Unity, what unity? While Labour’s moderates are busily engaging in humble pie-eating contests and deleting their Twitter feeds dating back to May 2015 in a bid to pull together in the wake of June’s unexpected election result, the party’s left is getting ready for its favourite time of year – party conference. The chance to have a debate about the party’s Byzantine rulebook that’s impenetrable to anyone without either a Master’s degree in Administration or, frankly, far too much time on their hands is not one that good socialists can pass up, after all, so CLPs across the country will be spending their summers debating rule motions and becoming suddenly interested in standing orders.
First on the menu this year is the so-called ‘McDonnell Amendment,’ which would make it easier to get a ‘proper’ left wing candidate on the ballot in future leadership elections by removing the requirement for candidates to be nominated by a reasonable number of their colleagues – a show of support that you might think it’s reasonable to ask of a prospective leader – and essentially allowing anyone who can get two passers-by to vouch for them to stand.
Quite why you’d need to go through the rigmarole to get that rule changed is unclear, however, when you consider the second item on Momentum’s agenda for September – mandatory reselection. The Holy Grail of elements of the Bennite left for decades, this rule change, dubbed ‘a democratic selection process for the 21st century’ by the left’s spin doctors, has been appearing at branches and CLP meetings since the election. Ostensibly, mandatory reselection should be simple enough – ask MPs to come back to their local parties at the end of each term and stand again to go on to the General Election as the Labour candidate. Overlook for a moment that the party already has a process to trigger a selection contest where there’s an incumbent MP – for the uninitiated, it’s known as a ‘trigger ballot’ – making this a solution in search of a problem, and it all sounds plausible enough.
The problem lies, as with most tools, in how it would be wielded in practice. Far from simply meaning that Labour MPs would have to justify their re-adoption as candidates on their record as MPs over the Parliamentary term, it’s obvious to anyone paying attention that the only prism through which Momentum intends to judge whether an MP is fit to be reselected is loyalty. Loyalty is suddenly very important to the party’s left, who apparently see no contradiction between Jeremy Corbyn’s 30-plus year career voting against whichever whip he pleased and demanding total obedience from his colleagues now he is the leader.
The intent is to purge the Parliamentary Labour Party of anyone deemed insufficiently loyal to the present leadership and replace them with someone more ‘in touch’ with the membership – in other words, to reduce the role of MP from being a representative of all of their constituents whether they voted Labour or not to being a delegate of the hundred or so activists who regularly turn up to CLP meetings, mandated to do as they are told lest they be sacked for disobedience.
Party chairman Ian Lavery MP said this week that the Labour Party’s church is “too broad” – I disagree with him completely and totally. That broad church, a party that has always been home to socialists and social democrats, to middle class Fabians and working class trade unionists, and to vigorous but comradely debate between them all, is Labour’s greatest and most precious asset and one it must hold onto. Throwing all of that away on a narrow issue of loyalty to a single leader overlooks the fact that the Labour Party doesn’t belong to Jeremy Corbyn or Momentum any more than it once belonged to Tony Blair or Progress. The Labour Party belongs to all of us – this generation of Labour men and women are its custodians and we owe it to our successors to pass it over to the next generation as it was passed over to us, in good health and as that essential broad church it always has been.
Whilst mandatory reselection is dressed up as ‘democratic,’ democracy is about more than voting – it would be profoundly wrong for our democracy to turn MPs into delegates to a glorified soviet, mandated and given marching orders which may completely conflict with the needs of their wider constituency. I also fail to see how it can be democratic that an MP elected with in excess of 30,000 votes could be removed from office not by their electorate but by a few hundred unrepresentative people with a passing factional axe to grind. If democracy was the real concern here, why not demand a genuine primary and open the choice up to the entire Labour vote in a constituency and not merely its anorak activists (and I say this as an arch-anorak activist myself)?
Both of these rule changes would weaken a key pillar of the Labour Party’s broad church – the necessity for the party to be an effective force in Parliament led by a leader who can command the support of their colleagues, and the necessity for Labour MPs to represent all of their constituents, to whom they owe their judgement and their hard work rather than owing their obedience to local activists.
They are not only divisive and corrosive to the very unity of purpose that Jeremy Corbyn has called for and they are not only a self indulgent and irresponsible distraction from the work of holding the Government to account on Brexit, austerity and its negligent reaction to the Grenfell tragedy – they are wrong on principle.