progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

A ballot with your policy on it?

This was recently published at Labour Left. Jon Lansman kindly commented and alerted me to an oversight on my part, and I've included my response/correction* below this:

As Labour Party members vote in internal elections, James Doran argues that Labour should dare more democracy and include a list of policy options on the next ballot in two years time.

Each week, thousands of people take part in phone polls on reality TV shows. These programmes encourage people to pay for the privilege of evicting housemates, forcing celebrities to endure tortuous trials to win food supplies for base camp, or saving the dancers or musical act you like the best from being sent home. Even if we don’t phone in, we talk and tweet about it with our friends and relatives…

This widespread engagement didn’t exist when political parties got started. Labour’s roots are in the trades union movement, in co-operatives and mutual societies. In the early days of the Labour movement, meetings had to be in person, there were no conference calls or social network sites to conduct business, to link up with like-minded strangers and share information. Organising was slower, took longer, and this created a gap between those with information and those without.

Today, our party engages members using the internet – from websites to emails, text messages and tweets. It is possible to crowd-source ideas from activists, and though hierarchies exist, the vertical pull of command-and-control is being checked by the horizontal pull of social networks.

Yet some of our organising remains the same as when participation was much harder, and is now hollowed out by the lack of trust in collective action to deliver the goods.

A good example is our party’s policy-making process. The question members ask is, does my involvement make a difference? To many, the answer seems to be “no”. Indeed, the National Policy Forum we elected two years ago hasn’t met for an embarrassing length of time. A policy review started after the party’s defeat at the last general election has not called upon members’ knowledge and experience.

Of course, you have three options if you are unhappy with the policies of an organisation to which you belong – exit, voice, or loyalty. You can quit and try to find an organisation which suits your needs and aspirations, you can express your point of view, or you can keep your mouth shut and sit still hoping things will change without you having to do anything.

We’ve joined Labour because we realise that it’s the only game in town when it comes to involvement in formal politics to make our lives better, and those of our friends, families, and communities. If we are unhappy with how things are going, we’re not shy about saying so – we do not have a tradition of silent and patient waiting for things to change. Nor should we, it’s unhealthy.

But raising our concerns is a problem, since much of the “tacit knowledge” we might have on areas of policy that we know about or are concerned with (such as their own line of work, their own community) can’t yet be unlocked.

People who contributed to the policy review – members and non-members alike – should be able to express their views on the end result. If the co-ordinators of the policy review worked with the National Policy Forum to draw up a multiple-choice ballot, the party could take the power to decide from the few and give it to the many – allowing members and registered supporters to decide.

Of course, the Parliamentary Labour Party and local Labour Parties would inevitably continue to determine their own priorities for campaigning. Like in the TV talent shows there would be judges to filter the results – the Shadow Cabinet would have the ultimate choice of what stays and what goes. This is an unfortunate reality of power in contemporary politics, and Labour is after all an electoral party.

But the whole process would both encourage political education and prefigure democratic socialism: currently, we know what we are campaigning against, but not what we are campaigning for. By having a process in which we could express our views as a party in a policy ballot, we would have some guidance as to our direction as a community organisation – it could be a means of determining our priorities.
It would also challenge the cynicism of many ex-members and former supporters, and it would silence the Tories’ claim that policy-making follows party funding. By giving each party member, levy-paying affiliate, and registered supporter a say on our policies – one person, one policy ballot – we could banish the suggestion that ordinary people are excluded.

A policy ballot could be carried out primarily online, alongside voting for NEC and NPF candidates in 2014 – and in the run-up, we could make use of the same kinds of decision-making software used by our sister party in Germany, the SPD, which has opened up online involvement in its policy-making on entrepreneurship. A policy ballot could also be a means of increasing Labour’s number of registered supporters – hopefully establishing ties with branch and constituency parties, Labour councillors and candidates.

For people to believe that we’re listening, we have to show them that we have heard and have reflected on their views. To build trust, we have to offer choice and demonstrate that we have changed and are capable of democratic renewal.

So, what do you think?

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* I understand that behind decision-making there’s agenda-setting, question-framing, etc. So my argument isn’t against delegated representation. What I missed out of the article was the role of conference – the current role of constituency and affiliate delegates is important. My concern is that members have a shared ownership of party policy. So I’m currently struggling with computer coding, trying to set up a website which uses the policy drafting & decision-making software that the SPD used in their experiment.