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Labour Conference ’80

Fight for Party Democracy

For a Mass Working Class Labour Party

(September 1980)

From Militant, No. 521, 26 September 1980, p. 10.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Last year’s conference took a historic step when it carried through mandatory re-selection of MPs. This was a long overdue reform, repeatedly demanded by the majority of party activists, but previously blocked by the right-wing parliamentary leadership with the help of some of the trade union leaders.

If this year’s conference reflects the will of the party’s ranks, and also rank-and-file activists within the unions, it will allow no reversal of re-selection, and will carry through two further democratic steps, on the manifesto and the election at conference of the party leader.

Since last October, the parliamentary right wing, with the rabid support of the capitalist press, have manoeuvred might and main to block the extension of democracy at Blackpool.

Both the spokesmen of big business and their shadows within the Parliamentary Labour Party fear the political consequences of the thorough-going democratisation of the mass party of labour.

The battle over party democracy can only be properly understood in the wider context of the struggle for a mass, socialist Labour Party.

Party activists believed that the last Labour government would be able to take radical action in line with Party policy. Certainly, the February 1974 Election Manifesto had been the most radical since 1945. But after its formation in 1974, the new Labour government rapidly came under the pressure of big business, rapidly abandoned most of its promised reforms, and actually began to implement counter-reforms against the working class.

The right-wing leadership of the PLP ignored the views of the rank and file, and subsequently sealed the Labour government’s fate with its attempt, contrary to conference and TUC decisions, to impose the 5% pay policy. Naturally, therefore, support rapidly grew within the Party for rule changes which would establish the constituency parties’ control over Labour MPs, and make the PLP and the parliamentary leadership accountable to the party as a whole.

Precisely because the campaign for greater Party democracy is part and parcel of the struggle to commit the Party at all levels to socialist policies, the right wing, supported by the capitalist media, have been steadfast in opposing it.

The millionaires’ press wants the right to decide not only the representatives of its own party, the Tories, but those of the Labour Party as well.

The three issues which will be voted on at this year’s Conference are vital if the Party as a whole is going to have any control over its representatives in Parliament. Labour MPs must be the representatives of the Party. Although in election law parties do not officially exist, in reality the overwhelming majority of voters vote for the Party, not the individual candidate.

The reality is, that in the years of post-war boom, when the majority of workers were politically quiescent, the Parliamentary Labour Party was largely taken over by middle-class professionals – lawyers, doctors, academics and the like – who saw the Labour Party primarily as a vehicle for their own parliamentary and possibly ministerial careers.

Neither they, not their Fleet Street friends, complained when they were selected by general management committees that were often small, inactive and out of touch with working class voters.

How many right-wingers – like Brown, Marsh, Taverne, Jenkins, and a host of others – climbed up the ladder via the Labour Party and then, as soon as they got the chance, jumped into well-paid business appointments or state sinecures, repudiating Labour and declaring in favour of a “centre party” or the Tory Party itself?

Newham NE Labour Party’s battle to oust Prentice, who vigorously resisted re-selection – backed by the Tory press and infiltrators financed by the National Association of Freedom – was completely vindicated by his defection to the Tories.

Yet, whenever a party attempts to call its MP to account, there are howls of anguish from the right-wingers who assert a divine right to their seat so long as Labour holds the constituency.

They are backed by the media because the capitalist class fear that the respectable gentlemen of what they were used to regarding as their “second eleven” are going to be replaced by parliamentary representatives who will stand by the policies of the party – and act as tribunes for a working class determined to fight the capitalists’ assault of their living standards and rights.

The right wing have repeatedly made it clear that they defend the misnamed ‘mixed economy’, that is the capitalist system. They are opposed, in reality, to any attempt to put into practice Clause IV, part 4 of the Party’s constitution, the kernel of the Party’s basic socialist aims.

It is because the right wing stand on the basis of defending capitalism that Reg Prentice so easily fitted in with the Tories, the party of big business. This is why since 1976 NATO has given £32,335 to the right-wing’s ‘Labour and Trade Union Press Service’.

Labour Party members understand that if we are going to avoid repeating the experiences of 1964–70 and 1974–79 then it is essential that full Party control is established over Labour MPs.

In the same way, the Party as a whole, through its elected National Executive, must be able to decide what goes in the election manifesto and elect the Party leader. Many Labour MPs have for too long considered themselves a law unto themselves. Now it is time to bring them under the control of the Party as a whole.

On the election of the Party leader, the National Executive Committee is likely first to put before the Conference a resolution which will establish the principle that the leader should be elected by the party as a whole, not just as at present by Labour MPs. If this is passed, Conference will then discuss a resolution that the leader be elected at the Annual Conference, with the trade unions having 50% of the total, and the Labour MPs and Constituency Labour Parties 25% each.

There will be two amendments to this motion: the first will say that the voting should take place as a normal card vote; and the second that the votes should be equally distributed, with the trade unions, Labour MPs and CLPs each getting a third of the total vote. After the amendments have been voted upon, the final resolution will itself be put to the vote.

Because it is vital to safeguard the character of the Labour Party as a party based on the trade unions, Militant will be calling on delegates, after voting in favour of the principle of the Party electing the leader, to support the first amendment to the NEC resolution.

If that is defeated, then delegates should oppose the ‘three thirds’ proposal because it would further weaken the trade unions’ position. However, Militant will call on delegates to vote in favour of whatever final resolution emerges, because any change that allows the party as a whole to elect the leader would be a step forward from the present situation.

This Party Conference could mark a big advance towards establishing real democratic control. But victory on the constitutional issues will not in itself mark the end of the struggle.

For decades, since 1918, the goal of the Labour Party has been to transform society, to lay the foundations of a socialist society. The current crisis of capitalism is a living proof that we are still faced with this task today.

But in order to achieve that ambition, it is necessary also to transform the Labour Party into a mass, socialist Labour Party – a party with a mass membership, firmly based among working people, committed to implementing a socialist programme, and with a socialist leadership.

The task which still lies before us is the dual one of rebuilding the mass membership of the Party and committing both the Party and its leaders to a rounded-out socialist policy.

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