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For the McDonnell amendment

It’s getting to the time of year that Constituency Labour Parties are selecting their delegates for party conference. This time both the right and left of the party are scrambling members for the monthly meeting because there’s something substantial on the table for when we meet in Brighton in September: the McDonnell Amendment. For readers not au fait with party jargon, this rule change for how the party selects its leader is very important. To qualify for a place on the ballot paper for a leadership contest, a candidate must now acquire the nominations of at least 15% of the parliamentary and European parliamentary party. Under the shadow chancellor’s proposals, this would be reduced to five per cent. The right have set their face against, while the left are mobilising for it. In this case, the left are right and the right are wrong. Indeed, I would go so far to say that the party as a whole – all of its wings – would benefit if the amendment passes.

In an article from last August, Caroline Flint makes the case against. She argues that Labour is a party that uses the machinery of government to meet its objectives, has the tricky task of forging an electoral coalition crisscrossing a plurality of interests, and must have a leader who commands the support of the parliamentary team. The latter point is, ultimately, the litmus test for exercising confidence in the country as a whole. The role the PLP and its European counterparts have in acting as a gatekeeper – not her phrase – is balanced by the responsibility it carries as the main public face of the party. As she notes, politics is “a team game”, a “collective effort”. I therefore wonder if Caroline was one of the precious few Progress-affiliated MPs who tried reigning in the moaners and the whingers straight after Jeremy Corbyn won the the first Labour leadership contest in 2015?

No matter. There are two important features of the PLP, a strength and a weakness that cannot be separated from one another. The first is their collective proximity to mainstream public opinion. Taken as a whole, their positions on the NHS (keep it free), immigration (more controls), defence (replace Trident and support Our Troops), and the economy (growth and fairness) correlates roughly with the bulk of the electorate. Every time a poll drops from YouGov or whatever listing voters’ priorities and fears, MPs can feel their views are shared by millions of people ‘out there’. This then is a key resource MPs draw upon to legitmate themselves as representatives of constituencies rather than delegates of constituency parties, and its powerful because it is true. Getting a bellyful on the doorstep or a postbag bulging with complaints about immigrants, for instance, tends to reinforce the view that controls on immigration is a sensible position to take. Being conditions consciousness and all that.

The PLP’s weakness is, well, their collective proximity to public opinion. What they think the electorate thinks is framed by the polls and the focus groups, and is subject to further filters. Every window looking out into the wider world is tinted by the preconceptions and hobby horses of the press, broadcast media and Westminster watchers. Effectively, the apparatus of the media is synonymous with public opinion. It washes over them all day every day, and is confirmed when one breaks free and speaks to constituents at surgery and suchlike. Politics here becomes reduced to addressing ‘very real concerns’ and convincing voters that Labour has the means to sort them out. Of course, that is what any party should aspire to do, but also it should try to lead public opinion. Labour is the condensation of the interests of pretty varied groups of working people, a position guaranteed ultimately by the affiliation of the country’s largest trade unions. To stand up for those interests in the context of a capitalist society in which a) workers are subordinate to capital, and b) the latter of necessity ceaselessly struggles against the former requires a knowledge of what the Labour Party is, who its natural constituents are (i.e. the vast bulk of the population), and a determination to challenge public opinion. For instance, introducing markets into public services helps break up our electoral coalition. Chasing the tabloid press into the gutter instead of challenging the lies told about immigration undermines the solidarity of our coalition. Promising to get tough with people receiving social security delegitimises the very idea of collective responses to market failure, putting a question mark over what our coalition is supposed to be working toward. And so on. In the topsy turvy world of Westminster, accepting the status quo as immovable and immutable is providing an effective opposition and leadership. Even raising questions about it, let alone vociferously attacking it is lefty indulgence.

There is, however, another link MPs have to the wider public, and that is through the party membership itself. While, as a rule, more left than the electorate (in much the same way the Tories’ dwindling rolls are further to the right), they have far greater familiarity and exposure to what ordinary people think and say. The woman at constituency who bangs on about the bedroom tax, she knows people who are having a very tough time because of it. She might even be one of those folks herself. The chap who is concerned about the government’s stance on bombing Syria – he works in a warehouse surrounded by blokes just like him, and knows how racist and xenophobic views ramp up when war talk is in the air. The new member concerned about Theresa May’s encroachment on internet privacy works three part-time jobs and is struggling to scrape together a deposit for a flat. The old member who is concerned about the party’s perceived distaste for the ‘traditional’ working class is, at the same time, fighting for a care package for his wife. And there are those nice, ‘just-about-managing’ middle class-types as well. Too many Labour MPs have little time for the members beyond their ability to deliver leaflets, but our army of unpaid couriers are more in touch with life in 21st century Britain than they because they live it in far less comfortable circumstances. More often than not, their politics are stamped indelibly by their experience. There is that, and the small matter of the members putting MPs there in the first place. There is not one, not a single Labour MP who’d be sat in the Commons without the party label.

And so, ultimately, I support the lowering of the threshold for exactly the same reason why I’ve always supported mandatory reselection for sitting MPs. If the parliamentary party has to actively work to keep onside members, to build deep roots in their communities to support them and ensure the party heads in the direction they desire, the less likely we are to see Labour actively pursuing policies that harm the universal interest. i.e. That of working people, of anyone compelled to sell their time to an employer in return for a wage or salary. Lowering the threshold means we won’t ever have the spectacle again of what are effectively personnel managers (with the politics to match) being serious contenders. MPs who want to lead would have to up their game and pay attention to what Labour was set up to do in the first place. For sure, it’s going to take more than nice write ups from your mates in the media.

This isn’t a recipe for turning the Labour Party into a pure, permanent leftist opposition. The amendment is about building the rooted politics that has weight in communities across the land, a politics unashamed of its truly representative and transformative role. Socialism is the movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority, after all.

Choose your delegates wisely.

7 Comments

  1. Terry McCarthy says:

    This amendment is backed by unite who put this in a resolution which is tabled for conference conference

  2. Karl Stewart says:

    Thanks for the article Phil.

    I mainly agree with you, but I’d add that selecting a party leader should be done differently when the party is in opposition and when it’s in government.

    In opposition, yes the principles of the ‘McDonnelle Amendment’ should be applied, in fact I’d go further and suggest a nomination threshold based on the number of local party nominations rather than MPs.

    The party should, in opposition, have the widest possible choice and the widest possible membership and affiliate participation.

    The electorate as a whole then has the opportunity to elect or reject the leader that the party has chosen through its internal process.

    But when in government, I think its appropriate for only the MPs to decide.

    This is because they’re choosing a Prime Minister and in the circumstances where MPs, rather than the electorate, are choosing a Prime Minister, at least it can be argued that those MPs represent the majority of constituencies.

    So I think two different processes should apply.

  3. Tony says:

    In order to get nominated as a parliamentary candidate, Caroline Flint only needed 10 signatures out of an electorate of at least 70,000!

    On that basis, why not have 10 signatures for a Labour leadership election? Seems fair and reasonable to me.

  4. Bazza says:

    I support nominations of Leader by 5% of MPs but doesn’t this “crystallise” old Left practice (just leave it to MPs well at least our Left MPs)?
    I would have added (a) nominations by 5% of MPs OR (b) by a minimum of 50 constituency Labour parties OR (c) by 5% of trade unions and affiliates – which gives more of a say to grassroots members, trade unionists and co-operators.
    Someone I discussed this with said he agreed with a and b but was worried about c as he felt Progress were organising in one man and his dog Affilates?
    But ok I thought, we are in a penalty shoot out – you have one shot and if you miss it’s over, whilst I have 3 shots (although the third goalie may be the best in the World) I still only have to score only one out of 3, I prefer my odds!
    But is all secondary now with General Election 8 June.
    Perhaps the priority of socialists in Labour now is to get urgent selection meeting and trigger ballots where Labour MPs, and NEC not endorsing PPCs until these procedures followed.
    It is going to be tough for JC and Labour but many of us from working class backgrounds have had our backs to the wall in the past and our instinct is to fight, and fight for a transformation of society as never before!
    Solidarity!

  5. Bazza says:

    Oh yes CFs piece funny.
    Basically Labour members, trade unionists, and co-operators are mere children and the ‘Great Men and Women of History’ (without an original idea in their heads) are the adults who will lead us Ha! Ha!
    A friend of mine used to work for an MP and was once introduced to CF at Conference by the MP but was obviously was of no use to her career and she said something like hmm, blanked him and walked away.
    She didn’t know (joke) he commanded 100,000 votes Ha! Ha!

  6. David Pavett says:

    5% is clearly better than 15% but it raises the fundamental issue of whether the party exists to serve the PLP or vice versa.

    Labour is so deeply wedded to a narrow parliamentary view of politics (as opposed to a view in which parliament is seen as crucial but nevertheless part of much broader understanding of politics) that it is difficult to say what should, I think, be obvious. Why should the PLP have any sort of veto on who the leader should be? Why should the leader even be an MP?

    Of course the PLP should feel able to give strong support to the leader but it is a stunningly narrow view that then concludes that the PLP should in any way control who he or she should be. If there is the possibility that the members might choose someone not supported by the PLP then the proper conclusion should be that the PLP is massively dysfunctional and needs to be changed so that such an issue cannot arise. The whole idea that a special interest group should have special rights over who should lead a democratic party is absurdly contradictory.

    1. Terry McCarthy says:

      The resolution should not be taken in isolation , there are amendments to the main motion, plus other motions being put to the floor , in relation to binding conference decisions reselection and d selection as well as other proposed rule changes to officer posts within the party. It’s a good job there are some anoraks (in the unions) who take these things seriously

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