“For people to take control of their own lives, our democracy needs to break out of Westminster into all parts of our society and economy where power is unaccountable” – Jeremy Corbyn
The next seven days will be the most important so far in Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader. This time next week we will know if a once-in-a-generation chance has be taken in democratising one of Britain’s historic parties of government.
Two particular issues reside at the heart of that opportunity. The first is mandatory reselection, and how Labour will select MPs ahead of any general election. The second is the threshold needed to get on the ballot in any future leadership contest.
On the first point of selecting members of parliament, I support mandatory reselection. That’s because right now it’s hard for ordinary members to change their MP, no matter how profound or widely-felt their misgivings. Unlike with Labour councillors – or indeed the SNP – Labour candidates don’t need the backing of local members each time they run. This leaves us with the bizarre spectacle of people like Frank Field, first elected in 1979, widely disliked by his local party, at odds with his leadership, and nobody being able to do a thing about it. The same holds for John Woodcock, who prior to the last election said he would never serve in a Corbyn government.
Labour members feel this has created a culture of unaccountability and political distance, with no meaningful measure for poor performance. At present you can be disliked by basically everyone and still have a job for life.
The hackneyed response from certain quarters is how personally popular certain MPs are. Tell that to Simon Danczuk, the Corbyn-sceptic MP who – when he ran as an independent in 2017 – won a spectacular 1.8% of the vote.
Alongside the issue of mandatory reselection is that of how the next party leader will be chosen.
While Corbyn’s victory in 2015 resulted from what is presently the most democratic aspect of the party’s operation (members vote for the leader on the basis of one member one vote), he only made the ballot because most of those MPs who nominated him thought he didn’t stand a chance. The point of the 15% threshold for nominations from the parliamentary party was to give the Labour establishment an effective veto on who ran the show. While they screwed up once, that won’t happen again.
Without significant reform, Corbyn’s successor will be someone who shares neither his politics nor that of the party’s membership. As with reselection, the issue of electing the next party leader is at the heart of where the Corbyn project will end up. After all, that was meant to be the point of the party’s democracy review.
That review, conducted for the best part of a year, recently submitted its draft proposals to the party’s NEC. While many thought compromise was likely, with the present trigger ballot process enhanced rather than ‘open selection’ being embraced, positive change felt inevitable.
And yet reports from last night’s NEC meeting indicate that not to be the case. On both counts, what is being proposed means Labour going backwards.
On mandatory reselection it appears that the worst of all scenarios is likely. With open selection discarded as too radical, the promise is – as predicted by many – an enhancing of the trigger ballot process. So far so fair, until you discover the proposal – which the NEC will ruminate over this Saturday – is that any local party will require the backing of 30% of members to initiate reselection proceedings. Last night Skwawkbox reported, in no little detail, how that would mean a third of all members through OMOV (in my CLP of Lewisham West and Penge that’s about 1,200 people). The idea that volunteers, without a permanent form of professional organisation, could achieve that is pie-in-the-sky. Even the present trigger ballot process – which requires half of all branches – would be preferable. This morning Skwawkbox said they were mistaken and that what is being called ‘affirmative ballot’ instead requires a third of all branches or affiliates. Given 77% of conference delegates prefer mandatory reselection, even this would be a bitter pill to swallow.
Then there is the issue of the next leadership election, whenever that might be. The most recent democracy review draft submitted the ‘10-plus’ model, meaning there would be more than one way to get the required number of nominations. While the parliamentary party would retain primacy, with any candidate needing just 10% of Labour MPs and MEPs to get on the ballot, alternative routes would be possible. That would include 10% of constituency Labour parties plus 5% of MPs, or 10% of affiliated trade unions plus 5% of MPs.
Yet here, as with reselection, it appears a step backwards is on the cards. Last night’s proposal – again to be discussed on Saturday – would actually make it harder for a left-winger to get on the ballot than it already is. Skwawkbox is reporting that future candidates will require 10% of MPs and MEPs, 5% of union affiliates and 5% of CLPs. Many, from whatever wing of the party, will be able to get the first and last part, but what is crucial under this scenario is that the major unions will exercise an effective veto over who can run. This merely serves to reproduce the present issue that exists with the parliamentary Labour party. While Unite or the CWU might vote for a left candidate in future, what would be more likely is a crowding around two candidates by unions – one on the centre-left and one on the right. The idea that the future of the Corbyn project would depend on an as yet unelected general secretary seems indefensible.
Some will try to paint those comments as ‘anti-union’. They are not. The reality is that Labour is a polyarchy, with power meaningfully distributed across multiple points. The point of the democracy review was to enhance that, not erode it.
Thousands have worked tirelessly for a Labour government these last three years. The proposals the NEC is set to accept make that less likely, not more. Those supporting them appear to view members like football clubs do supporters: a resource to draw upon, a mass of people to direct, a giant piggy bank whatever the weather. They are not. Unless ordinary members feel empowered they will walk away in the longer term. After all, it was that which attracted them in the first place.
And they would be right to. What chance do we have to democratise the British state if we can’t even democratise a single political party? I hope the right decision is made on Saturday. A great deal rests on it.
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