Labour reliving the 1970s and evading democratic accountability

Watching the Labour Party “show of hands” vote in the Brighton conference hall (we Lib Dems know from our own party conferences there) and the absence of proper counting mechanisms:
• no stewards counting specific parts of the hall, and
• no card or paper vote to verify if the impression of the chairwoman (or the party secretary beside her) was right,
– reminded me, a graduated historian born in 1956, of nothing so much as the infamous wildcat walkouts let by (closed-)shop stewards at the Ford, Vauxhall and British Leyland car factories, and at nationalised industries, of the 1970s.

According to Andrew Marr in his “A History of Modern Britain” (about Britain in 1945-2000; Pan Books/Macmillan, London, 2007, p. 133), those very militant shop stewards became powerful in the war and Attlee years (1940-’51), arranging local deals at their plant specifically for their union’s members, in preference to having national union executives call national strikes.

These sorts of goings-on were comically portrayed in the 1959 film “I’m All right Jack” with Peter Sellers playing the steward. That picture is affirmed by Anthony Sampson in his “The Changing Anatomy of Britain” (Coronet/Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1983, p. 65): the general secretaries of national unions may look impressive on the stage of the TUC annual conferences; but in reality they have (or had) to defer to the shop stewards representing the local shop floors.

Everybody born around 1960-‘65 remembers the scene on TV screens in those days: forecourts of industrial plants with masses of workers/employees, being addressed by fiery stewards standing on boxes or stepladders, calling show-of-hands votes to legitimise wildcat strikes to protest (real or imagined) grievances; and invariably proclaiming the vote has been positive: “the strike is on”.

It is astonishing for a big party with decades of government experience like Labour to (as the BBC 1 evening news reported on 23 September 2019) abolish or amend the standing conference order to have paper ballots in every case of a contested show-of-hands vote. Especially at a time when a structural change like any kind of Brexit is about to transform the national society, and the vote is about how to go about it: national policy with national implications. The impression foreign TV viewers (like me and my compatriots) get is one of gross democratic insouciance, with a possible suspicion of wilful neglect of accountability. And you certainly don’t want that concerning big national policy decisions.

We Social Liberals have (and maintain!) methods of making sure the voting results are clear.

The LibDems have, in a second conference vote after the disputed one, stewards count the votes cast (by holding up cards) in specific parts of the hall, and compute those into total votes numbers.

And at Dutch D66 (provincial and national) conferences, and local association (A)GM’s, every member (having shown his/her membership card) is issued, beside a voting card, with a paper ballot with 8 (numbered) square segments on it. When a show-of-hands is disputed, it is repeated; if it’s still unclear or disputed, we tear off one segment on which we tick either the “For” or “Against” box; the segments are then collected in buckets and counted backstage or outside the hall. The chair announces which segment is to be used for which vote. As far as I know, many other Dutch parties have similar arrangements.

* Dr. Bernard Aris is a historian, a D66 parliamentary researcher and a LibDem supporting member.

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  • David Warren 25th Sep '19 - 1:45pm

    As someone who ‘lived’ the Labour and trade union movement for thirty years I am well acquainted with its methods.

    The socialist left is imbued with the philosophy of a hierarchy that oversees the workers which is only one step away from the Leninist principle of democratic centralism which inevitably leads to command politics. This combined with the trade union dominance of the Labour Party means that ordinary members don’t run the party even at annual conference.

    The Labour conference Brexit debate was chaired by a union appointee to its NEC with the General Secretary a former senior official of the Unite union pulling the strings. In the vote itself fifty per cent is controlled by trade union block votes.

    If you want to see real democracy in action you aren’t going to see it at a Labour conference.

  • Neil Sandison 25th Sep '19 - 1:49pm

    Did notice some of the delegates voting with both hands .So glad our internal democracy is so more transparent .

  • Paul Barker 25th Sep '19 - 2:10pm

    The very difficult point that we have to get over to Labour & Tory Voters is that they can’t Vote for their Old Parties anymore because they no longer exist.
    There was nothing new or unusual about the Vote at Labour Conference, it was a traditional Stitch-up by the Leadership. The weird thing was that half the people in the hall started singing “Oh Jeremy Corbyn.” Labour have become a Leninist style personality cult, they are a different Party to the Labour of 1900-2015, with a largely different membership.
    The Tories have become a sort of English equivalent to The SNP, with less decency & added thuggishness.
    Of course most Voters haven’t noticed much of the changes yet, outside Election Campaigns they pay very little attention to Politics, the question is how quickly they can be brought up to speed.
    ICMY the current Polling positions are :
    Brexit Party 13%
    LibDems 19/20%
    Labour 24%
    Tories. 33%
    We have been creeping up again.

  • Bernard Aris 25th Sep '19 - 2:44pm

    @ Sandison

    I noticed that “(both) Hands Up” voting at Labour Conference as well.

    Or were they surrendering their common sense?

  • Jack McKenna 25th Sep '19 - 10:48pm

    I tell you what,

    I wrestled with whether or not I could stay in Labour for a long time, but god, I so glad I left. The party is a total mess.

  • Angie Harris 26th Sep '19 - 9:46am

    As a long-standing steward of our Party conferences (and Chief Steward eventually!) I can tell you that watching that vote in that hall (and I’ve done plenty in there) it was far too close to call and there definitely needed to be a count. What a complete shambles. How differently we do it!

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