In Defence of Party Democracy

By Tom Blackburn

It seems that whenever the Labour left has the temerity to organise to bring about whatever changes it wishes to see, this is almost without fail treated as an unconscionable outrage in certain quarters of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the press, unleashing the ‘Burkean Furies’[1] with dreary predictability. So it proved following last week’s AGM held by Liverpool Wavertree CLP, which saw local leftists secure a near-clean sweep of the executive positions which were up for election.

This time, the subsequent row centred around some rather ill-judged and perhaps hubristic comments made after the AGM by one newly-elected executive member. Warning that local MP Luciana Berger - decidedly Corbynsceptic - would ‘have to get back on board quite quickly’, Roy Bentham also called on Berger and other MPs to apologise for their previous failure to back the current Labour leadership. It should be noted, however, that Bentham made no call for Berger’s deselection and that the rest of the executive (which had already issued a joint statement with Berger after the AGM) was quick to distance itself from Bentham’s remarks.

In fact, what it appears the new CLP executive wants is simply closer consultation with its MP on especially contentious issues - an entirely reasonable demand. Nevertheless, this was enough to prompt righteous fury from centrist journalists and some MPs, including one particularly rancid and obnoxious piece of concern trolling from Jess Phillips. Others conflated it with the vile misogynistic and anti-Semitic abuse Berger has faced (most infamously, fascist troll Joshua Bonehill-Paine was last year sentenced to two years in prison for targeting her with a series of racist, sexist rants).

It is somewhat galling that this apparently has to be said, but the exercise of local party democracy is not inherently abusive and attempts to collapse the distinction between the two are utterly cynical. Yet we seem to have this sort of row every time a CLP finds itself at odds with its rightwing Labour MP. These amount to demands for obedience; the product of what Ralph Miliband called in a 1958 essay “a narrowly restricted conception of politics, which requires that professional politicians should be protected from the vulgar promptings of the market place”[2], except perhaps when mediated safely via focus groups and the press. However, Miliband presciently warned, “such protection can, in a society such as ours, only be achieved by manoeuvre, manipulation and mendacity and by the degradation of the business of politics”.

Parachutes and Trigger Ballots

Of course, the question of candidate selection has long been fraught for Labour on Merseyside. Even leaving the running battles involving Militant to one side, there has been a string of controversies. Leftwinger Lol Duffy was deprived of the Wallasey nomination by the party machine in 1992 in favour of Angela Eagle, the late Labour left stalwart Eric Heffer’s replacement by rightwinger Peter Kilfoyle in Liverpool Walton kicked off a heated quarrel in 1991[3], and Frank Field has survived various attempts to deselect him in Birkenhead.

Berger herself was clumsily parachuted into the seat by the Labour Party machine, ironically earning her the ire of Peter Kilfoyle himself as well as local unions. During the course of the Wavertree selection contest she stayed with departing MP Jane Kennedy, whose partner Peter Downing was the then-secretary of the CLP and who took charge of that same selection process. Once that particular hurdle had been cleared, the local Liverpool press then took great delight in making it clear that Berger - born in Wembley and lined up to stand as a council candidate in Camden before the Wavertree nomination became available - knew next to nothing about the city in which she had been installed as an MP.

It should be clear from this, then, that Berger’s initial selection as Labour candidate for Wavertree - where she inherited a majority of just over 5,000 from Kennedy - had precious little to do with member-led local democracy. To reiterate, despite the media kerfuffle, the new Wavertree CLP executive has not given any indication that it might make a bid to deselect Berger from standing as a Labour candidate. However, if local members were to do so, there is a constitutional process by which they can legitimately attempt it - the trigger ballot.

However, the trigger ballot makes it difficult (by design) to deselect an incumbent MP. At present, a sitting MP needs the support of a majority of CLP branches and affiliated branches to win a trigger ballot. Regardless of the size of their membership, each party and affiliate branch carries equal weight in a trigger ballot, so - as Osland points out[4] - affiliates and branches can ensure that the sitting MP retains the Labour nomination even if the majority of party members want to remove them. Some affiliate branches consult their respective members but others don’t, leaving the decision to officials. There is also no limit to the number of branches a union can affiliate to a CLP, and this has been the source of much controversy over the years (the late Bob Wareing accused Usdaw and Amicus of flooding West Derby CLP with affiliates to help secure his own deselection in 2007).

Given the rapid increase in Labour Party membership since 2015, there can be no doubt that the selection process needs to be transformed dramatically to make it more member-led. There are, as New Socialist has noted previously, ongoing attempts to ensure this transformation occurs, with a radical overhaul of parliamentary candidate selection currently in the works.

Circling the Wagons

The sight of centrist journalists circling the wagons in order to shield their favoured Labour MPs from party democracy is both an unedifying and alarming one. It is dangerous that so many appear to consider the organised political intervention of the hoi polloi to be so utterly beyond the pale, and react to it with such thinly-veiled, haughty contempt. What they overlook is that attenuated internal party democracies produce an attenuated democracy generally. Miliband, though writing well over half a century ago, remains pertinent on this point:

This century has already witnessed a steady professionalisation of politics, the fetishism of the party machine, the cult of leadership. As a result, the impact which the non-professional politically interested individual is able to make upon political life has become frighteningly small. Whatever contributes to the growth of his significance also contributes to the vitality of democratic politics.[5]

It should also be noted that it takes a great deal for an MP to lose the confidence of their CLP to the point where they face the risk of deselection. It is not a step constituency parties take lightly (nor can they, given the level of organisation needed to clear the hurdles the trigger ballot forces them to clear). Even when all Labour MPs were subject to mandatory reselection, only eight were deselected before the 1983 general election[6] - although of course 28 MPs decamped to the Social Democratic Party after its foundation in 1981, soon after which the Bennite insurgency within the Labour Party went into retreat. Had that split not occurred and the Labour left’s fortunes not waned so rapidly after that point, that figure would doubtless have been higher. But CLPs are generally prepared to tolerate honest differences of opinion and outlook provided their MP is respectful of theirs.

Where an MP is faced with the threat of being deselected as a Labour candidate, it therefore suggests that a major breach has occurred between them and their CLP - whether this is in relation to the perceived shortcomings of the MP’s performance in the job or whether the CLP simply feels it wants someone more in tune with the politics of its members. The latter reason is, in fact, a perfectly legitimate reason for deselection, as CLPs have the right to seek a candidate who reflects their concerns and principles more closely provided this is done in a transparent manner (and by the same token, right-leaning CLPs should be able to deselect leftwing MPs as well as the other way around). An MP who loses the confidence of their CLP, whatever the reason, has to take ultimate responsibility.

Leo Panitch has argued that the burden of maintaining Labour Party unity has tended to bear down heaviest on the party’s left wing, ‘because it has a greater concern for solidarity’ and is ‘more easily guilted’. Too many Labour MPs have spent much of the last two years demonising, traducing, mocking and caricaturing the majority of their own party’s membership. Many of the people on the receiving end of this treatment will have gone out to campaign for these same MPs in the recent general election. And yet, Corbyn and his supporters are continually bombarded with demands that they leave this largely right-leaning PLP essentially untouched. ‘Unity’ on these terms would leave Corbyn’s Labour in the fruitless position of attempting “to secure as much ‘socialism’ as was possible... through the vehicle of a predominantly anti-socialist parliamentary contingent”[7].

Democracy and Accountability

We do not, or should not, live under the yoke of a parliamentary aristocracy. MPs are not superior beings, floating ethereally above the piffling concerns of the mere mortals outside Westminster. Nor does the PLP reign supreme over the rest of the Labour Party - its singular failure to dislodge Corbyn from the leadership, despite having spent much of the last two years attempting to do so one way or another, should have awoken it to this reality by now. Party members are well within their rights to organise effectively to hold MPs to account.

To suggest that MPs are in fact effectively accountable to their respective electorates - generally politically disorganised and passive outside of election time, many living in safe seats where they have no realistic chance of otherwise unseating their MP - is, as Miliband says, “to take a purely mythical view of the workings of the political process”[8]. It is also a widely-held myth that most MPs have a decisively strong personal vote. A 2013 Hansard Society survey found that three-quarters of respondents couldn’t even name their local MP. The vast majority of MPs, therefore, owe their position to the colour of rosette they wear on election day - and to the support of party members, workers and activists.

Miliband also correctly adds that “the electorate is a necessarily amorphous mass, which, at least between elections, only acquires political meaning and becomes capable of political initiative through organisation, mainly political organisation”[9]. An energised, active, empowered constituency party is one of the few vehicles through which local people can organise to make MPs give a proper account of their actions. This does the more atomised and disempowered wider local electorate a service, as too many constituencies are lumbered with complacent MPs who have in effect landed themselves a job for life (or at least for as long as they want it). Those who defend the current state of affairs do not do so in the service of democracy, however much they might protest otherwise.

Too many MPs have been allowed to fester for too long. The recent influx of new recruits into the Labour Party could, then, allow for a much-needed shake-up in those areas where MPs have been effectively insulated from rigorous accountability and scrutiny by the size of their majority. However, those of us on the Labour left must ensure that we apply this to leftwing Labour MPs as well as their rightwing counterparts. It is up to us to ensure that those MPs we help send to Parliament are doing the job they were sent there for - serving as parliamentary champions, advocates and tribunes of working, marginalised and oppressed people. Where they are failing in this duty, rank-and-file Labour Party must be accordingly prepared to subject them to scrutiny.

Peter Mair wrote of the tendency among political parties “to think of themselves as self-sufficient and specialised political organisations, ready to heed cues from any of the range of social actors, but preferring to remain unrestricted by close formalised links with them”[10]. The sudden and unexpected revival of Labour Party membership in recent years could radically reverse this tendency. Indeed, the clear confluence of interests between some MPs and journalists underlines the need for it to do so - if political journalists take it upon themselves to shield their favoured MPs from democratic party processes, we must be prepared to provide effective accountability.

Deselection and Moral Panics

Sitting MPs who find themselves deprived of a Labour candidacy are of course entirely free to run as independents, without the backing of a party machine behind them. Indeed, the discredited and generally lamentable Simon Danczuk recently did exactly this in Rochdale and got 883 votes - only 28,152 votes behind the victorious Labour candidate, Tony Lloyd. This may explain why some Labour MPs, who seem to have such little affection for the bulk of their own party members, cling onto that Labour nomination so tenaciously. Danczuk is of course a particularly pathetic figure, but without the Labour brand and machine behind them, it is not exaggerating to say that most other Labour MPs who chose to run as independents instead could not expect to perform much better than he did.

However, it is incumbent upon CLPs to put forward Labour candidates who have their wholehearted backing. Although somewhat archaically phrased, this point was made forcefully decades ago by Peter Price, a Labour conference delegate for Sheffield Brightside (which deselected its sitting MP, Edward Griffiths, in September 1974):

It [deselection] is not an experience I would like to recommend to any of you here. It is a very lengthy long drawn-out procedure, one which leaves the management committee to come under extreme fire and stress from the press and people. Dirt is thrown around, people are accused, you cannot walk down the streets without people accusing you of being Marxists, International Socialists; everything is thrown at you... [Yet] I put it to you that it is the duty of your constituencies, the duty they have to the electorate, to put up a man in whom they have full confidence. There is nothing worse than a local party putting up a man who has lost their confidence. It breeds apathy not only among the workers but the wider electorate.[11]

These media moral panics about deselection only ever seem to be whipped up in defence of rightwing Labour MPs. This is nothing new - in 1973, leftwinger Eddie Milne was deselected as a Labour candidate after exposing T Dan Smith as a crook and thereby falling foul of the Newcastle Labour machine, before going on to be elected (albeit fleetingly) as an independent MP. Wainwright notes that his removal was greeted with “total silence - and probably a good deal of relief”[12] among his fellow MPs. By contrast, rightwingers Dick Taverne and Reg Prentice, also at the centre of deselection attempts in the 1970s, were furiously defended by the media, their PLP colleagues and Harold Wilson, all of them up in arms at the sheer insolence of it all.

So it was throughout the New Labour era, when leftwing MPs were indeed threatened with deselection by the then-leadership. Senior Blairite party bureaucrats openly speculated about[13] and slyly encouraged[14] deselection attempts, briefing to the press that a series of leftwing Labour MPs were in line for removal - including Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn himself. Needless to say, these attempts failed. But at the time this met with relatively little comment, and certainly none of the media histrionics that accompanies alleged moves (real or imagined) to deselect ‘moderates’.

Lewis Minkin has documented Blair’s effectiveness at remoulding the PLP in his political image, backed up as he was by supportive party and union officials well versed in the dark arts of shutting critics of the leadership out of selection contests altogether[15]. Mark Seddon, Ken Livingstone, Liz Davies and Dennis Canavan were among those to incur the wrath of Millbank and pay the price for it. While any democratically-elected leader is entitled to a broadly supportive parliamentary party, it is rich for so many of the beneficiaries of the New Labour regime to complain so vociferously now that the political tide has turned against them.

Transforming the PLP - from the Bottom Up

Labour Party members are entitled to a decisive say over candidate selection. Grassroots members had no say at all in the most recent selections of parliamentary candidates, and this cannot be allowed to be repeated. Although its development has been stifled by bureaucratic intrigue and the need to constantly defend an embattled leadership during the last two years, there is a hugely promising and exciting process of transformation and democratisation going on inside the party. It is right that this is reflected in the make-up of the PLP, although before the recent election members were deprived of the opportunity to select prospective parliamentary candidates themselves by the National Executive Committee. Power needs to be devolved from the party bureaucracy to the grassroots - including policymaking power as well as a member-led candidate selection process.

Reshaping the PLP to better reflect the politics of its leadership and the membership that overwhelmingly backs it is simply a practical matter. As we have seen recently, manoeuvring against the leadership continues within the PLP. All six places on the party’s parliamentary committee (elected by backbenchers and largely powerless, but which is entitled to a weekly meeting with the leader) went to the slate organised by veteran rightwing fixer John Spellar. Before that, 49 MPs broke the Labour whip to vote in favour of an amendment to the Queen’s Speech tabled by Chuka Umunna, which if passed would have committed the government to stay in the EU customs union and single market. Umunna then followed this up by helping to form a new cross-party parliamentary group aiming to prevent a so-called ‘hard Brexit’.

This pro-EU posturing is an ongoing exercise in blatant self-promotion on Umunna’s part - his designs on the Labour leadership being well known to all and sundry - and is all the more ludicrous because he himself went on record less than a year ago to indicate that staying in the single market was less important to him than curbing the freedom of movement of people inside the EU. His recent amendment was backed by a predictable collection of rightwing permanent malcontents, plus a handful of exceptions - the most notable being Corbyn supporter Emma Dent Coad, the narrowness of whose paper-thin majority in Kensington means she can be excused some nervousness over Brexit.

Nonetheless, the hostility to Corbyn within the PLP remains such that even a parliamentary majority in excess of 40 might not be enough to support a government headed by him. Though few of them will admit to it in public, a sizeable proportion of the PLP does not believe in the manifesto recently put to the electorate - and which helped inspire millions of voters to return to Labour - and either doesn’t want to implement it or doesn’t believe it can be implemented. The Labour leadership should be under no illusions about this. This is what was described by Charlotte Atkins and Chris Mullin in 1981 as “the central dilemma of the Labour Party”:

Namely, that many of its representatives in Parliament do not believe in the programme they are elected to implement. Others, while not actually opposed to the programme of their party, do not feel sufficiently strongly in favour of it seriously to resist attempts by Labour cabinets to water down, neuter or reverse policies to which the Party is supposed to be committed.[16]

Labour Party members are not obliged to tolerate this state of affairs without dissent. They have the right to help change the political composition of the PLP in an effort to ensure that it can be relied upon to support Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister and to implement the manifesto on which the next Labour government is elected, which could happen sooner than any of us dared to dream before the recent general election. This doesn’t require total homogeneity in candidate selection, and diversity in the PLP is a good thing provided there is adequate common ground for it to work together coherently. But sweeping changes are unquestionably needed at present.

Inner-Party Struggle and ‘Composited Triumphs’

There is certainly a danger that what Gregory Elliott has described as the Labour left’s historical “addiction to inner-party struggle” leads it to mistake “composited triumphs inside ‘the movement’ for tangible victories outside”[17]. To help ward off this tendency, the Labour left must seek to open up constituency parties, changing the way they organise and campaign to facilitate expanded participation and to forge new alliances both with other sections of the labour movement, and campaigns and community groups which are not formally part of the labour movement at all. CLPs need to become active presences in communities and workplaces, and hubs of discussion, activism, education and creativity. Insularity would spell doom for the Corbyn project.

But the task of transforming the parliamentary party remains an indispensable one. It would no doubt suit incumbent MPs and many political journalists to pickle the current PLP in aspic, keeping the aspirations, wishes and concerns of rank-and-file Labour Party members tightly in the grip of the big, clunking fist of the party bureaucracy. They certainly seem to find this far preferable to asking themselves the really tough questions about why their brand of politics is so obviously failing to inspire people outside their own milieu, and why so many people across Britain consider it so inadequate to meeting the challenges they face in their everyday lives.

The reality is that many ‘moderate’ Labour MPs - who came of age in the New Labour era which moulded and continues to set the parameters of their political worldview - are equipped only with the tools that would have served them well in a bygone political age. They are not, however, well-equipped to deal with political and social reality in the world left behind by the crash of 2008 and the subsequent drawn-out malaise. They are straitjacketed by a superannuated common sense, unwilling and seemingly unable to engage in the meaningful and honest self-criticism that might help them find a way out of their current impasse. By and large, they refuse to re-examine their fundamental political assumptions. They are encouraged and enabled in this by the largely sycophantic and deeply conservative chumocracy that constitutes lobby journalism in Britain, with no more than a handful of honourable exceptions.

A major part of the problem facing this generation of MPs is that so many of them have no feel for, or real interest in, the wider movement of which the Labour Party is a central part. They cannot address a labour movement audience, and so nearly everything they do is calculated to win media approval - this is often treated as if it automatically translated into electoral popularity. But this only serves to alienate these MPs even further from the grassroots of the Labour Party, whose members and supporters generally tend to view the media with scepticism at best and open contempt at worst.

None of this is to say that the centre-left as a whole has no future at all and is fit only for the knacker’s yard. If it can get to grips with the necessity to engage with social movements, it may yet be able to stage some sort of comeback. Perhaps paradoxically, the ‘old Labour’ trade union-orientated section of the Labour right, grouped around Labour First, is more likely to lead any such fightback than the self-proclaimed ‘modernisers’ of Progress, which may well have no future - it is the former which poses by far the bigger threat to the Corbyn project over the long term. But those whose worldview remains preoccupied with the managerialism, minutiae and manoeuvring of the Westminster village are yesterday’s people. They are slowly but surely being left behind, but they will not go down without a great deal of further struggle.

Photo: [sgwarnog]


  1. Gregory Elliott, Labourism and the English Genius, Verso 1993, p127 ↩︎

  2. Ralph Miliband, Party Democracy and Parliamentary Government, Political Studies, June 1958 ↩︎

  3. Andy McSmith, Faces of Labour, Verso 1996, p115 ↩︎

  4. David Osland, How to Select or Reselect Your MP (2016 Remix), Spokesman Books 2016, p6-7 ↩︎

  5. Miliband, Party Democracy and Parliamentary Government ↩︎

  6. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism, Verso 2001, p206 ↩︎

  7. Elliott, Labourism and the English Genius, p132 ↩︎

  8. Miliband, Party Democracy and Parliamentary Government ↩︎

  9. Miliband, Party Democracy and Parliamentary Government ↩︎

  10. Peter Mair, Ruling the Void, Verso 2013, p85 ↩︎

  11. Quoted in Panitch and Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism, p141 ↩︎

  12. Hilary Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, Hogarth Press 1987, p26. Cited in Panitch and Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism ↩︎

  13. https://twitter.com/SolHughesWriter/status/882978036479664128 ↩︎

  14. https://twitter.com/SolHughesWriter/status/882979031293063168 ↩︎

  15. Lewis Minkin, The Blair Supremacy, Manchester University Press 2014, p24-25 ↩︎

  16. Charlotte Atkins and Chris Mullin, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, CLPD/IWC 1981. Quoted in Panitch and Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism, p140 ↩︎

  17. Elliott, Labourism and the English Genius, p131 ↩︎


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