Should Labour MPs retain a significant role in the nomination of future Labour leaders?
Sometimes standing fast means that the world just moves around you. Such is the situation for realists on the left when it comes to electing Labour’s leaders.
Labour is a federal party with four internal stakeholders. First and foremost are our members. As well as our party members, we now have the system of registered supporters, which has brought tens of thousands towards involvement in the party. The bedrock of our movement, the trade unions and socialist societies, makes up our affiliates. Last of all come our elected representatives, though conspicuously not councillors.
When a one member, one vote system for leadership elections was suggested, giving voice to Labour’s constituent parts was the key socialist argument in opposition. But the combination of registered supporters and OMOV proved incredibly successful for Jeremy Corbyn, whose support surged in both recent leadership elections. The principled position which went before has now been abandoned for the promise of short-term gains – the left’s advocacy of a federal type of party democracy has been forgotten in favour of the liberal and ‘consumer-individualist’ rules we now have.
For some, this is still not enough, particularly if the only leadership worth backing must also be one with a very marginal amount of support from parliamentary colleagues. The proposal to reduce the nomination threshold makes this case brazenly. This said, the idea that a high nomination threshold privileges the voice of members of parliament over members is a fair one, a point stubbornly not acknowledged by many who would rather close down debates than win them. Everyone is wrong.
What is being missed by factionalists is that a compromise-based approach would be best for the movement as a whole, particularly if we want the party to be stable and cohesive in the long run.
When dealing with constitutional rules, there are two bad ways to think. The first is only looking one step ahead for a permanent change. The second is making changes based on the outcomes you want, but not on the political culture they create.
The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association has apparently taken the lead in proposing a compromise of 10 per cent – significantly more parliamentary support than five per cent. This is a better start, but trade unions are the part of Labour which has a good record of dealing well with both ‘wings’ of the party – where is their organised voice? There is also a lack of imagination – if the system is about giving power to members, why is the emphasis on how more MPs can be sidelined, when alternatives ideas could be found to positively empower members?
Leadership involves keeping trust with voters, colleagues and the wider progressive movement. The proposed rule change gives no priority to any of these.
There is nothing wrong with giving MPs an easier opportunity to put the argument to members. But treating the ‘McDonnell amendment’ as anything but a conversation starter could mean leadership contests with 19 candidates, and fails to embed a broad federal democracy of the Labour ‘family’.
To widen ‘buy-in’ for future leaders, a bigger, more balanced transformation is needed. Without it, the proposed amendment is unstable, and a missed opportunity.
Tom Miller is a councillor and co-chair of Open Labour. He tweets at @TomMillerUK
More than a quarter of a million Labour party members and supporters voted for Jeremy Corbyn when he first won the leadership in 2015. It is widely acknowledged that his candidacy enlivened a leadership debate that would otherwise have been a rather bland affair and drew thousands of people – many of them never politically active before – into the Labour party. Yet he had very nearly failed to secure enough nominations from fellow Labour members of parliament and members of the European parliament even to be a candidate, only reaching the required threshold literally at the last minute.
Some of those who nominated Corbyn simply to widen the debate have since publicly repented and all have been lambasted by his critics for saddling the parliamentary Labour party with a leader who most of them never wanted. Yet how could a relatively small number of parliamentarians have legitimately excluded from the election a leader who has proven so popular, capturing the imagination of ordinary people in a way that no other British political leader has achieved in living memory?
The arguments in favour of the status quo seem to suggest that MPs know better than ordinary members what is good for them. The mass rallies, the social media activism, the ‘JC’ T-shirts and football-style chants are derided somewhat sniffily by those who prefer their politics rather more sedate. However,they reflect a passionate enthusiasm for progressive politics and a belief in the possibility of change that has been missing from our politics for too long.
We are told that it is not sustainable for the party to be led by someone who could not command the support of 15 per cent of their parliamentary colleagues – but why should the views of professional politicians count for so much more than those of ordinary Labour members and supporters? Those MPs who attempted to force Corbyn out last summer discredited themselves by their lack of respect for a proper democratic mandate: 172 people trying to overturn the decision of 251,000.
The MPs who rebelled against Corbyn’s leadership demonstrated that they had not fully grasped the significance of the movement that had swept the current leader to office.
The other main case against change has been that a Labour leader must be able to appeal not just to the party but to the wider electorate. Corbyn may be popular among those already inclined to share his views, the argument goes, but could he persuade floating voters that he is a credible prime minister? The election results on 8 June 2017 must surely put paid to this argument. When voters got to hear Labour’s message directly from Corbyn and his frontbench team they were won over in large numbers and the party secured more votes than at any election since 1997. Theresa May, deprived of a parliamentary majority, is clearly on borrowed time and Corbyn looks more and more like a prime minister-in-waiting. The instincts of Labour’s majority appear increasingly vindicated.
When the party next has to choose a leader, we should have access to the widest possible choice, without MPs exercising more than the most minimal ‘gatekeeper’ function. Conference must pass this rule change.
Darren Williams is a member of the National Executive Committee. He tweets at @darrenw_cardiff