Is Jeremy Corbyn a democrat? With Labour now promising a ‘democratic revolution’ this has become a critical question. We can only judge Corbyn on his record as Labour leader and that suggests his rhetoric of radical empowerment conceals a traditional politician’s desire to hold on to the levers of power. Corbyn won't like it, but in many ways he is an heir to Blair.
Sally Gimson's deselection certainly calls into question Corbyn’s democratic credentials. Selected by members of Bassetlaw constituency Labour party, the Corbynite-dominated National Executive Committee refused to endorse her, claiming Gimson was the subject of numerous complaints relating to her time as a Camden councillor. The nature of these accusations remain vague and Gimson vigorously contests them. Bassetlaw members suspect Gimson's real crime was being a moderate. This belief was reinforced when Labour’s governing body imposed on them a candidate who appears to be much closer to their hard-left tastes.
If Bassetlaw was a leadership stitch-up there have been plenty of others in Labour’s past – although it was left-wingers who usually found themselves out in the cold.
After the disastrous 1983 general election, Neil Kinnock wanted to move his party towards the centre ground. This meant taking power from the hard-left, so Kinnock centralised authority in the Leader’s Office, especially when it came to candidate selection. Yet,while taking more power into his own hands, Kinnock claimed he actually wanted to make the party more ‘democratic’. He proposed doing that by giving ordinary members the final say in choosing candidates rather than leaving it in the hands of a small number of activists, as was then the case.
But Kinnock’s support for one member one vote was conditional. For he believed the majority of members were less radical than activists and so were more likely to choose moderate candidates. Seeing their influence under threat, the hard left and many unions resisted Kinnock; it was only in 1993 after he had been replaced by John Smith that the party finally embraced change.
Even so, local Labour members still sometimes chose left-wing candidates deemed unsuitable by the leadership. With Tony Blair as leader in 1995 the NEC deselected Liz Davies as the candidate for Leeds North East, a decision about which Jeremy Corbyn was particularly critical. The hard left still regard this as a key moment in what they regard as a Blairite 'witch-hunt', one which saw Davies leave the party and join Ken Loach’s Trotskyist Left Unity, which stood candidates against Labour in the 2015 election.
Along with many others who left the party during the Kinnock and Blair years, Davies rejoined Labour to support Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign. It was during this campaign Corbyn promised to set about ‘democratising the party and empowering the party members’. But there has been precious little democratisation and empowerment under Corbyn’s leadership. This is despite supporters such as Jon Lansman of Momentum initially calling for regular membership consultations on policy. Apart from one unreliable survey over whether to support bombing in Syria early in Corbyn’s tenure, these hopes have come to nothing.
It is true that most of Corbyn’s policy preferences find a strong echo within the membership: that is why they voted for him. But on Brexit – the most critical issue facing Britain today – Corbyn has always been at odds with many of his keenest supporters. A long-time critic of the EU, Corbyn was unwilling to embrace what the vast majority wanted: a second referendum with Labour backing Remain. It took two years of obfuscation before Corbyn finally accepted the necessity of a referendum – and that was largely due to Labour’s appalling performance in the 2019 European Parliament elections. Even now Corbyn refuses to say whether the party would campaign to Leave or Remain.
In preventing the party embracing a Brexit policy his members actually want, Corbyn has been helped by Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite, a Union which holds considerable sway in a number of constituency parties, the NEC and party conference. Despite only having been re-elected in 2017 by six per cent of his own members, McCluskey has been loud and brutal in his condemnation of opponents of the Labour leader on Brexit, because they share the same hard-left hostility to the EU.
McCluskey and other union leaders will be vital in shaping the party’s manifesto which will be hammered out this Saturday. This ‘Clause V’ meeting will in particular decide Labour’s immigration policy. In September, party conference voted to support free movement but despite that some unions favour limits. As one Labour figure stated – in a damning reflection on the state of the party’s democracy under Corbyn – the party’s immigration policy will be ‘as radical as Unite and the GMB will let it be’.
If Cobyn’s democratic credentials are questionable, based on how he is imposing an army of candidates on reluctant constituency parties, Boris Johnson’s are even more dubious. But Conservatives are not promising a ‘democratic revolution’.
What is clear from Corbyn’s record is that, despite being seen as a radical break with the past, Labour's leader is as willing to abuse power – and rely on union leaders with issues of their own – as any of his predecessors if democracy threatens to get in his way.
Steven Fielding is professor of political history at the University of Nottingham and is writing ‘The Labour Party: from Callaghan to Corbyn’ for Polity Press