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Whatever happened to the parliamentary Labour party?

MPs herded blindfolded through the lobbiesThe parliamentary Labour party (PLP) has changed dramatically over the long years of my political experience. It used to be the forum where policy differences were thrashed out, the front bench was held vigorously to account, and ideological debate provided the lifeblood for political activism. No more. It must be the most placid in modern times. Good of course in terms of maintaining unity, which is an important objective, but less good in terms of political inspiration and campaigning drive.

The PLP is not unique in this respect. The same process of dumbing down has smothered party conference which once was the heaving soul of the Labour Movement, but now has shrunken to become merely a showpiece for the Leader’s speech.

There are three main reasons for this. One is that Tony Blair wanted the PLP to be a stage-managed army to secure his political base in parliament and to that end the Left was squeezed out of parliamentary selections and the PLP was systematically colonised by those of Blairite/Progress persuasion. The culture changed too. Loyalty and compliance were rated over integrity and participation, and such habits, though they have somewhat ebbed since his time, die hard and still inform much of the mindset of the PLP.

Second, not unrelated, is the decline in ideology. The Labour party, or at least certain lead elements within it, have all too readily accepted the Thatcherite dictates of deregulated finance, market fundamentalism, ever more privatisation, and keeping the unions on a short leash. With those objectives it’s difficult to see how a radical vision of a very different economy and society can gain traction.

Third, where ideology is downplayed, careerism and image and presentation gain the upper hand. Ed Miliband’s brave speech denouncing this tendency and asserting that what matters is what politicians do, not what they look like, needs to be taken to heart by every single member of the PLP.

Clearly a transformation of the PLP is needed, at several different levels. It needs to be far more representative of the electorate it purports to serve. That means far fewer drawn from the Progress route of middle class, university, student union, PA, special adviser to an MP, and thence eased access to a seat from the inside (just like the Tories). Instead it means far more with real experience of the working class who still represent some 40% of the population at large, but only about 5% even of Labour MPs.

There has to be more debate about controversial issues in the PLP, more expression of genuine views, more consultation of Labour MPs before difficult decisions are reached. In a real democratic party the policy discussion should flow both ways between the leadership and the led, yet at present it is invariably top-down. Above all the PLP needs to get out of the constricting distortions of the Westminster bubble. Regular weekly campaigning on the big political issues of the day, which was the life and soul of the Labour Party decades ago and without which political education will never flourish against the relentless propaganda of the Tory tabloids, needs to be urgently re-introduced.


  1. David Melvin says:

    All Ed Miliband is trying to do is to show that his father was right and Labour is not a socialist party. He has succeeded beyond all expectations. People who join the Labour party now join because of Progress, not in spite of it, whilst socialists are leaving. The PLP is a reflection of that with most the the Left MP’s of an older generation. Despite what it says on the membership card the Labour party is neither democratic or socialist.

    1. Robert says:

      Tory and Tory Lite, party members shall vote for the party but ask no questions.

      Sadly most people today can see right through these careerist.

    2. Ruben Brett says:

      I’m actually a relatively new member of the Labour Party and Young Labour. I joined (in spite of Progress) because my local candidate is a strong trade unionist and a true democratic socialist, NOT a New Labour careerist, and because I wanted to campaign for her. I think Progress is a disgusting organisation and a blight on the Labour movement, but the only way we can decrease its influence and make sure working people have a voice is by supporting the left within the Labour party. And during my experience of canvassing (having spoken to hundreds of people about Labour) very few people join or support Labour because of Progress.

      1. Robert says:

        Then you have just made the same bog standard issue that people like me hate.

        I’m to the left of the labour party because I speak about socialist and socialism, the people at the bottom and you have just made the same error labour now does.

        You have stated working people so if your not working what do you do then Vote Tory.

        It’s not working people for god sake your New labour without even knowing it.

        It’s working class, it does not matter if your hard working disabled sick or unemployed for god sake.

        People know that labour to day is now mainly a middle class middle of the road party of careerist Miliband will do anything say anything to win because winning is the game, and to be honest playing the personality game does not work do vote Tory because they are evil.

        Thatcher did more for the working class then labour did after she had killed off all the manufacturing and mining, no then google which party did more for the rich and you will find more rich people benefited from New labour then they did Thatcher.

        But if you want to be seen as being to the left it’s working class not working people. Bankers work.

  2. swatantra says:

    its become too geriatric and moribund, and needs a cull.

  3. Adrian Strain says:

    I agree with most of this article until it comes to the final paragraph. All that is wrong with the PLP is well put but the remedy is far from a much needed debate. The Labour Party is an attractive vehicle for well-educated (often privately educated) careerists. The Party needs root and branch reform with a return to an idealogical manifesto. It will make us less likely to be elected but will enable us to organise from the grass roots up.

    1. Robert says:

      True but how does one get rid of the careerist, because at this time they are in the majority not the minority

  4. David Pavett says:

    This article describes from the inside exactly what the PLP looks like from the outside. I know that there a individual MPs to whom the criticisms do not apply but taken as a whole they are a dismally untalented bunch ever willing to have someone else do their thinking for them and that goes for the Shadow Cabinet too.

    I am all for more working class participation and more MPs of working class origin. I am less persuaded than others that this would by itself make the difference needed. The problem is that Labour does not identify itself with class interests of the great majority. I cannot do that because it lacks the ideas required to think through and defend such an identification. So instead we have the present neo-liberal, Progress dominated ideological mush. It is not a pleasant sight.

    1. Robert says:

      It does not smell to clever either, what is needed is for labour to be out of power until they then decided that the new labour Progress route is not the way to go, in the mean time we are all dead because of the Tories.

  5. Rod says:

    Ruben Brett: “supporting the left within the Labour party”

    The left within the LP have been out-maneuvered and totally boxed-in Progress.

    Even the affiliated trade unions opted for their own political demise by voting for the Progress scheme to remove the collective link.

    By paying your subscription and campaigning for Labour all you’re doing is handing money/power to the Progress/PLP elite. And they will then reward your good efforts by perpetuating their own stranglehold on the party.

    The result will be the exact opposite to the one you claim to want.

  6. Robert says:

    It’s not worth bothering about Unions are dying so is the left within labour it’s the new world order, in which less and less people bother voting, it will not be long before it’s made compulsory to vote and then we will see smaller parties gaining, some of those may well be to the far right.

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