Democracy and the Labour Party


This blog is a reflection on one aspect of democracy in the Labour Party; what do we expect from our elected representatives in terms of accountability? The occasion for it is six Labour councillors from Hove breaking the whip, and defying both the CLP membership and the election manifesto, to abstain on the Homeless Bill of Rights. My conclusion is that this behaviour is essentially undemocratic and unsocialist and that the councillors should account for themselves to their membership.

The Homeless Bill of Rights

The events around the city’s adoption of the Homeless Bill of Rights form the background for this blog about democracy.

The Brighton & Hove Homeless Bill of Rights was launched on 28th October 2018 by Brighton & Hove Housing Coalition with FEANTSA (the European umbrella organisation for homelessness, whose original initiative it is) and Just Fair (a UK human rights organisation promoting social and economic rights).

All three CLPs passed motions calling for the adoption of the Homeless Bill of Rights. In the case of Hove CLP this was at a GC on 26th January 2019 when the motion passed unanimously and forwarded to the leader of the Labour Group. Subsequently, the Labour Party manifesto for the May 2019 local elections, like the Green Party manifesto, committed the party to the adoption of a Homeless Bill of Rights.

On 25th June 2019 a petition with about 2,500 signatures was presented to the Council by Brighton & Hove Housing Coalition, calling on it to adopt the Homeless Bill of Rights. Both Labour and Green spokespeople welcomed it and committed themselves to furthering it. The Labour administration worked closely with the Green party to agree joint goals, and that agreement was embodied in the Council Plan 2020-23, which states that “We will … adopt a Bill of Rights for homeless people.”

After a lot of work by both Labour and Green administrations, the Homeless Bill of Rights was incorporated into the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Strategy 2020-2025.

On 17th March 2021, a report put before the Housing Committee rather oddly recommended referral of “the use of the Homeless Bill of Rights” to Full Council. Labour proposed and the Greens seconded an amendment to restore the word “adopt” that had always been used up to this point. Labour and the Greens voted for the amendment, and the amended report was then passed by Labour and the Greens in the Policy and Resources Committee.

On 25th March 2021 the amended report came before Brighton & Hove City Council, recommending that the city adopt the Homeless Bill of Rights as an aspiration and a standard against which the Council and its partners would measure themselves. It passed by 31 votes to 13 with 7 abstentions. All the Green Councillors voted for and all the Conservatives against. The Labour Group had agreed to vote for it and this decision was and is on the website. Nevertheless, six Labour councillors (Councillors Appich, Atkinson, Hamilton, Henry, Moonan, and Quinn), all from Hove CLP, broke the Labour whip to abstain. What we know of their reasons is contained in a speech by Clare Moonan, which repeated Conservative attack lines and was (frankly) shameful. (For a discussion of the speech and why it illustrates very well the need for a Homeless Bill of Rights see here.)

Representative Democracy

There are broadly two views on the responsibilities of elected representatives. One view, famously supported by the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke, is that once they are elected decisions on how to cast their vote are entirely up to the conscience of the individual member of parliament or councillor. This is a viewpoint that sits easily with the general notion that the elite rules us in our own best interests, and elections are simply a process of choosing which members of the elite should be given that role; naturally they could then be given the dignity and autonomy that they would expect, and naturally they could be expected to use it in the interests of (in practice) the ruling class.

The development of party systems serves to modify this position in the direction of greater democracy. Instead of just choosing between individuals, electors choose between parties, with specific programmes contained in election manifestos; they are then taken to have chosen the programme, and the winning party claims popular support for the policies contained in it. For an elected representative to refuse to support a policy in the manifesto is thus undemocratic. Moreover, there is a democratic legitimacy to party discipline; the electorate may be assumed to expect the party they have voted for to act with a degree of unity, since otherwise the democratic vote for their programme is unlikely to be effective.

There is also a socialist position on this issue to bear in mind. Left parties in politics, especially parties representing the Labour movement, have long been suspicious of elected representatives exercising their own judgment independently of those who voted for them. Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger, thought that elected representatives should never be in office for more than a year nor more than once, or they grow “so mossy for want of removing, that they will hardly speak to an old acquaintance, if he be an inferior man …” (The Law of Freedom, 1652). That is to say, there is a tendency for people who are elected to power to start to find the logic of the ruling class more compelling than the needs of those who put them there. The Levellers called for annual parliaments, so that representatives had to secure election once a year. The Chartists also called for Parliamentary elections every year, not once every five years. When the Labour Reform Committee met in 1900, it was to promote candidates pledged to support the policy of the Labour Group (which became the Labour Party in 1906).

Reflecting these concerns, so far as local government candidates are concerned, when they become a Labour Party councillor candidate they must undertake to accept and comply with the standing orders of the Labour Group (Rules 5.III.3). The leader of the Labour Group is entitled to expect loyalty from the other members.

Another interesting take on this issue is the excuse made by Councillor Moonan in her speech, that she had to represent all her constituents, presumably including the bigoted ones. Others also use this argument. The problem with that view is that she has been elected on a programme; the democratic process has decided that that is the programme she should carry out. Of course she should help any constituent who needs her help; but it is not an excuse for abandoning both democracy and principle.

If your analysis of politics is one based on inequality or class, then you do not believe that you are simply voting for the person who can best run the system; instead you are voting to change the system, and you want your representatives to be accountable for any failure to follow your party’s policies. If you are a member of a democratic party whose membership selects its candidates and debates and votes on policies, then you also want your representatives to be accountable to the membership who chose and campaigned for them.

What do we expect of our councillors and MPs?

There are people in the Labour party who have not always followed the party line, and some of those I find admirable. So it is not as simple as saying that a MP or a councillor must always and simply do as the whip says. But in my view Labour MPs and councillors should as a minimum be accountable. If they choose to defy party discipline, breaking their undertaking and undermining that party’s reputation and effectiveness, if they refuse to support a policy that their membership supports, if they break a manifesto commitment – then at the very least they owe a duty to come before the membership of their own branch and constituency, explain themselves, and respond to any questions the membership chooses to put to them.