by Trevor Fisher
The Syria vote debate has been dominated by events inside the Westminster bubble, but an important development in the Labour Party has so far flown under the radar. This was the attempt at a ‘consultation’ launched by the leader on Friday 27th November – five days before the vote on December 2nd. Part of the ‘new politics’ which are now developing, the exercise needs close scrutiny.
Although consultation of members is not part of the rules of the party, nothing precludes it. However on this case, as Corbyn had already said he would vote NO to the proposal, he had prejudged the outcome. Given that M Ps were to be given a free vote on the issue, correctly in my view, there could be no question that this would set party policy on the topic – and it is doubtful whether this could ever be legitimate as this form of exercise is not one that appears in the rules as part of the policy making process as far as I can see.
However even as a straw poll, the process had serious flaws. It had not been announced in advance and most members would be unaware of its launch. There was no deadline, members merely being asked to respond “by the start of the week”. More seriously, the survey form – which seems to have vanished from the Labour Party website – did not pose a clear choice to voters, which is standard practice in polling. While it is rare that there is a simple Yes No choice in politics, on this issue the issue was stark. Why there was no choice posed that could be answered by a vote, either yes-no or a range of options makes the exercise unscientific.
The circulation of the document also poses questions. Those members not on email or without access to the internet that weekend were disenfranchised. Some members appear not to have recieved the mailing, Brian Barder, claiming to be a member of long standing, emailed Labour List to say his wife had recieved the mailing but he had not, and his wife is not a member or registered supporter.
The result, as reported by Labour List on Monday 30th November, were that “107,875 people responded to the consultation, of which 64,771 were confirmed as full Labour Party members. Of the 65,000 party members, they analysed a random sampling of 1900 responses. These showed that 75% were opposed to airstrikes in Syria.” That over one third of the responses had to be discounted as not full party members raises questions about the use of the party data base – do non members have circulation rights? – and the turnout. The full party membership is now said to be over 370,000, so less than 18% of the party membership voted. As the leader had already said he would vote against in parliament, voting in favour of bombing was not going to change anything, so those in favour had nothing to gain from taking part.
More questions come with what happened next. The results were released on Monday 30th September, one hour before the shadow cabinet meeting to discuss the vote on the 2nd. It is reported that 1900 of the 64,771 responses were analysed ‘on a random basis’ – raising the questions of how they were selected and interpreted. With no clear choices such as ‘support’ or ‘oppose’ the assessment is subjective. Why were 1900 answers chosen? Is this anything more than a time limited selection?
Corbyn in a speech during the leadership campaign asked “why not give members and supporters the chance to take part in indicative online ballots on policy in between conference?” a question which has no simple answer: the National Policy Forum, while not beyond criticism, is designed to give time for full deliberation of complex policy issues. Though online ballots rarely lend themselves to complex debates, usually pollsters attempt to give options to be selected, and on the Syria issue the choices were relatively simple for once.
It is unlikely that complex issues can ever be reduced to simple internet polling choices, but if there are to be more of these exercises, then proper scientific polling systems have to be employed and Labour has to bring in experts to devise them. And if they are, the leader has to say in advance he or she will accept the outcome whether or not they like it. Labour cannot have policy making systems thought up on the run without proper discussion or constitutional approval, and certainly not ones where the decisions on how they are run are devised by the politicians who benefit from them. Any change in the policy making system has to be approved by the party democratically, through its existing decision making systems.
Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007