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Labour MPs are there because they are Labour – and are accountable to the party

Mike GapesI can’t say I’d heard of Mike Gapes, the Labour MP for Ilford South, until the summer brouhaha that was the Labour leadership contest. But that’s okay, I bet he hasn’t the foggiest who I am either. Since September, Mike has made a name for himself as someone unrepentant about his politics, which are decidedly on the right of the party. Though to be fair it’s not because Mike has deliberately courted controversy or is positioning himself to lead a Neo-Kendallite counter-insurgency from the back benches. For whatever reason, the trollish wing of keyboard Corbynism have taken objection to Mike and regularly bombard him with criticisms. Some fair, mostly not, Mike at least should be commended for taking the time to respond to this nonsense.

One persistent criticism of Mike and co runs along the lines of “if you like the Tories so much why don’t you go there?” Of course, there are very significant differences between the Blairist of the Blairist and those who sit on the benches opposite. Unfortunately for some, cats are either white or black – there’s no room for nuance, let alone big differences on our side of the fence. It’s the new politics way or the highway.

However, I must take issue with these ripostes. He tweets:


Yes, that old chestnut. Who are elected representatives of the party responsible to? For me, the issue used to be quite simple. If you’re in the business of building a revolutionary socialist organisation, you’re taking on a huge political project. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, the New Society is going to take a bit more than an Enabling Act to get off the ground. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that the party, dedicated to this objective, should expect of its members to act in a disciplined way and are responsible to it, regardless of whether they’re a paper vendor, a workplace militant, a full-timer, or a Member of Parliament.

A cadre party of the Leninist type is something Labour definitely is not. Dear old Vlad used to refer to it as a bourgeois workers’ party. i.e. An organisation stuffed full of salt-of-the-earth proletarians but where the top was not only pro-capitalist but were implicated in and integrated into maintaining the rule of capital. He was right in this. And wrong as well. Lenin’s formulation was frozen in aspic and became a model variously used by his latter day British followers for decades afterwards. After all, it shortcut the need to continue analysing things afresh (critically applying Marxist concepts can be such a chore) and allowed them to make a neat distinction between goodie proles and bad ‘un bourgie types. Actually, it’s more accurate to describe Labour as a proletarian party. As the political voice of the labour movement, which itself organises working people in in all their variety around the workplace, the varied experiences, the progressive politics, the sectionalism, the – sometimes reactionary – sentiments find themselves expressed in the party too. And because the labour movement is in the business of fighting the worker’s corner in capitalist workplaces, surprise surprise the party it bequeathed seeks to ameliorate and reform capitalism, not overthrow it. One doesn’t need semi-conspiranoid theorising or convoluted theories about third world super profits to explain why Labour has always sought compromise with capital over confrontation.

Whereas Leninist parties are organisations of self-selected revolutionaries who claim to be the most conscious section of our class, Labour is a party of proletarians – people who have to sell their labour power in return for a wage – as a whole. Unsurprising that the former has tight control of elected representatives, whereas the latter does not. Hence Labour MPs cannot be mandated under party rules by their CLPs to vote in certain ways. And herein creeps the tension Mike’s ripostes to his anti-fandom touch on.

It’s not enough that Labour is quite a loose party. Labour MPs are selected by the party and then elected to Parliament on a constituency-by-constituency basis to represent everyone in that constituency. And a good MP with a good team will strive to do precisely that, regardless of the political persuasions of constituents that seek assistance. Who then is a Labour MP accountable to?

Perhaps it’s one squirt too many of the polemical juices, but Mike does sound as though his party doesn’t matter and should have no hold over him whatsoever. It’s the constituents that put their faith in him and it’s them to whom he’s beholden. Formally speaking, this is true. I’m also sure Mike’s an all-round good fella and does a fine job by the folk of Ilford South. However, Mike – like practically every Labour MP – has the privilege of serving because he’s Labour. If for whatever reason he was to stand as an independent, he knows he has very little chance of winning against the party. That’s because most people still tend to vote on a party basis. Incumbency factors and personal followings count for little in the grand scheme of things. It comes back to the party and who it decides to select for elections. The electorate are formally sovereign, but in the substance it is the party members who participate in selections. It’s the party and only the party that consistently holds MPs to account for their actions at constituency meetings and has the first say over their fates. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t be seeing so much crying in the media about deselection panic and the like.

This post first appeared at All that is Solid 


  1. John P Reid says:

    Lol, as if you ever said this to Livungatine Shawcroft,when they backed Lufthur, or Mcdinnel,or Corbyn when they voted against the whip

  2. Robert says:

    Labour left, labour right, these two will now battle each other to a stand still and the winner will be the Tories who will win by default as being the only party to run the country.

    Same old labour same old problems.


  3. James Martin says:

    There are some issues here that can potentially be made better and some that probably can’t but for good reason.

    I would compare things to how trade unions generally operate. On the ground you want workplace reps that you hope have the support and confidence of their local members. At the top you have a general secretary and national executive that should be fighting for the policies set by members and delegates at conference. Often local reps may for various reasons diverge from the national ‘line’. Normally that isn’t a terrible problem unless it is something like breaking a national strike ballot. But in most cases the two levels of democratic mandate will co-exist and rub along.

    Of course you get problems where either there is a too tightly enforced top down national control via full time officials that stifles local democracy and local initiative, or on the other hand a too loose federal structure is also bad as it potentially weakens national collective strength.

    In the case of the Labour Party we clearly have a good history of independently minded MPs (from both left and right) who will not always be in line with the wider Party. I don’t have a problem with that so long as they are supported by their CLPs. Nor do I have a problem with an MP like John Woodcock being vocally pro-Trident due to representing Barrow shipyard workers.

    But the line becomes crossed when you have examples like Simon Danzuck who has gone from calling for a coup against Corbyn ‘from day one’ to regular articles (paid I assume) in the Daily Mail attacking the him in an utterly disgraceful way and which can only aid the Tories. It is also crossed when John Woodcock (who is chair of the Progress tendency) makes a public threat to resign and stand as an independent in a subsequent byelection against Labour if the Party do not support Trident WMD renewal.

  4. David Ellis says:

    It is becoming absolutely clear that Corbyn and McDonnell have put party unity so far above principles that they are actually beginning to endanger the Labour Party themselves and restart the process of pasokification in England and Wales that saw Labour wiped out in Scotland. They are calling those MPs who abstained last night `confused’, they are claiming that New Labour did a good job on the economy, they are yet to deliver the promised apology for the Iraq war, they have ditched opposition to the EU and look likely to vote with Cameron in the referendum and they are on the verge of voting for bombing in Syria. What is going on eh?

    1. Robert says:

      We do not need New labour we have the Tories.

      Can the left win without Scotland, simple yes if it can move further to the right, but moving further to the right then Cameron, would mean people will end up voting Tory.

      labour problem is left or right it’s not needed, and that will I expect change when the Tories mess up or one hopes.

  5. Double Luxembourg says:

    Good to see old Clause 4 LCC types are still fighting the trots-as a Cambridge economics graduate Mike knows the charter is a pile of bollocks so this is politics and not right wing labour politics either.

  6. David Pavett says:

    I agree with the broad thrust of Phil B-C’s argument. The situation is however even simpler than he suggests. The Labour Party rules state:

    Clause IV.
    Selection of Westminster parliamentary candidates

    5. If a CLP is represented in Parliament by a member of the PLP:

    A. If the sitting MP wishes to stand for re-election, a trigger ballot will be carried out through Party units and affiliates according to NEC guidelines. If the MP wins the trigger ballot he/ she will, subject to NEC endorsement, be selected as the CLP’s prospective parliamentary candidate.

    B. If the MP fails to win the trigger ballot, he/ she shall be eligible for nomination for selection as the prospective parliamentary candidate, and s/he shall be included in the shortlist of candidates from whom the selection shall be made.

    In other words if the members of a CLP are dissatisfied with their MP they have a clear mechanism for doing something about it. All the noise about mandatory re-selection is made by people with no understanding of current procedures. Where an MP is considered by members to not be doing a good job the means are there to find a better candidate.

    What is more all this noise is very unhelpful to Corbyn who has a very difficult task of trying to keep the largest number of MPs on side. The mandatory re-selection call could not be better designed to worry those who might be considering their position in relation to Corbyn and McDonnell. It is, frankly, idiotic.

    Even the CLPD recognises in its briefing notes on re-selection that the present system while falling short of mandatory re-selection gives CLPs who want to the means to re-select:

    To be re-selected, the sitting MP requires a majority of the affirmative nominations from the CLP’s branches, forums and affiliated organisations. Where the MP fails to obtain such a majority a full selection procedure takes place in that constituency.

    And just what sense does it make, if a constituency is happy with the work of its MP, to force a selection process? None as far as I can see. Time to tell the mandatory re-selectors to go and play somewhere else. They are undermining Corbyn.

    1. Richard Tiffin says:

      The trigger ballot, according to what I understand, is not as straight forward as presented in this argument. For example, how would it be organised ward to ward? Who has the funds/time to organise it? What about moribund wards controlled by just a couple of right wingers v the votes in active wards, is there OPOV?
      The fact of the matter is the LP select people to represent them it is only after they are elected as
      MP’s that they represent constituents. In my view, therefore, we have every right to expect them to continue to represent the desires of the LP, if the electorate don’t like them they will give them the order of the boot.
      Fact of the matter is if the leadership truly represented the wishes of members or the wider working class then they wouldn’t have strangled dissent over the years in the way they have. Lenin was right then and now, proletarian party with bourgeois leadership and only occassionly has this caused conflict as workers have moved in a revolutionary direction.

      1. David Pavett says:

        Richard, where is the complication? Is the process not clear in the Rulebook? All of your questions can be answered by reading it. Should we not start from that when discussung such a key constitutional matter?

        Fifty per cent of the CLP’s units are required to support a sitting MP. Failing that there has to be a full selection process. There is no special expense involved since this can be done through the normal cycle of meetings. If there are a large number of moribund branches controlled by a couple of right wingers then that is the problem that a pro-Corbyn movement needs to address. There are no short-cuts to demonstrating that Corbyn’s policies have majority support at the base of the Party.

        I agree with your point that MPs should not be allowed to hide behind their function as representatives of the wider electorate. They only have that function in their capacity as representstives of the Labour Party. That was Phil B-C’s point too.

  7. If the writer was somewhat older he might have remembered Gapes from way back when. He, and his co-thinker John Mann, were prominent 30 plus years ago as amongst the student Labour types leading their fight against Militant and other Trots.

    In support of greater social movement (and because it was obvious at the time that NOLS leading activists were all destined to be even worse than the SDP types then about), I’d bar anyone who was a a NOLS (Labour student group) leader from being a Labour candidate.

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