Open Selection and Socialist Democracy

The democratisation of candidate selection opens up questions and possibilities that are much wider than factional advance

The major arguments put forward for democratising selection of Parliamentary candidates in Labour have been factional and instrumental.1 This focus is entirely explicable and, given the behaviour of many MPs, should be entirely convincing and sufficient. It is clear that it will not be possible to implement even the mild 2017 manifesto without significantly altering the composition and/or the behaviour of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).

If you want the next Labour government to implement even the 2017 manifesto, you have to want democratised selections. However, on its own, democratising selections will not guarantee a more politically reliable PLP. Organisation as well as encouragement, training and identification of future candidates will be necessary, even if we get some form of Open Selection, to ensure a new set of politically reliable, imaginative left candidates (and then MPs) drawing on the talent, experience and intelligence of all our movement, especially from traditionally under-represented and marginalised groups. The democratisation of selection is a necessary but, by itself, insufficient condition of transforming the PLP and making it possible to implement a left programme.

The arguments that democratising selection would make it possible to implement a left programme or that it would open up opportunities for Labour’s Ocasio-Cortezes, as Laura Parker has argued, are true and sufficient, but they are limited to replacing bad MPs with good ones within the current system of representation. Whilst this replacement may well be adequate to implement the 2017 programme, failing to use democratised selection as part of a wider transformation of the system of representation will impose a fairly significant limit on wider socialist transition. Democratised selection poses much wider and deeper questions around the function of socialist representatives, where power should lie in society and how our movement begins to prefigure the future democratic organisation of society. For these questions, the relation between a factional or partial project and a universal one needs to be posed very carefully. The question of prefiguration links means to ends – for socialist democracy the development of democratic relationships and their extension across society, including the state, is both the aim and the way to get there. Whilst it would be naïve and damaging to completely recoil from factional organising and even, depending on the circumstances, bureaucratic fixes, an exclusive reliance on this way of doing politics clearly inhibits socialist advance.

Drain the Poison

One of the most painful paradoxes of activism in Labour in the name of wider democratisation is, as Hilary Wainwright argued of the earlier democracy movement, that “to achieve anything within the party, especially power as distinct from paper policies it has to spend an inordinate amount of energy taking its proposals through the sometimes blocked and convoluted processes of the labour movement.”2 This desire for wider democratisation of both the Party and society has run up against the instrangience of Labour’s sedimented procedures and cultures, and, even more so the behaviour a significant number of MPs. In these circumstances it is, as Wainwright continues, easy to become absorbed in a factional understanding whereby, the internal struggle can become “a whole world in itself”, producing an insular and tetchy atmosphere. This is what has happened over the summer and the difficulties of this need to be acknowledged as well as understanding the situation that has produced it. Open Selection, in particular, however, also has the ability to move us beyond factionalism towards (and the phrase is valuable, but much abused) a “kinder, gentler politics”.

It would be hard not to notice an increased ill-feeling and general sourness both online and in CLPs. This has largely been a response to the behaviour of Labour MPs, many of whom have, essentially, been trolling their own party’s members. Some party members have allowed themselves to be goaded into ill-judged responses to these continual taunts. This frustration has been rooted in a sense that MPs are unaccountable to the membership, which, given the current trigger ballot arrangements is undeniably true. It is very likely that a democratised selection system would both channel frustrations into constructive responses and improve the behaviour of MPs. It is worth noting, as Wainwright argues, that “reselection generally improved the relationship between CLPs and their MPs”.3

It is quite clear too that the sour, or worse, atmosphere is bad for the Party both in terms of public enthusiasm and in terms of grinding down members or producing siege mentalities. None of the relationships and behaviour which are responses to the current situation, especially MPs’ unaccountability, could be said to prefigure the democratic organisation of future society. In terms of addressing this, there is a very obvious superiority of the Open Selection proposals over any reforms to trigger ballots in that they both make contests normal, therefore significantly limiting the opportunities for making mischief over “Party division”. Furthermore, changing the emphasis of contests away from removing a sitting MP to positive campaigning for a talented and principled replacement should, as Laura Parker argues, mean potential candidates “run positive, vibrant campaigns talking about the issues voters actually care about in order to become the Labour candidate.” It may perhaps be possible to reform the trigger ballot system in such a way as to allow for positive campaigning, and this would be the only way to rescue the system, but without and possibly even with this reform, Open Selection is to be preferred. The way in which we treat each other in our local parties and online matters: Open Selection, if implemented, will in all likelihood improve everyone’s behaviour.

Democracy and Whose Interests Matter

The authors of the May Day Manifesto, in explaining the disappointments of the Wilson government, emphasise Labour’s lack of internal democracy as central to the incorporation not only of the membership but the working class as a whole into capitalism: “new capitalism and managed politics, in their present forms, could never have been established if Labour had remained a party within which democratic processes moved with freedom and fluency”. They elaborate further:

“the party created, as it was thought, to transform society, and still the party of the great majority - some 60 to 70 per cent - of the working people of Britain, faces us now in this alien form: a voting machine; an effective bureaucracy; an administration claiming no more than to run the existing system more efficiently.”4

Strikingly too, given the circumstances surrounding the current fixes against Open Selection, the authors also note:

“the historic means of ensuring that Labour should remain a working-class party - the special position of the trade unions in the constitution, and their consequent block votes - has, in a bitter irony, been one of the regular devices for ensuring the defeat of democratic reforms.”5

There has always been a pressure within Labour or the MPs and Party bureaucracy to constitute themselves as an autonomous Party. As Gramsci argues:

“the bureaucracy is the most dangerously hidebound and conservative force; if it ends up by constituting a compact body, which stands on its own and feels itself independent of the mass of members, the party ends up become anachronistic and at moments of crisis it is voided of all social content and left as though suspended in mid-air.”6

Open Selection and wider Party democratisation is a counter to this, and ultimately, the only way to force social content into our representatives. The alternative is complete incorporation into a Parliamentary world which sucks all radicalism out - democratising selection is also here a corrective to the limits of the old Labour left. As Ralph Miliband argues, their:

“acceptance of the categories of parliamentarianism has been distinguished from that of the leadership by a continuous search for means of escape from its inhibitions and constrictions. What the Labour leaders have accepted eagerly, the Labour Left has accepted with a degree of unease and at times with acute misgivings.”7

And so today’s soft left and beyond, ostensibly committed to at the very least the manifesto programme, but rejecting a major component of the means of implementing it.

At the very least democratised selection, by making MPs more responsive to the demands of their CLPs, allows another set of interests from the world of Parliament and its smooth integration into the media and business to impact on decisions. As Wainwright’s line of argument suggests in Reclaim the State, a hollowed out representative democracy allows for unilateral and pro-capital decisions from the state, whilst widening forms of participation, developing popular pressure strengthens civic power against the private sector; essentially, another bargaining power is introduced.8

Here it is disappointing that the otherwise impressive Rebecca Long-Bailey has expressed reservations about democratising selections by suggesting they would be a distraction: “if an MP had to go through a mandatory reselection process every three, four, five years, their attention would be drawn away from Westminster”. In fact, a large part of the point of democratising selection is, quite precisely, that MPs’ attention is drawn away from Westminster - and Wainwright notes that reselection can result in “turning MPs into better campaigners for the local party”, rooting them more in their constituencies. Ironically too, given Long-Bailey’s crucial work on an industrial strategy that aims to address regional inequalities, we might also expect the broadened interests furthered by democratised selection to favour decisions to the benefit of the regions over the metropolis.

The point here, drawing on Wainwright’s work on popular knowledge in both Reclaim the State and A New Politics from the Left,9 is that local members, given the increases in Party membership over the last three years, are the real experts, particularly, but not only, in their local areas. Democratising selection empowers that knowledge against the knowledge of business, the media and civil servants.

Open Selection and the State

Thus far the argument for democratised selections is compatible with a notion of the state as fundamentally neutral or even benign, but subject to capture by elite interests. It is also, thus far, broadly compatible with a traditional social democratic notion of the state as “an agency for change operating on society, essentially from above”.10 Democratised selections, from this perspective, would essentially check elite capture and enable a top-down left programme to be implemented. This, however, is, even in sophisticated versions like Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society,11 a limited conception of how the state works, what relationships traverse it, and how popular knowledge may be empowered beyond pressure on representatives within a largely unchanged system. Further exploration of Wainwright’s work on the politics of knowledge and “reselection and the state” suggests a way beyond this.

In “Reselection and the State”, Wainwright asks why “what at first appears as a modest set of reforms, such as reselection and the party’s election of the leader – both common features of other European Socialist and Social Democratic parties – should provoke such blustering, self-righteous resistance, not only from the party leadership but, through the press from the wider national political elite.”12 Wainwright’s conclusion is that by challenging the notion political legitimacy flows downwards from Parliament, “to suggest it lies anywhere else is in effect a challenge to the authority of the state…mandatory reselection…confronted the long British tradition of rule from above” and also that:

“the constitutional reforms were not and are not anti-Parliament; they are anti-Parliamentarian… they challenge the view that Parliament, and the State in Parliament, is the sole source of moral political authority. The reforms attempted to extend constitutional legitimacy to forms of political democracy outside Parliament as well.”13

In this conception then, the state is not neutral, it embodies and reproduces particular forms of relationship and power. Democratised selection, in a minor but significant way, potentially unstitches these.

Important questions around how to think the relationships that traverse the state - and the need to transform them as part of a move beyond what Wainwright has described as the “sterile, macho opposition between reform and revolution” - are posed in Nicos Poulantzas’s “Dual Power and the State”. Poulantzas, opposes both Social Democracy and Stalinism, both of which are “characterized by a basic distrust of direct rank-and-file democracy and popular initiative” and for whom:

“occupation of the State involves replacing the top leaders by an enlightened left elite and, if necessary, making a few adjustments to the way in which the existing institutions function; it is left understood that the state will bring socialism to the popular masses from above”.

However, too immediate appeals to workers’ self-management, risk leaving the state essentially intact by abandoning it as a place of struggle. If one were looking for a criticism of, for all its very considerable merits, Wainwright’s New Politics from the Left it would be its slight tendency in this direction. Instead, Poulantzas poses the question:

“how is it possible radically to transform the state in such a manner that the extension and deepening of political freedoms and the institutions of representative democracy (which were also a contest of the popular masses) are combined with the unfurling of forms of direct democracy and the mushrooming of self-management bodies?”

Democratised candidate selection, particularly in its transformation of how the working class and other popular forces are incorporated, can be part of the transformation of relationships and forces within the State. Democratised selection is also a way of developing and empowering a popular movement from below against the constant threat of “the social democratisation of the experience: however radical they may be the various programmes will change little of relevance.” It is also part of the articulation of “the two processes: transformation of the state and of representative democracy and development of direct democracy and the movement for self-management”, where both are considered necessary.

The question of the popular movement against social democratisation, and the relationship between representative democracy and self-management, also bears on some of the questions around the “Alternative Models of Ownership” agenda, especially the important critique of the lack of democracy in the postwar nationalisations as an aspect in both the ease of dismantling them and the absence of a broader challenge to capitalist relations and purposes. Democratisation of Labour and democratisation of the economy are also strongly linked by concept of a politics of knowledge, where the suspicion of popular initiative and capacities links the lack of democracy in industry, the lack of internal party democracy and the conception of the state in bringing socialism from above.

Transforming Representation

Wainwright notes the contradiction within Labour between a broadly Burkean conception of representation whereby “only the individual MP alone with his conscience can ultimately determine how best to represent his constituents” and the idea of accountability to labour: “an ambiguously defined, constantly redefined idea of accountability to forms of democracy- trade union organisations in particular, but also socialist clubs and women’s labour organisations – established outside of Parliament”. This contradiction has thus far largely been resolved by presuming that the “needs of labour could be represented adequately within the existing parliamentary institutions. In spite of its extra-Parliamentary basis, it would chameleon-like, become in Parliament a proper Parliamentary Party.”13 Moreover, the Burkean principle never really means the exercise of the MP’s conscience but rather an alibi, in the form of the defence of “autonomy” for incorporation into the purposes of capital, the state beyond democracy and imperialism, as Wainwright discusses how far the democracy movement of the 1970s and early 1980s, drew on the

“Long observation that even (or perhaps especially) under a Labour government, Parliament’s decision making, particularly the government’s role in it, is already in fact based on non-Parliamentary processes. Here they observe the power of the civil service (well beyond its advisory brief), of the defence establishment and NATO, the security services, the CBI and the financial institutions of the City.” 14

Democratisating selection would shift the terms through which this contradiction is resolved, particularly if it functioned within a wider sense of the need to transform the state. But it also opens up the question of, if we reject the Burkean conception of representation, what do we expect of socialist representatives? Can their function be something other than conventional parliamentarians with a left conscience?

I attempted to explore this question when putting myself forward as a candidate for the 2017 election - indeed, the main reason to put myself forward was to try to begin a discussion over what we expected from socialist representatives. I promised to “dedicate a significant amount of both my time and Parliamentary salary to helping to build on and politicise community capacities and to institutionalise solidarity” and use Labour breakfast clubs, set up as part of this, as a:

“basis for popular participation to influence how we use the strength of the party membership and the community to meet people’s needs whether directly through things that might include, alongside Labour breakfast clubs, food banks, legal support or cultural education or through influencing our representatives both locally and nationally.”

I think this position is fundamentally correct though a little one-sided, in that it underestimates the importance of MPs as potential agitators and educators. . Political parties are always pedagogical, even when they are not explicitly and consciously so. This pedagogical impact is most malign when parties of the left and their representatives give up on ideological struggle - what happens here is not only an absence of teaching, but also a kind of teaching that implicitly conveys that popular experience and needs are irrelevant and the dominant common sense is adequate. This is merely a starting point and a posing of the question; democratised selection should open up these questions of what we expect of our representatives, beyond soundness of conscience, more widely.

Of the current proposals for reselection of Labour MPs, it should be clear that the Open Selection proposals are best from the perspective of the democratisation we require. This is not only a means to secure representatives who are politically sounder, but also opens up a set of questions around socialist democracy that go far beyond factional advance.

  1. I’m largely using “democratised selection” in this piece to try to draw together the earlier efforts in the Labour democracy movement and what democratised selections more widely than any specific proposals could do and the current struggle. It seems fairly clear, however, that the proposals for open selection offer the strongest basis for the kind of democratisation of selections with the wider implications that I am arguing for. 

  2. Hilary Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, London, Hogarth Press, 1987, p. 58. 

  3. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 33. 

  4. Raymond Williams (ed), May Day Manifesto: 1967-8, London, Lawrence & Wishart, p. 171.  

  5. May Day Manifesto, pp. 175-6. 

  6. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1973, p. 211. 

  7. Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour, Pontypool, Merlin Press, 2009m pp. 14-5. 

  8. Hilary Wainwright, Reclaim the State, London, Verso, 2003, p. 68. 

  9. Hilary Wainwright, A New Politics from the Left, Cambridge, Polity, 2018. 

  10. Wainwright, Reclaim the State, p. 11.  

  11. Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, Pontypool, Merlin Press, 2009. 

  12. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p.22 

  13. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 49, 52 

  14. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 34