Democracy in Action

Labour faction march. London, August 2016.

Labour faction march. London, August 2016.

There is talk of a savage purge within the Labour Party. Except this time, it’s the ‘moderates’ who are facing the scythe of vengeance. That’s the official line in progress anyway.

Unlike these self-described ‘moderates’, I was at a Labour Party meeting in St. Ann’s ward where the party was going to vote for a new pair of councillors after the two councillors stood down. In the case of Barbara Blake, she decided to not run for reselection once the ward ‘triggered’ a contest. This meant that the two candidates from the left – Mike Hakata and Julie Davies – won by default. But this was not an isolated event.

On the same night in Hornsey, Dana Carlin won in a contest with councillor Jennifer Mann, whose reselection was triggered just days before in a very tight vote. Not incidentally, one in 14 people in Hornsey and Wood Green are members of the Labour Party. In other words, the mass membership of the party is quite representative to the overall electorate in the area.

At the time of writing, 29 Labour councillors out of a total of 57 have been deselected in Haringey and replaced with newly selected councillors by popular demand. This spree of deselections was orchestrated in response to the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), which would see 50% of the borough’s public assets sold off for redevelopment. The total figure is over £2 billion and the offer includes houses, schools and libraries.

What do the 29 councillors all have in common? They all supported the HDV to hand over public assets to Lendlease. This shifts the balance against the pro-HDV faction of Labour First and Progress centrists. Soon after the HDV was announced, the project became the focus of a grassroots campaign waged by Labour activists to overturn the Council responsible for it.

This was just the latest misdeed by the Council which has presided over a long period of austerity and economic mismanagement. Yet the HDV was presented as a way to regenerate the borough, creating homes and jobs for the local community. The project would have meant the demolition of 5,000 homes in seven council estates. This is while 3,000 people are waiting to be housed.

Much has been made of the role of Momentum in this dramatic shift against the Blairites, but the reality is that these reselections were pushed from below by people in the community. No one can reasonably claim that the party members are an alien force in local politics and have no right to a say in how to govern their community. It is anti-democratic and reactionary to suggest otherwise.

This is what really terrifies the Labour First crowd. The Blairites and centrists know that they are likely on the losing side in a democratic struggle at the centre of the party. The strategy of the Labour left puts the membership in the driving seat of the party. Perhaps this is the true meaning of empowerment.

Of course, the panic is that this trend may spread beyond Haringey. This is why people like Richard Angell are claiming there is a national purge against the centrists, but this is simply not true. As Stephen Bush has pointed out, Haringey is a special case and the reasons for the schism in the local party are unique to the area. This is not to say that this trend does not set precedents for the rest of the UK.

However, there are important differences across regions. For starters, the reason why 28 of the pro-HDV councillors have held their own against the membership is because many of these wards are larger and require a much greater capacity for organising. But this is something that can easily be reversed.

Not that this sort of thing attracts any interest from the mainstream media. As we all know, the BBC loves a good spectacle and the clash between Momentum and Progress was too much to resist: Owen Jones versus Richard Angell. So the Daily Politics show decided to stage a round of fisty cuffs.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about the Labour left understands that Jones has fallen afoul of certain sections of opinion because of his criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, Jones was calling for JC to resign as party leader after the defeat in the Copeland by-election. This earned Jones a great deal of criticism from the left for his perceived capitulation to the right. He has since admitted he made a mistake.

The Labour left now has to assert the strength of the local party to take control of Haringey Council and redraw the re-election manifesto for the May local elections. It’s possible that the Haringey Labour Party will see itself confirmed in power, but also transformed in a matter of months. This would set a precedent for how to take power away from unaccountable politicians and put it in the hands of party members – who can be anyone in the area.

A key factor in bolstering the left position was that the general election outcome demonstrated there is the real possibility of a Corbyn victory. The Labour right was disillusioned because it expected vindication in the form of a Tory super-majority, yet it was confronted with reality. The centre ground has fractured and opened up to populist forces on the left and the right.

Democracy means no one is entitled to rule. Public office is not some preserve of a small few, every person can and should have at least a say in governance – if not a right to govern themselves. As CLR James told us, every cook can govern.

Photograph courtesy of Funk Dooby. Published under a Creative Commons license.