The Labour Party seems to be in one long campaign or another these days. As the contest for the nomination of the Labour candidate for metromayor closes, the pace picks up in the battle for the national leadership of the party .We could certainly do without the latter, given the latitude our internal preoccupations allow to the Tories to do what they like. The only current restraint on Conservatives appears to be their own internal divisions over the Brexit debacle.
Frankly, Labour Party members have, in the immediate future, a better chance locally of determining changes for the improvement of local communities. Indeed, Corbyn and Smith share so many views on policy, one wonders why there is a national leadership contest at all. In truth, we all know why: it is the curse of politics but often the stimulus for political progress – personal ambition.
This triumph of the personal over the collective is commonplace in all aspects of life, whether in the workplace or in Westminster, in a council or in a company. We label this phenomenon “ambition” – give some people a little power or a title, and they want more. It very often goes to their heads. In extremis, it can be very dangerous – as Lord Acton famously remarked: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
This brings me to the metromayoral selection process in the Labour Party. There are some sobering lessons to be learnt if we are to truly be a democratic socialist party, given this modern trend for concentrating power in one pair of hands, whether a mayor, a metromayor, or a police commissioner. Whoever is put in that role is almost bound to be somewhat overwhelmed by the possibilities which those powers give to them. They weigh heavily on the ego, and distort an otherwise laudable self-belief. Apart from the patronage s/he controls, the incumbent will also be prey to insistent siren voices of self-interest forever at their ear, attempting to push a special interest of some sort or other.
The Tory intention in concentrating power is not new. Their objective is to dispose of local democracy as we understand it. They wish to leave matters to the electorate to decide once a cycle who will have control of the local levers of power regardless of what damage might be done between elections. The Labour Party rules are of little help in controlling these latter-day pro-consuls. In fact, the rules – silent as they are – actually help to thwart the accepted democratic practices of the party in local government.
Thus, it will be essential that the party firstly revises its rules to have regard for these massive changes in the form of local government now taking place. We must have genuine and objective scrutiny of whoever is in these new, powerful posts. In a Labour council-dominated area like our city-region, it might mean foregoing the old pals act which currently exists between councils, and/or council leaders as the appropriate scrutineers. No longer will cosy arrangements wash with the voting public.
Without trusted, impartial scrutiny, there will be a very obvious democratic deficit. We must be guided by accountability, transparency, inclusivity and flexibility; but these hinge on effective scrutiny. New ways of thinking are of paramount importance, leading to rules which guarantee that that new thinking is translated into a form of politics which breaks with discredited forms of the past and rebuilds faith in local democracy.