I went to my first Bristol West Constituency Labour Party AGM last night. There were problems. The venue was too small and unbearably hot, the organisers were frantic and completely overwhelmed by the numbers that had turned up and — understandably given the events of the past couple of weeks in the Labour Party — tempers were short. Still, it was one of the most passionate and engaged political meetings I have ever taken part in and bizarrely, I can’t wait for the next one.
So I was surprised to see this article by Ruth Davies being circulated this morning. Reading it I felt like we were at completely different meetings, even though I was sitting almost directly in front of her.
My partner and I arrived half an hour early, as we expected there to be a huge turn out and didn’t want to be turned away. The organisers hadn’t factored in the same concerns however, and the room was absolutely packed. There was a main room with members crammed in, both sitting and standing and an overflow room. Altogether I would estimate there were nearly 300 people there.
It didn’t get off to a great start. The first thing the Chair said to the room was that she had spoken to Thangam Debbonaire (our MP) and they had decided that the meeting would be postponed and reconvened at some point in the future in a bigger venue. In my opinion this was a huge mistake. In the light of the PLP’s recent underhanded manoeuvrings, it’s not surprising that party officials telling 300 members to ‘go home’ didn’t go down all too well. Especially given that members had to push quite hard for there to be a vote on whether to continue the meeting at all, instead of it being an executive decision by the organisers.
I have a lot of sympathy for the organising team. They were looking for a practical solution to a practical problem, and didn’t know how to deal with the whole thing. The problem was that when and where to hold the meeting was being brushed off as an issue of practicality, but for many members it was deeply time-sensitive and a matter of great urgency given the political context.
We were in the room Thangam spoke to first. She took over chairing and chose people to ask questions herself. To her credit she took a range of opinions and there was little heckling in the initial round of questions. People did shout out, but for many of them it was the first chance they were presented with a chance to speak to their MP and for a limited time only. At no point was the heckling rude or personal, or anything even remotely resembling verbal assault. It was much more polite and restrained than what you would hear in the commons.
To expect people who vehemently disagreed with her and felt betrayed by what she has done to sit there and nod in polite deference is unrealistic. For my own part, I felt like I was back in junior school with a teacher explaining why we couldn’t go out to play that day. If I’m honest, Thangam seemed to vastly underestimate the political intelligence of the people she was addressing; one doesn’t necessarily need to be shouted at to feel insulted or disrespected.
Ruth’s article mentions Momentum causing a ruckus. I’m not a member of Momentum (yet), but this was what I found the most confusing about her post. Apart from 4 people wearing Momentum t-shirts (there are photos!) who were dispersed across the room, and 3 people mentioning being active in Momentum during their candidacy speeches — all 3 of whom to the best of my recollection were elected — I’m not sure how she could tell who was a member and who wasn’t. I certainly couldn’t and I was actively looking for them. The interesting thing was that there weren’t two well defined blocs, rather people were listening and responding to each point. Sometimes in a rather heated way, but put 300 people in an overheated room together and tempers are going to be frayed at the best of times.
The question of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership clearly defined the meeting. I won’t argue that for many, defending him (or not) was a top priority. Given the fact that the party is having a leadership crisis at a time of such political turmoil, how could it not be? How could anyone who cares about the labour movement be ambivalent towards what is happening, whichever side they fall on? This question is going to define the Labour Party for decades to come; perhaps instead of tone-policing members who are deeply concerned about this and offering empty platitudes for unity, we should be making arguments about what direction the party should take, offering something concrete to unify around.
That brings us on to another contentious issue, that of the motions. This is where things became particularly tense, and the disagreements here largely stemmed from disagreements over the rules. The main gist of the motion in question was a vote of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn.
Bear with me through the lingo:
- The Chair suggested the motion couldn’t be taken because the meeting organisers had failed to circulate it in advance (despite the mover having sent it to the organisers prior to the meeting)— this is not a valid reason to refuse a motion.
- She then refused calls to take it as an emergency motion, which could have been done.
- It was then claimed that members who joined within the last 8 weeks could not vote on motions and this was presented as a reason to refuse it — this is a matter of dispute, and even if that is the case this would not have been a reason to prevent those members who could from voting.
- It was then claimed that AGMs could not take motions — they can.
- The Chair refused to hear a legitimate procedural motion ‘that the vote be taken’.
- She then refused to hear a procedural motion challenging the Chair’s ruling.
- Lastly, she refused to hear a motion of ‘no confidence in the Chair’.
These procedures are all clearly explained in the Labour Party rulebook (references can be provided if necessary).
In total that is 7 undemocratic breaches of the rules. Many may have been unaware of the minutiae and there were practical considerations as our time was coming to a close. But more time was spent debating whether to take the motion than it would have taken to just take the motion. Something a clear majority of the room was pushing for.
People got annoyed and rightly so. I was very perturbed to hear someone had attacked Ruth in the way she describes. That kind of behaviour is awful and inexcusable. It wasn’t however, representative of the room in general. There were flash points — I had grown men screaming in my face and telling me to shut up while I was trying to push for the motion to be taken — but these were fleeting and I think could be avoided with more pro-active and open organisation in the future. I’ve seen a report that young women were chased out of the room and want to make it clear that I never saw anything of the sort.
All of this aside, I left feeling energised by the evening. I’m ready to throw myself into the largest socialist party in Europe to rebuild a strong labour movement. Those who see people like me as Corbyn ‘cultists’ due to our insistence on defending the man would do well to read David Graeber’s recent article in The Guardian. It is not who Corbyn is, but what he represents; far from being a fan club — as one long-standing member patronised — Corbyn and the attendent surge in membership represents a changing understanding of what power means and who should wield it.
Party members would be mistaken to take calls for unity at face value. There have been invocations of a family, a movement and a home. But in any of those things, if there’s a problem it needs to be discussed. Sweeping conflicts under the rug only tears families further apart. People need to have opportunities to be frank and forthright. Indeed some of my most unpleasant arguments have been with my sister. One can rarely have a cool, calm and dispassionate disagreement about something — or with someone — they deeply care about.
Calls for unity can’t simply be unity in adhering to the status quo. Not everyone is going to agree and that’s fine. Passions will run high, voices will be raised but that’s fine too. People may even be a little rude to each other from time to time. Hundreds of thousands of people have joined Labour to have a voice in changing society and the party. They have joined to have this debate; it is not a distraction from gaining power but the means to do it.