“Democracy” returns to the PLP

stylised Labour rose

A major cultural change is about to take place in the Parliamentary Labour Party – one which will give some indication (though not necessarily a fair one) of the popularity of all the Labour leadership hopefuls. Since it will be many weeks until a new Leader is elected, the brothers Miliband, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and John Cruddas must all face election if they want to act as a party spokesperson.

Elections for the Parliamentary Labour Party Chair and Shadow Cabinet are due to take place over the next few days.  Although the precise timetable is not yet known, the PLP Standing Orders require that they happen “as soon as practical after a General Election”.

Almost half of the electorate (125) have been MPs without ever voting for those who spoke on their behalf.  A quarter (68) do at least have the distant memory of internal democracy having been first elected prior to 1997, whilst those elected for the first time (65), many of whom have been local councillors, are therefore more used to elected representatives actually having some say on the policies for which they are expected to vote.

Sophisticated electorate or not, past shadow cabinet elections have thrown up odd results:  Gordon Brown was in 14th place in the last one before the 1997 election, with Harriet Harman in bottom place of those elected.  Famously, Tony Blair ignored the requirement in the rules to appoint to his first Cabinet Michael Meacher, who had come 9th in the previous election with the support of 75% of the PLP.  He also sacked, at the first re-shuffle, Gavin Strang who had been the top male candidate.  Earlier elections in that parliament were marked by large numbers of candidates – 53 in 1992, 1 in 5 of the PLP (more details here).

Peter Kilfoyle, in his recent memoir Labour Pains, is disparaging about candidates elected with the support of as few as 39% of the electorate on the basis of appeals to members for a spare vote “so I will not be humiliated”. Kilfoyle also describes as “political corruption” the attempts by party whips to manipulate the outcome, something he could observe from close quarters as a Whip during this period.

MPs including Alistair Darling, he claims, were offered a better office in return for votes, others foreign trips or time off parliamentary duties, sometimes handing over their blank ballot papers in return. Deals are done to ‘swap’ votes between the cliques that form around leading lights, and acolytes tour the bars and tea rooms building up the profile of their candidates whilst simultaneously discrediting others: “many believe that being a runner or bag carrier … is the way to promotion up that greasy pole of ambition.”

The result was predictable: inadequate individuals – or just lazy ones – in critical leading positions in the fight for parliamentary dominance.”

    • Peter Kenyon is right to raise the issue of diversity. In 1992, shadow cabinet ballot papers for the 18 places then available were simply invalid unless they included votes for at least three women, increased to four in 1993 but the number of places was increased to 19 from 1995. However, the current PLP Standing Orders have no provision for ensuring gender balance of the Shadow Cabinet whilst in opposition, let alone any other diversity requirements.

  1. The Milibands and we are told Ed Balls is that it, Cruddas has pulled out before even going in.

    So the whips are going to have a boring time, we will see a New Labour leader, Blair Blair and Blair win. ah well.