Labour MPs are threatening their elected leader with industrial action over a proposed increase in democratic accountability within the party.
The fight for (and against) greater party democracy
A motion for party members to elect Labour’s candidates for each general election was unanimously passed at a Momentum North conference last week. This is known as ‘mandatory selection’, where sitting MPs face an open election to stand for parliament again. Momentum is the grassroots organisation born out of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign. It now fights for a Labour general election victory and greater democracy in the party.
Labour Chief Whip Nick Brown spoke at the conference about the importance of party unity. This angered some MPs, who anonymously briefed the press in frustration over the prospect of mandatory selection. One Labour MP told The Huffington Post:
The Chief Whip is supposed to represent unity and here he was as keynote speaker at this organisation that wants to deselect Labour MPs. It’s astonishing.
Lots of people are saying they will now ‘work to rule’. If you feed the dogs at a Momentum meeting, all requests for loyalty go out of the window.
People can vote when they want, rebel when they want. That’s without precedent.
For many, it will make sense that Labour MPs face the prospect of mandatory selection when they refer to the party’s supporters as “dogs” and threaten the elected leader with industrial action. ‘Work to rule’ is a form of industrial action where employees follow the organisation’s official rules so robotically that it reduces output and efficiency.
The Momentum motion
Jamie Driscoll, one of the conference organisers, rejected the language used by MPs and journalists to describe the proposal:
It’s not about targeting this or that ‘faction’; the phrase ‘revenge deselection’ is deliberately used as a smokescreen. We have just voted unanimously that all Labour MPs – including Jeremy Corbyn – should face open, democratic selection between every general election.
The motion calls for “individual Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) [to] get to shortlist their own candidates, and select them on a one-member one-vote basis”. This is opposed to the mandatory selection system of the 1980s where local party delegates voted rather than each party member.
At present, Labour harbours a ‘one member, one vote’ system. But the sitting MP may not face party member selection at all under the current ‘trigger ballot’ process. The MP will only face an election if their constituency party branches and affiliates decide so. Each party organisation has a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on the matter. Also, the election is controlled by the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), which has near free reign in setting [pdf, p26] the rules, guidelines and timetable of the selection process.
Labour MPs and officials consistently fight off party democracy
In August, pro-Corbyn candidates won a clean sweep in all six democratic elections on the party’s ruling NEC. But the NEC subverted this at the annual conference soon afterwards, by bringing in two additional, unelected places on its own body and filling them with anti-Corbyn MPs.
Before the move, party members elected only six of the NEC’s 33 places. Reducing democracy, the NEC has now made that six of 35 places.
The NEC and right-wing Labour MPs also adopted anti-democratic policies during the leadership election. The NEC retroactively banned Labour members who joined in the last six months from voting in the leadership election; raised the ‘registered supporter’ voting fee from £3 to £25; suspended local (CLP) meetings until after the election; and barred members who joined after June 2015 from attending the party’s national conference in September.
If brought in by Labour, mandatory selection would provide a direct link between the electorate (all of which has the opportunity to become party members) and its representatives in parliament. So proponents argue it strengthens democracy and encourages more people to join the Labour Party in order to participate.
The Momentum North conference motion in favour of the change was non-binding, but it follows similar moves by other local branches. Under the change, Labour MPs would need to command the support of their constituency to stand for parliament again. This would hold them to account for their voting decisions during their time in Westminster, preventing idleness and exploitation.
Members of the public shouldn’t have to choose from a preselected shortlist of party elites. Labour candidates should have a democratic mandate to stand. If the party is to succeed, entitled MPs should stop threatening industrial action against their leader for a conference he didn’t attend. And they should start actually garnering the support of the people they supposedly represent. Then mandatory selection would not be a problem for them.
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