Labour Transformed Organisational Principles

We’ve done a great deal of research, discussion, thinking on these organisational questions over the past year, and while we don’t pretend to have all of the answers or some perfect blueprint, we think we’ve found at least a starting point. The below is an attempt to summarise some of our key conclusions and to identify what we think are some of the most important issues where a lot of other projects have made mistakes. 

Obviously it’s vital that we learn the lessons of the New Left, that we understand the critiques of the left’s own practice and culture that were advanced by the women’s movement, by anti-colonial and anti-racist activists, and by the wider social movements and the libertarian left. But it’s important that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and that we re-examine the classics. That means looking back at figures like Gramsci and Lenin, not with an eye towards uncritically replicating some exact model from a century ago, but recognising that we need to understand why they chose to organise the way they did. What was their strategic logic? Their underlying principles? And how can those lessons be applied today, if at all?

What’s wrong with a loose network?

Most of Labour’s socialist left has been organising through informal personal networks, but this cannot be the answer. Most of us are already familiar with a lot of the issues involved in supposedly “non-hierarchical” networked organising, and much has already been written about the “tyranny of structurelessness” – so instead we’ll focus on the specific issues this presents within the Labour Party.

The Labour Party is an entrenched, bureaucratic, electoral machine. It is certainly not the kind of modern, social movement-oriented socialist vehicle we would like – and its structure, its scale, its institutional logics make it very difficult to redirect. When our networks have come up against these entrenched institutions, the movement has been disciplined to Labour’s conservative electoral logics. We need to reverse this. The institutions and the machinery need to be disciplined to a radical socialist political strategy.

Even when principled, determined people move from the movement into the heights of the institutions, it’s not enough. They are immediately faced with very different concerns and priorities, and suffer immense pressures from every direction, so start to move apart from the movement. Even well-meaning people unwittingly become gatekeepers and start to reproduce the logics and behaviours of those they once denounced. And with little transparency across these institutions, and few collective forums for communication or coordination, we easily fall prey to confusion, paranoia, and sectarianism. 

As such we need formal organisation and democratic accountability.

What do we mean by democracy?

Democracy is more than just an end-in-itself – when you’re trying to build a mass socialist movement, democracy is a strategic necessity. But it can take many different forms, and to determine which is most appropriate we must consider what we’re trying to achieve.

We want to overcome capitalism, to radically democratise the state, and to totally transform our society. That’s a big task. So we need to be serious, we need to be organised, we need the entire movement working together, and we need to use every resource at our disposal to its maximum effect. This means we need serious, joined-up, long-term strategy.

At the moment, our intellectual resources are scattered. We have Marxist intellectuals in one corner, talking in abstract terms about capitalism and the state, we have the policy wonks in another poring over the minutiae of policy details, we have the activists and campaigners somewhere else, and the bureaucrats and politicians making decisions often very insulated from these ideas and expertise. If we want an effective strategy, we need all of this to be linked up, we need real unity of theory and practice.

Every member of our movement brings a wealth of information, experience and expertise – knowledge of communities, workplaces, or trade unions; professional and academic expertise; experience in the party or in social struggles; historical memory; and so much more. All of this needs to feed into our strategic perspective. But there is no extant democratic institution in or around the Labour party capable of effectively harnessing this collective intelligence.

And we need to build political unity.

Where we have been organised formally, we’ve been trapped either in narrow-single issue campaigns, unable to coordinate on the wider issues, or in pluralistic broad-church organisations, where there’s no clear agreement on the underlying politics or the long-term goals, making coordinated long-term strategy impossible. As the old slogan goes, “first clarity, then unity!”.

So we need to start from clarity about our underlying political principles and long-term objectives – which we tried to summarise in our foundational principles – and we need to have the forums to discuss our ideas, to resolve our differences, to be able to move together collectively. We can’t allow our disagreements to become bottled up, we have to be able to build unity through dialogue. And we have to try and mitigate the stark binaries many groups face, between activists and bureaucrats or between leadership and membership.

Anyone who’s been involved in social or political struggles, knows there are times when you do need real discipline, unity, and commitment. But these can’t just be decreed from above. Too often within Labour, it’s assumed that the leadership can make a decision, and the membership can be expected to follow – or face intimidation and administrative suppression. Real unity needs to be built – through dialogue and through democracy. This is a very practical point as well. If the members have fed into the strategy, discussed it, scrutinised it, consented to it – for one thing it will be a better strategy, but it will also be their strategy. If you understand the strategy and feel a sense of ownership over it, you’ll be able to fight all the harder for it.

So where does this get us?

We need forms of democracy that focus on dialogue and deliberation. It’s no good just having a ballot of members if the members have no forums to speak to each other, no platforms to share ideas. Members and local groups need to be able to scrutinise and to feed into the organisation’s overall strategy. We need to have spirited, comradely debate on all of the relevant issues. We need to identify the places where our differences are insignificant, so we can move past them, and to identify where our differences do matter, so we can debate them and resolve them. We need to be able to actively build towards consensus, and avoid any build-up of deep internal tensions.

Yes, there need to be formal structures – to avoid the “tyranny of structurelessness” – but those systems need to be accountable, and the dialogue, information, accountability needs to flow in both directions. And we need some centralisation, so the group can make decisions together and so we can discipline ourselves to a collective strategy. But the national structures need to be transparent and to face meaningful accountability to the other parts of the organisation so as to avoid the entrenchment of cliques and hierarchies.

But to make all of this work, the organisation needs to be actively focused towards its membership, and its membership need to be active. We don’t want a passive, demobilised membership that’s just there to pay subscription fees and turn out to vote. Every member needs to be actively drawn into the life of the organisation. We all need to be involved not just in the practical work, but in the strategic and intellectual work. Political education, discussion, skill-sharing, all need to be prioritised, so we can develop our political project together. The organisation needs to be a machine for turning every activist into an intellectual, and every intellectual into an activist.

Avoiding the Mistakes of the Past

Many of the problems that have afflicted all too many historical Marxist organisations are well known: drifting towards ossification, dogmatism or sectarianism; substituting themselves for the wider working class; prioritising the promotion and reproduction of the organisation itself at the expense of actually furthering the class struggle; and in the most extreme cases degenerating into cult-like organisations implicated in cover-ups of abusive behaviour.

Obviously it is imperative that we avoid such a fate. While there are vital constitutional measures that can and will be used to safeguard against these problems – processes for transparency, accountability, and so on – some of these problems are inherent risks in any organisation and can only be avoided by working proactively to foster and to maintain a healthy, democratic culture. We don’t pretend to have an entirely comprehensive or foolproof set of remedies, but we think the below are some of the key concerns that need to be kept in mind.

  • There is no immutable, absolutely correct structure for a socialist organisation nor any absolutely infallible way to determine the most effective forms of organising. As such, Labour Transformed must continue to redress its relevance and utility at regular intervals, to constantly review its own structures, practices and internal culture. If we are no longer responding to the active process of class struggle, developing meaningful forms of action and strategy that can aid the class to develop its power, we must and will disband.
  • It is absolutely essential that any socialist organisation learns the lessons of the feminist movements. Particularly to ensure that structures, processes and internal culture of the organisation are capable of taking seriously and dealing effectively with issues of sexism, harassment, and sexual assault. This is obviously something easier said than done and will require constant work, attention, self-criticism and more to ensure that we build and maintain appropriate processes.
  • More generally, it is vital that any socialist organisation takes seriously all issues of oppression and discrimination. This will have to involve more than grand-standing declarations of our principles and will mean ongoing patient work to ensure diversity and representation within the organisation and to build a healthy and inclusive internal culture.
  • Many left groupings – especially in or around the Labour Party – have been plagued by appalling cultures of bullying, harassment and intimidation, and have all too often swept the issues under the carpet instead of dealing with them. This is not just a moral disgrace but is also disastrous for the effective functioning of any progressive political project. We need to ensure that our own organisation, as well as the wider left, is a welcoming space where people can engage openly in good-faith democratic discussions and where there is no tolerance for bullying.
  • It is equally vital that we’re able to engage in a healthy and comradely way with other parts of the left. If we want to help build an effective mass movement, rather than just a narrow sectarian faction, this means we need to engage with other parts of the left in a comradely way – even where we have significant personal or political differences. This is a self-interested point  since we won’t be able to continue functioning effectively without constantly learning from other groups, and we won’t be able to develop effective strategy unless we have a serious understanding of what other factions are actually trying to do and why.
  • We seek to avoid the entrenchment of permanent factional divisions within our organisation by building unity through open democratic discussion rather than silencing dissenting viewpoints.
  • We must actively guard against the entrenchment of permanent divisions within our organisation, e.g. between membership and leadership, between activists and intellectuals, between the membership and a bureaucracy. This means constantly renewing the membership and leadership of the organisation, bringing new people in, keeping the membership active, and regularly rotating delegated positions.
  • It is vital that we retain political, theoretical, and strategic clarity – if we’re not able to communicate with each other effectively, we will be unable to think clearly, and if we cannot think clearly, we will be incapable of developing effective strategy. This means trying to avoid either extreme of out-of-touch academic jargon or opportunistic rhetorical sloppiness.
  • It is vital to maintain a culture of organisational transparency and horizontal communication across all parts of the organisation so as to prevent our membership from drifting apart in different directions and to avoid the hoarding of knowledge and influence.