Clause One socialism: we need to remake the case for parliamentary democracy
As part of its recent campaign for Clause One Socialism, Progress has launched a ‘new year’s resolution’ to oppose the McDonnell Amendment, which will effectively abolish the requirement for future Labour leaders to demonstrate that they have a bedrock of support in the Labour’s Parliamentary Party. This is the right view to take on the amendment, but Clause One Labourites must also speak up more broadly, as the proposed change comes in the context of a fundamental breakdown in relations between the PLP and the membership, and the emergence of trends in Labour that don’t always reflect Clause One. Members — now in the driver’s seat in the party — will instinctively back rules that reflect their sentiments and understanding of what it is to be Labour, so this argument is now much more fundamental.
The same seismic shift also informs debates about other structures — while plans to abolish or marginalise the elected National Policy Forum John Smith created have been shelved for now, the idea is still wildly popular. Mandatory reselection is now never far from Labour’s internal debates. And if the long-term plan from party moderates is to bring back the Electoral College (I’ve written about the issues with that before), that discussion again hinges on winning back the soul of the party. We must defend the party’s traditions from first principles, not just by reference to abstract rules and acronyms.
Activism is vital and should be celebrated, but parliamentary socialism remains irreplaceable
Labour has always had a committed and enthusiastic membership, augmented by our brothers and sisters in the trade union movement and more recently by some registered party supporters. It is thanks to Jeremy Corbyn that the party’s ranks have swelled, and moderates have sometimes been churlish about that. Like many moderates, I can’t pretend I don’t have apprehensions about Momentum, but I do acknowledge that at its best it has served as an outlet for disenfranchised young people to engage with politics and get involved with valuable grassroots campaigns, the ‘Democracy SOS’ drive about the government’s reckless Individual Voter Registration changes a prime example. Labour is also home to groups like the Labour Campaign against Homelessness, which does street outreach work alongside policy advocacy. Every party member brings unique experiences and knowledge to the table when we debate resolutions and hold internal elections. And members from all sections of the party are dedicated in their campaigning for the party’s elected officials, week in and week out.
However, the vast majority of Labour supporters in Britain have never been members of the party — currently 630,000 of us do pay subs, but that’s compared to a total of 9.3 million who chose to stand with Labour even at our low ebb in 2015. Worse still, a decades-long decline in trade union membership means that many aren’t affiliated through that vital link either, and though registered supporter status was intended to bridge the divide between our internal and external supporters, take up there has been low in the scheme of things. This is a longstanding part of Britain’s political culture — party activism has always been very much a minority pursuit and it isn’t the only way to engage with politics, with millions still regarding themselves as Labour and turning up to the polls to provide us with the MPs, councillors, mayors and AMs/MSPs we need to do our vital work. It’s true that we now have the largest membership of any social democratic party in Western Europe, but it is voters at large that chose to make us Britain’s official opposition at the last election, and we can’t forget that it’s ultimately the latter that gives Labour a hallowed place in British public life.
Part of the challenge of being a member is therefore the constant need to keep in mind that while we proudly belong to the party, the party does not belong only to us. Otherwise we risk building a direct debit democracy, which is by definition exclusionary even if we don’t mean it to be. Parliament is something much greater — a sovereign common institution in which everyone can be represented, one-person one-vote, and thus ultimately the only place where the country’s direction can be set. For all that we try to do to move the needle, this tends to mean that the balance of national politics is in the end decided by the least political, not the most (hence why a Tory party with an elderly, inactive membership of maybe 150,000 can still be 12 points ahead of us in total support).
It’s probably an all-too-human frustration with that among some activists that leads to harmful rationalisations about sheep-like voters being led astray by a right-wing press or an itch to find extra-parliamentary substitutes, but representative democracy is inescapable, and exists for a reason. True democracy draws its legitimacy from breadth of representation, not depth. And so only through parliament was Labour able to secure a democratic mandate to create the NHS, the welfare state and the minimum wage, and only there can we hope to block Tory mandates to destroy those achievements and add fresh new chapters to the story of British social democracy. This is why the unions birthed a political Labour party, in the country and in parliament, every bit as relevant today as it has ever been.
The PLP are not an unaccountable elite
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has become a flashpoint between the membership and the PLP, and the basis of a breakdown in trust. Amid this, a powerful narrative has taken hold in parts of the party grassroots that imagines the PLP to be distant and aloof, failing to represent members. But while this is understandable from the standpoint of members, particularly those who had newly joined for Jeremy, it is not the whole picture of the party’s crisis. As Alex Andreou wrote when he explained his own evolution away from Corbynism, a majority of those nine million 2015 Labour voters who elected the PLP were (and still are) deeply sceptical of Corbyn despite the membership’s steadfast approval of him, and so the party was experiencing “a much more complex fracturing of its mandate” than some would acknowledge.
Moreover, while Corbyn has been a focal point, the divergence in opinion on him between members and voters speaks to broader differences. The membership is self-selecting, skewed towards metropolitan areas and AB social class, and we differ on outlook. All Labour supporters share a common affinity to the party on economic fairness and touchstone issues like the NHS, but members are more uniformly left-liberal on welfare, defence, immigration and often Europe (and still moreso than our ex-voters who have gone to UKIP or the Tories, who we cannot win without). It is that cultural divide that is severing Labour from its working class roots, and a Labour MP can now easily find themselves caught between a growing and passionate membership to their left and a disgruntled, shrinking core vote on their right.
Members are adamant that the PLP must not compromise on their core issues — this was a basic driver of Corbyn’s assent. But we at least need to acknowledge and engage deeply with the competing and legitimate democratic pressures MPs face. So far our most popular solutions rely on using unifying economic narratives to counter cultural divides (e.g. for immigration, talk about pressure on wages and public services), but Labour is losing “everywhere to everybody” in Jon Cruddas’ assessment precisely because there are no painless solutions that please all parts of our coalition without introspection or prioritisation on any flank. As stakeholders within the party, MPs and members are both firmly on each other’s radars, but MPs must retain the flexibility to represent and engage clearly with all of their many constituents, especially the less political who most need reaching.
Members must also battle back against the encroachment of anti-politics sentiment into the party — no coherent left project can be founded on the denigration of public service. I get why right-wing populists appear eager to paint parliament as a snake’s nest of gravy-train non-jobbers, but to that I can quote Gordon Brown — those who don’t believe in the potential of government shouldn’t be trusted with it. But left activists co-opting the same rhetoric or spreading factually-challenged social media memes about procedural votes or the expenses of non-London MPs truly mystifies me — it’s just punching ourselves in face (ditto for attacking our world-renown public broadcaster). If we style ourselves as politically engaged activists, we’re under all the more responsibility to educate ourselves and others about how democratic institutions actually work and raise the level of debate, not to pander to harmful misconceptions.
Instead, as we recognised after the tragic death of Jo Cox (but even then far too fleetingly, I’m sad to say), the bulk of MPs are quietly dedicated and in it for the right reasons, even when we disagree with their sincere best judgement. We can only rebuild faith in the body politic by promoting acceptance of that simple truth and restoring trust in the institutions and processes we hold in common — overhyping an Obama or a Clegg or a Corbyn as a messianic ‘last honest man’ to fix the political class will always end in tears. And while members each bring our own insights and experiences to the table, we must not fall into parroting the ‘MPs live in a bubble’ tropes. Every week Labour MPs campaign, tackle issues, get briefings, hold surgeries, receive correspondence and meet community and pressure groups — they are exposed to a wider range of perspectives and issues than most.
Respect and responsibility are two-way streets
From my CLP nomination meeting in summer 2016, I remember a contrast between the contributions two speakers made. One spoke up to suggest that we presumably must trust our own party’s MPs, in which case an 80% no confidence vote in Corbyn meant something — a simple observation that still surprised me in its rarity. The other voiced a now more widespread sentiment and spoke in exasperation — what where the PLP thinking, had they gone crazy?
We’ve heard a lot since September 2015 about the PLP needing to respect the membership and the mandate it gave Corbyn. It is true that from early on, a minority of the PLP vocally attacked Corbyn — this deeply angered the membership and was counterproductive. However, in the first instance only around 15 of 232 Labour MPs endorsed Corbyn for leader. To broaden the debate in good faith, another 20 nonetheless put him on the ballot, even if backing other candidates. Despite the advice of the party’s elected parliamentarians, the selectorate then elected Corbyn to be the leader of the opposition in a landslide, and most MPs then shelved their concerns and attempted to make the leadership work, many taking frontbench positions. They held their nerve until after the EU referendum, where faced with Brexit and fearing an earlier election, most felt they had no choice but to act and put their names to the no-confidence motion.
I remember another contribution at that CLP meeting, an inspired Corbyn joiner who expressed bafflement at the notion Corbyn’s critics had that the job of leader was just to be a kind of manager. But this is a fundamental difference in how members and MPs experience politics (it’s also at odds with the fact that swing voters too prioritise competence, but that’s another matter). It was likely in an attempt to bridge this gap that many MPs spoke to their direct experiences of blurred directives, an absence of strategy and ineffective referendum campaigning in their heartfelt articles and resignation letters, to unpack why they had concluded they were unable to do the jobs they were elected to do while Corbyn was leader.
Labour members naturally identify strongly with our party and want a stake in who leads it, but that person wears a simultaneous hat as leader of the opposition, and the MPs with wider public obligations are led by them in a much more day-to-day sense than we are. This is why for the first 75 years of the party’s existence, the PLP alone elected the leader. After the reforms of the early 1980s, Labour improved its system to institute a fairer balance, with MPs choosing in partnership with the grassroots through the Electoral College. Even in the new post-Collins system, they were meant to exercise a gatekeeper role, the one the McDonnell amendment would remove.
But even without that amendment, our current party culture is thoroughly divorced from any of those origins — many members want to hold the power to set the direction of the party, but MPs bear much of the responsibility to implement and may be expected to do so with little objection or reference to their judgement as elected representatives of the people. This is an unworkable division — responsibility must be shared and respect must be mutual if our party is ever to function again. And so partnership between MPs and activists must be restored, enshrined in our rules and our way of doing things.