre stage in industrial relations. The privateers brought in by Thatcher and Major to run our public services, from social care to street cleaning, would have all been kicked out. Tuition fees would never have been introduced by Blair’s government.
We would have embarked on a massive council house building programme, regulated the private rented sector and introduced a compassionate social security system where Atos would never have seen the light of day. The tax cuts for the wealthy, brought in by the Tories, would have been reversed and the obsession with financial services would have been replaced with an industrial strategy to create secure well-paid jobs. We would not have seen skilled jobs being offshored to low-wage economies and the exponential growth in precarious low paid employment would have been prevented.
And of course, if Labour members been able to exert more influence, Britain would never have joined the US in an illegal war in Iraq.
Little wonder then that Tony Benn once described democracy as the most revolutionary thing in the world. In view of the hysterical resistance, in certain quarters, to the suggestion that we should democratise the selection of parliamentary candidates in Labour-held seats, it is obvious what he meant.
I therefore hope that delegates to Labour’s conference get behind the motion on open selections, submitted by Labour International. This would require open selections to take place on a one-member-one-vote (OMOV) basis in Labour held seats in the fourth year of each parliament to determine the candidate for the next election. In seats held by other parties a OMOV selection would have to be held 12 months after the election to ensure candidates are installed early.
This change would bring the Labour Party into line with democracies around the world, who routinely have open primaries where incumbents must win the support of members and supporters to stand at the subsequent election.
Being a Labour MP is not a job, it is a privilege and there is no justification whatsoever to gift Labour MPs in ‘safe’ seats a job for life, with little or any meaningful scrutiny.
Just look at the situation in Birkenhead, where Frank Field’s members have been unhappy with him for more than 30 years, yet he still managed to continue as Labour MP.
The Frank Field example illustrates how intolerable the present situation is and this historic moment may not come again, which is why we should seize it with both hands.
An empowered membership will not only carry Jeremy Corbyn over the threshold of 10 Downing Street, it will also help to deliver an irreversible shift in the balance of power in favour of the many not the few.
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