Political parties need to change to meet the challenges of the modern world. This is a statement that is true specifically in our own time, given the atmosphere of populism that we find ourselves, and more generally in regards to improved information technology. I personally believe the answer is in terms of grassroots organising. I think that if the Left is ever going to win power again it will have to have an army of volunteers and activists putting roots down in communities across the country and getting involved with local issues. But another component of this is having political parties that can enthuse people and make people feel like their voice can be heard, which is what Progress are now lobbying against.
The Labour Party’s leadership contest rules put a lot of influence in the hands of the PLP. In the 2015 leadership election all the candidates had to receive nominations from 15% of the PLP, hence the last ditch attempt by the Corbyn campaign to get nominations from 35 MPs. A set of proposals has been put forward to reduce this figure to 5%, which currently would be 11 or 12 MPs.
Those who support this change, including myself, argue that this puts more power in the hands of the membership which is important when trying to create a grassroots movement. Opponents of the change including Progress, a Blairite think-tank, argue that this undermines the concept of leadership. I would counter this claim by arguing that Labour needs to empower the membership in this way because it prevents the leadership from getting out of touch with what ordinary people want. If you give MPs too much power within the party there is a risk that they will become out of touch with the membership which would be avoided at all costs.
Also it doesn’t undermine the leadership because the point of a leadership election is to decide who the leader is. If there is no leader then how can they be undermined? The answer is that they can’t. The opposition to this amendment is an attempt to prevent the party from becoming more democratic as a way of stopping more left-wing leaders from being elected.
How do I know that this is the case? Because this is not the first time the Right of the Labour has sought to undermine the leadership behind the scenes. Progress and other centrist groups have come out in opposition to Len McCluskey in the Unite General Secretary election. Also at the last Labour Party conference the Right of the party changed the structure of the NEC by adding representatives from Scotland and Wales that were anti-Corbyn to prevent the NEC from becoming supportive of the leadership.
Everyone in the Labour Party is supposed to believe in democracy. If you have a threshold for leadership elections set in this way I contend that the election is less democratic. Here’s a thought experiment. There are three candidates for a leadership election, and the PLP is approximately the same size as it currently is. One of the candidates has the support of 1 MP but if included in the election, she would win the vote in a landslide. Under existing party rules, the lack of support among the PLP would be grounds for excluding her from the vote even though she would clearly win. I contend that such a situation is undemocratic. The existing rules give the PLP the ability to act as gatekeepers for all the candidates wishing the run for leadership positions. I don’t think that MPs should have the right to decide which ideas should and shouldn’t be heard by the membership.
My recommendation would not be to reduce the threshold of nominating MPs but to get rid of it altogether. Instead I believe that you can have a nominating process via constituency Labour Party branches or ordinary rank-and-file members. In both the 2015 and 2016 leadership elections CLPs endorsed candidates but didn’t formally nominate them. Presumably if CLPs can endorse candidates there is a way to make these meetings votes for nominating candidates.
Alternatively ordinary members could make nominations. This would be more difficult as there would have to be a strict criterion for the candidates but I think that given the amount of technology present in the modern world such a change could be facilitated. Also it would be good for candidates themselves as they would be able to see how popular they were with the grassroots before the actual campaign started.
I don’t support the change in rules for consequential reasons like more left-wing leaders will be elected. I think that left-wing leaders will be elected by the membership if the membership wants one. I support the change because I don’t believe that a small group of MPs should be allowed to set the agenda for leadership elections. If the Left wants to have political parties that speak about the concerns of ordinary people, we need to reform party structures to include people who are not normally in the corridors of power and reduce the role of MPs.
We need to transform Labour into a vibrant and inclusive grassroots movement that values the membership. Power should be in the hands of people not party grandees who believe that the leadership should be passed around people deemed worthy. Labour needs to play an active role in civil society and giving MPs the ability to decide who should and shouldn’t be in leadership elections will only hamper the party’s ability to relate to ordinary people. The proposed amendments should be adopted with a view to getting rid of MP nominations entirely.