Many people have criticised the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party for their decision to suspend all UK branches of the Labour Party. Indeed, it has frequently been referred to as indicative of a dictatorship that is undermining democracy and human rights (Article 11 of the ECHR – Freedom of Association).
While this NEC suspension of branches prevails, we should be worried about the impact this is having at grass roots level. This freezing of democracy at the grass roots level is extremely worrying since it has the potential of enabling control by ‘Executive Officers’ – some of whom are enjoying the freedom to operate as ‘local dictators’.
For example, in one local Branch – over recent months – we have seen the old fashioned centralism of the Labour Party at play. First, over the past six months we have had what I would call a coup. We have a Chair who has been a stalwart of the Labour Party, having served for well over 50 years. As Chair of her branch she has almost single-handedly, kept the Party alive for decades. She deserves a medal for her services to the local Party. Sadly, while she was ill and in a hospital bed for months, some newish members were plotting to have her replaced as Chair. There was even an attempt to bring forward the AGM so that they could replace her as Chair while she lay in hospital. The Secretary, at the time, successfully fought off this early AGM attempt. Though he conceded that the AGM should take place in May 2016. Then, in order to provide legitimacy to their actions, the leader of the coup wanted the Secretary to give up his post and stand against the Chair. The Secretary agreed to stand for a vacant post of Chair, but made it clear that he would not stand against the existing Chair. Indeed, the idea of pushing out a 75 year-old wheelchair bound party stalwart seemed an affront to decency. Eventually, the Secretary agreed to stand as Chair provided that the Chair was standing down voluntarily (which she did).
In due course (in May 2016) the Secretary was elected as Chair, but within a few minutes withdrew from the position when the Secretary was elected (essentially on the grounds that he did not feel that he could work with him). At that May meeting it was decided that all existing Officers should remain in their pre-meeting posts until the next meeting in July 2016 – when new officers would be elected.
In the period between May and July 2016 the life of the Secretary became problematic. Firstly, the coup had grown in support and they were refusing to recognise the continuance of the wheelchair restricted Chair. Indeed, suddenly an ‘Acting Chair’ appeared on the scene and he, and the coup Leader, were asserting that the Chair had been replaced by the Vice-Chair – who was now ‘Acting Chair’. The Secretary disagreed and referred to the minutes of the May AGM, which made no reference to the appointment of an ‘Acting Chair’. Such assertions led to the coup turning on the Secretary and intimidation started. Suddenly, the coup Leaders could live with the Chair remaining in post until a July EGM – but the Secretary was called an “hypocrite” and was sent what has been described as a “threatening” email. On receiving this email, the Secretary decided to quit as an Officer of the local Labour Party. He could no longer work, as an Officer, with people who had a tendency to display such militant actions.
Since quitting as Secretary, the individual has been attending regular and weekly “Coffee Meetings” of the branch. He has been doing this since he retains total respect for the local party members. His disagreement may be with the new Chair and Secretary of the Branch, but he is content to share coffee and chat with the party members.
That being said, the suspension of branch meetings by the NEC has led to the new Officers wielding executive powers that undermine the principles of local democracy. For example, at the branches July EGM the minutes reflect a brief discussion on the branch website. This site was set up with three moderators/administrators. The minutes of the last meeting do not signify that any changes were made to those posts (members present at the meeting have confirmed that no such discussion took place). However, the Chair of the branch has confirmed in writing that “executive” powers have been used to remove elected Party members from their web site moderators role. This happening despite the fact that all three elected moderators have equal editing rights in relation to the web site. With any unacceptable posting being easily edited by any one of the members (obviously the Chair of the Branch – who is himself a moderator/administrator – would have a major say).
What this signifies to me is that decision-making no longer involves ordinary party members. Yes, they can give a view over a cup of tea or coffee, but the local branch executive officers have assumed control. In doing so, they display a tendency to pursue their own personal political agenda.
If the Labour Party is to have any hope for the future it needs to promote the expansion of democracy. To have any electoral credibility in doing so, it is vitally important that this NEC suspension of its own internal democracy is ended asap.
We need localised democracy in the Labour Party – not executive officers operating like local dictators.
Dr Peter Jepson.
Footnote of the 22nd September 2016: Both the Chair and the Secretary have made clear that the author of “Local dictators’ is “not welcome” at Labour Party Coffee Meetings unless the article is “retracted”. In the interests of protecting freedom of expression, this cannot be agreed to.
Note that there has not been a meeting of the Labour Party branch to approve/authorise this exclusion from LP Coffee Meetings. Thus, providing another example of executive Officers acting without first obtaining the democratic approval of party members.