Jeremy Corbyn’s Syria consultation was flawed and undemocratic

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

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8 Responses to “Jeremy Corbyn’s Syria consultation was flawed and undemocratic”

  1. John Kelly says:

    Surveys are often compared to a drunk leaning on a lamp-post – used more for support than illumination. The author of this article appears, on this occasion, to chosen a street with no lamp-posts for his argument – there is no support and certainly no illumination in his arguments.

    An 18% turnout in a little over 2 days is something most pollsters would give their right arm for. The polls run by newspapers, which can reach millions of readers, are lucky to get more than a couple of thousand replying. The separating out of the members from supporters and affiliates is surely to be commended, not churlishly discounted by a criticism of the mailing list.

    However the following sentence takes the biscuit:-

    “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”.

    A perfect description of the party’s policy forums.

    The real question, not addressed by the author, however is whether the poll reflected party opinion or not. I would find it extraordinary if after the majority and the shadow cabinet and the majority of the PLP voted against extending the bombing if that wasn’t also the view of the majority of party members.

  2. sean connor says:

    I could have read that comment in the Daily Mail. Why Labour Uncut allows this drivel is beyond me.

  3. soopermouse says:

    The problem with pacifism is that it’s the best ay one can help the enemy. Here’s what Orwell had to say about it, in 1942

    “Pacifism. Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, ‘he that is not with me is against me’. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security. Mr Savage remarks that ‘according to this type of reasoning, a German or Japanese pacifist would be “objectively pro-British”.’ But of course he would be! That is why pacifist activities are not permitted in those countries (in both of them the penalty is, or can be, beheading) while both the Germans and the Japanese do all they can to encourage the spread of pacifism in British and American territories. The Germans even run a spurious ‘freedom’ station which serves out pacifist propaganda indistinguishable from that of the P.P.U. They would stimulate pacifism in Russia as well if they could, but in that case they have tougher babies to deal with. In so far as it takes effect at all, pacifist propaganda can only be effective against those countries where a certain amount of freedom of speech is still permitted; in other words it is helpful to totalitarianism.
    I am not interested in pacifism as a ‘moral phenomenon’. If Mr Savage and others imagine that one can somehow ‘overcome’ the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen. As an ex-Indian civil servant, it always makes me shout with laughter to hear, for instance, Gandhi named as an example of the success of non-violence. As long as twenty years ago it was cynically admitted in Anglo-Indian circles that Gandhi was very useful to the British government. So he will be to the Japanese if they get there. Despotic governments can stand ‘moral force’ till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force. But though not much interested in the ‘theory’ of pacifism, I am interested in the psychological processes by which pacifists who have started out with an alleged horror of violence end up with a marked tendency to be fascinated by the success and power of Nazism. Even pacifists who wouldn’t own to any such fascination are beginning to claim that a Nazi victory is desirable in itself. In the letter you sent on to me, Mr Comfort considers that an artist in occupied territory ought to ‘protest against such evils as he sees’, but considers that this is best done by ‘temporarily accepting the status quo’ (like Déat or Bergery, for instance?). a few weeks back he was hoping for a Nazi victory because of the stimulating effect it would have upon the arts:
    As far as I can see, no therapy short of complete military defeat has any chance of re-establishing the common stability of literature and of the man in the street. One can imagine the greater the adversity the greater the sudden realization of a stream of imaginative work, and the greater the sudden katharsis of poetry, from the isolated interpretation of war as calamity to the realization of the imaginative and actual tragedy of Man. When we have access again to the literature of the war years in France, Poland and Czechoslovakia, I am confident that that is what we shall fined. (From a letter to Horizon.)”

    The problem with the western left is that , in its extreme form, it is still singing from the Comintern’s sheet although the Comintern has been dead for a while.
    The easiest way to see this is in the western pseudoleft’s attitude towards Israel. The arguments the BDS and Stop The War are using are word by word ripped from the book of the people who created the PLO- see Pacepa’s Book “Red Horizons” for details.
    As I was born in Romania, I remember seeing Arafat coming to visit Ceausescu at least once a year. The rhetoric of the western pseudo left has not changed on the matter, albeit the truth is even uglier now. None of the people so bent on the destruction of Israel and the freedom of the Palestinians ( a term also coined by Comintern, these guys called themselves Arabs before 1964- Palestinian used to mean “Jew born in Palestine”) care about the fact that Hamas and Fatah are oppressing the Palestinians by keeping them in perpetual poverty and Hamas actually kills more Gazans than the IDF.# according to AI.

  4. Toby Ebert says:

    No doubt Trevor is right in many of his criticisms of the way the email poll was conducted. It is the first time it has been done, to my knowledge, by any political party. But the important point is that we, Labour Party members, have been asked our opinion about a vital issue of policy.

    This is a very positive development for party democracy, as I’m sure most members would agree. Trevor, why not put your suggestions for improvement of the process forward to the leadership? We all want this to work, but to work fairly and robustly.

  5. Stephen W says:

    That 18% of Labour members responded in 2 days is to be commended but even if you then take a random sample of that 18% there is no guarantee it is representative of Labour members.

    The way the whole exercise was sprung on opponents after the Shadow cabinet was meant to go away and think it over for the weekend will have annoyed a lot of people. It’s all crummy party management and the kind of crass exercise that will just deepen the divide. They could have conducted a proper balanced poll of labour members and warned everyone that was the plan in advance if they wanted real data.

  6. P Kelly says:

    The Labour Party, with the support of the trade unions, has supported discrimination for decades. Why is it only being noticed now? Why is the Labour Party only undemocratic now?

  7. Sam Henly says:

    This seems like mostly nonsense to me. There may have been some problems with the survey and its execution, but polling the partys supporters for their opinions should be official policy. It takes some chutzpah to imply to do so is undemocratic.

    As you say, Corbyn had almost come to a position, and simply wanted to learn more, and give more info to MPs, about public opinion before allowing a free vote.

    Nothing is good enough, is it? Do we all need reminding that Labours internal democracy has never been perfect?

  8. Peter Kenny says:

    Of course if your political project gets 4.5% support you might start trying to denigrate anything that gives the other 95.5% a voice.

    I thought you guys were “modernisers” – time to get with this internettty thing, eh?

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