There is much discussion in Labour Party circles about the merits and pitfalls of mandatory reselection. The opponents of this idea are exclusively in the more moderate wing of the party and these individuals fear that if primaries were to be held for all Labour candidates for Parliament, the party would swing to the left. This is a well-founded fear as if left-wing membership were truly empowered to take these decisions, as opposed to a moderate group of party insiders, Corbyn’s leadership would be secured for the foreseeable future and his successor would likely oppose any attempt at modernisation, which is simply a euphemism for moving Labour away from socialist roots. But nevertheless, mandatory reselection should be introduced.
The main argument that I put forward in favour of mandatory reselection is that it is an exercise in democracy. Having primaries for every potential MP is a way of making sure that this MP has the confidence of their local CLP’s members. This already exists to a certain extent but mandatory reselection would do more to challenge the established order, whoever that may entail. For example, if a sitting MP was primaried by somebody there would be considerable pressure put on other MPs to stand alongside their existing colleague. This is something that should be avoided as this would interfere with local CLP activities. However if all candidates went through primaries, there could be accusations of political intimidation and/or the singling-out of an individual MP for whatever reason.
The other point about primaries that I would link to the idea of democracy is that I would recommend that all these contests were open primaries. By doing so, Labour could become a prominent part of the local community and would engage with people outside of the organisation. Labour moderates agree with the Corbyn wing on two fundamental things: everyone should go out and vote, more people should join the Labour Party, Open primaries would encourage people to get involved in the political process thus boosting civic participation and exposing them to Labour policies, which may in turn result in them joining the party. Open primaries will allow candidates to speak to local people’s concerns as well as party activists, and surely this can only be a positive thing.
Away from the argument about democracy is the argument about decentralisation. I am a passionate believer in decentralisation because if decisions are made by a small group of people, there is a risk of surrounding oneself with people with similar approaches to problems. This isn’t a point about ideology because at some point too broad a church can result in contradictory opinions within the same organisation. This is a point about being detached from communities and being ignorant of certain problems. A small group of people, matter how socially diverse, will always have blind spots. By diffusing decision-making across the country, there is a greater possibility of minimising these blind spots and creating a more holistic party platform.
But for many centrist members of the Labour Party, it is not simply enough to make an argument based on the intrinsic value of greater party democracy. They would argue that such a move, whilst good in principle, would make the Labour Party less electable and therefore should be opposed because otherwise the Tories would keep winning elections. However empowering members will have a number of benefits for Labour’s electoral chances.
Firstly, Labour members would become invested in the decisions made by the people they elected. This will ensure that the party has a thriving democratic culture as those elected to party offices will be held accountable by their electorate. Not only will this ensure that the internal workings of the party are accountable to Labour members, it will encourage a broader cross-section of the membership to get involved. This will hopefully mean that more marginalisaed voices are in the room when party policies are being written. Irrespective as to whether you are in the Labour Party or not, this is a good thing.
Secondly, because Labour members will be more involved in Labour Party politics, I would argue that they will be more likely to go out and campaign for the party at election time. If Labour members feel that they have had an active involvement in the crafting of party policy, they will want that message to get out to as many people as possible. In other words, members will become activists rather than just passive participants. This in turn will boost Labour’s chances at any given election as candidates will have a go-to group of activists that they an rely upon to knock on doors on their behalf.
The third and final thing I want to touch upon is that embracing primaries will result in people re-examining their own political opinions. This is an important part of the equation because what it would do is reaffirm the principles that Labour members hold true. As a result members are likely to remain within the organisation, thus resulting in the party having more human and financial resources over a longer time-period.
If Labour is to regain power, it will need an army of activists with strong political convictions and the financial resources to campaign effectively. Mandatory reselection will be one way on making sure that the party is responsive to party members but will have to be part of a wider scheme of reforming internal party structures. The Labour Party would be nothing without its membership and all efforts must be made to make sure that a closed clique of party grandees are not making taking the most important decisions. Policy is already voted on by the membership and so if the substance of manifestos can be voted on by Labour members, then why can’t these same members choose their representatives in an open expression of democracy?