Years ago, the Labour Party’s version of internal democracy included taking policy decisions at conferences where all members had a direct vote in determining party policy. In theory, anyway – the crucial decisions were usually taken by ‘card vote’ where each delegate cast the number of votes which the organisation (s)he represented was allowed. So leaders of the big unions could and did cast a million or more votes each at a time. And the number of votes available to them was the number which the union chose to register as ‘members’, without those ‘members’ ever needing to be named. That number was usually based on a calculation of the balance between the cost of registering them and the influence thereby purchased, and bore little relationship to the actual political views of the ‘members’ concerned.
Still, it was democracy, of a sort, and it gave the members some sort of feeling of ownership of policy. Mind you, if the leadership didn’t like the policy that the members voted for, they simply ignored it. Sometimes people think that this is a peculiarly Blairite tendency, but I can remember Harold Wilson happily ignoring conference votes half a century ago.
Over the years, the right of the party’s membership to determine policy through an annual conference was slowly whittled away, and that process certainly came to a peak in the Blair years, leaving members with little real ownership of anything – and I’m sure that that has been a factor in the falling membership numbers of the party.
Yesterday, Owen Smith declared that he would, if elected leader, seek to restore the right of members to determine policy, and that he would then abide by decisions taken by the membership. That’s certainly in line with what many of Corbyn’s supporters would like – but is he really serious?
What would happen, for instance, if a Labour Party conference voted for nuclear disarmament? It’s happened before (and was duly ignored by the leadership), and with the influx of Corbyn-leaning members, it must be highly likely that it will happen again. Is Smith really saying that he would suddenly drop his support for Trident renewal, and admit that he was wrong all along, because the members have now spoken and that must therefore be his new position? And would all the other rebel MPs fall in line behind him, in a way that they have not done for Corbyn?That seems an unlikely scenario to me, which leads me to a rather different conclusion. It’s easy for someone to commit to something if he believes that he will never be called on to deliver on any promise. The game is no longer about winning, but about trying to reduce the gap in order to provide a ‘justification’ for running the process again in the next year or so (and again thereafter if necessary) until the members finally take the ‘right’ decision. It’s a form of democracy that he’s supporting, but it’s not democracy as we know it, to adapt a phrase.