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Labour in Parliament: in need of reform

As the House of Commons rose yesterday for its summer holidays, the record new intake of 232 first time MPs have some grounds for feeling they’ve had some impact. Though only time will tell whether they paid any heed to Nye Bevan’s excellent warning to new MPs that parliament is “an elaborate conspiracy to prevent the real clash of opinion which exists outside from finding an appropriate echo within its walls” (and more here), they do seem at least to have taken on the task of holding the executive to account. The question is whether new Labour members will have the same effect within the parliamentary party.

Like their Tory counterparts, they have dominated the election of Select Committees, both in influence and membership, leading the House Magazine to comment: “older hands were slightly taken aback at the way in which their new colleagues coordinated support for each other”. Of 67 first time Labour members out of 258, 41 occupy one of Labour’s 95 Select Committee places. That is radically different from what happened when Labour was last in opposition when Select Committee membership was a reward for long service and obedience, bringing opportunities for foreign travel. The threat of the withdrawal of this privilege provided Whips with some useful ammunition.

Whilst the pomp and outwardly procedures of parliament will take some time to master, the parliamentary Labour party should have been more familiar to new MPs, many of whom have been councillors. Unfortunately, the internal democracy of the PLP bears no resemblance to that of Council Labour groups, even the paler version which has emerged with Cabinet government. The parliamentary party is a much more authoritarian affair, laden with the effect of widespread patronage and secrecy. Although in opposition, the Shadow Cabinet at least is elected (which will provide a culture shock for those elected in the previous three elections), minutes reveal almost nothing, and, what is revealed are instructions not proposals for debate.

The opportunity to change the way the PLP works is in the current review of its rules and standing orders chaired by Margaret Beckett. The working group was not elected after a discussion within the PLP, but in typical style simply announced as a fait accompli. Nevertheless it did invite both oral and written submissions from MPs and will report in September in time for Shadow Cabinet elections.

The Shadow Cabinet

A key issue (and probably what prompted Harriet Harman to initiate this review) is the size and composition of the Shadow Cabinet. In the current rules, this consists of the four PLP officers (Leader and Deputy, elected Chair and Chief Whip), Lords Leader and Chief Whip and one elected peer, plus nineteen elected MPs. No seats are reserved for women but votes cast must include at least four votes for women “if they stand”. Scandalously, pre-1997 whips used to encourage votes for Campaign Group women in the confidence they would not be elected. Radical reform is clearly overdue. Harman’s preference for 50% women seems likely to be agreed but with a phased introduction (30% this year, 40% next and 50% in 2012).

The other issue the group intends to consider is the method of election. The  old system in which each MP had 19 votes was open to all sorts of abuses and the outcome was neither meritocratic nor representative. The introduction of STV voting would be the most radical solution – ensuring an inclusive shadow cabinet and ending the dead hand of the Whips.

Backbench representation

The Group is also committed to consider backbench representation – an idea that was promoted by Graham Allen who has been described by Labour Uncut as “the self-appointed representative …. of the backbencher against the machine”. When in Government, there is currently a form of backbench representation in the parliamentary committee (confusingly also the name given to the shadow cabinet when in opposition) which includes 6 “backbenchers”, 6 government representatives and the PLP officers. Unfortunately, even then, those who elect the “backbenchers” (and sometimes the backbenchers’ representatives themselves) include PPSs of whom in the last parliament there were up to 35 and , bound by the same collective responsibility as junior ministers, should really be excluded. In opposition, there is not even such flawed representation.

The obvious solution is to create a Backbench Committee, elected by backbenchers alone, which meets with front-bench representatives and PLP officers on a regular basis. The electorate, however, should exclude anyone appointed to a post by the party leader.

A benefit of this system would be some representation of backbench opinion in situations of uncertainty (such as the possible future collapse of the Coalition) or in post-election negotiations about the formation of a Government.  It was wholly unsatisfactory that the PLP was effectively excluded from discussions about the implications of the hung parliament in May when even the parliamentary committee effectively ceased to function as several members had either resigned or were not re-elected but no new elections took place.

Other issues

There are numerous other ways of making the PLP more democratic, and its leadership more accountable. These include:

  • Cabinet members should be subject to positive ratification by PLP vote (current rules – not necessarily observed – require ratification of junior posts in both government and opposition)
  • The chief whip and deputy should be subject to annual election by the PLP, and the regional whips by Labour MPs in their region.
  • Certain key decisions of the Shadow Cabinet & Cabinet should be subject to ratification by the PLP.
  • The number of Ministers and PPSs should be limited (the current rules seek to limit them to one-fifth but this was ignored in the last parliament).
  • No Minister or PPS should be bound by Government policy in internal PLP debates.
  • All votes should be cast by the MP personally – the collection of blank voting papers by the Whips should be prohibited.
  • PLP Rules should commit the PLP to give effect in parliament to the aims and values of the Labour Party (as set out in Clause IV of its Rules), and to its programme as agreed from time to time.
  • PLP Standing Orders should recognise (i) the accountability of Labour Governments to parliament and the electorate as a whole as well as to the Labour Party and PLP, but also of (ii) the Officers of the PLP and Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet to the PLP.

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