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Labour’s Members are Making the Party Unelectable

The party’s rules cede too much power from MPs to the members

The Labour party elects a new leader using a cocktail of preferences and votes from different bodies of the party – the members, MPs (PLP), MEPs (EPLP), affiliated trade unions, constituency Labour parties (CLPs), and socialist societies. The Conservative party, on the other hand, selects its new leader by taking MP nominations, narrowing the field down to just two candidates using rapid exhaustive votes amongst MPs, and then throwing the final pair to a member’s vote.
 This means any newly elected leader had the backing of at-least a largeish minority of their peers. Some recent Tory leadership elections have skipped the member’s vote after one of the final two stood down.
This all makes for a rather convoluted and drawn-out process.

The Labour party may have set its leadership election rules this way with the aim of making the process maximally democratic, but in doing so have set themselves up for significant misery.

In 2016, Jeremy Corbyn lost a vote of no confidence in his leadership amongst Labour MPs, with 172 against votes to 40 in favour – a mere 18% share. Most leaders would see the writing on the wall, and have the humility to go. That’s of course not what happened. Corbyn retained the leadership. Given merely 40 of his MPs had confidence in him, it’s not a stretch to argue he couldn’t have even made the requisite 51 nominations from MPs and MEPs to be on the ballot. Alas, as the incumbent leader, he was given a pass by the NEC.

Astoundingly, when the question of Corbyn’s leadership was put to the Labour membership, they backed him with 61.8% of the vote, actually an increase over his 2015 share of 59.5%.

The thing is, it takes a lot to become an MP – hard work, an ability to sell yourself & front your party’s policies – it takes comparatively very little to become a member. To become an MP, you must put your money where your mouth is, have skin in the game, and stick at it. To become a member, you just sign up online and pay about £5 a month – so members needn’t be electable. Surely the MPs should have the lion’s share of the say?

The change from a MP-led leadership election process to a more membership-led process The Labour party was the first to change to this style of leadership election, following the recommendations of the Collins Report in 2014 and pressure from activist groups, who argued that MPs tended to pick centrist (some would say moderate, electable) candidates.
See more:
Corbyn as an organisational phenomenon
26th January 2016
Constitution Unit
was perhaps the biggest factor that enabled Corbyn to get elected. A leader with only one in five of his colleagues supporting him at the despatch box was thus kept in place. The insurgent and radical support for Corbyn amongst the members in 2016, so flagrantly dismissive of the clear discontent the party’s MP’s had with Corbyn was perhaps a sign of things to come.

It’s worth pointing out too that Theresa May struggled with rebels within her party blocking the passage of her business, even though she had much more than a fifth of her MPs behind her Theresa May won a 12th December 2018 confidence vote amongst Conservative MPs, taking 200 votes in favour to 117 against.
Theresa May no confidence vote result
13th December 2018
The Telegraph
– how could you possibly expect a Prime Minister to govern with so little support from their MPs? As Tom Watson, former Deputy Labour Leader put it as soon as the leader loses the confidence of the parliamentary party it’s almost impossible to see how you can form a government. Tom Watson: I quit because of Labour Brutality
27th December 2019
The Guardian

A January 2020 poll by YouGov further suggests that the membership is riddled with obsessions over ideology rather than governing. Corbyn, the leader that has taken them to historic defeat, is nevertheless the most popular leader of the last century, topping Clement Attlee, founder of the hallowed NHS, Tony Blair, again the most electorally successful Labour leader ever and their last big election winner; and every other Labour PM from the last 100 years. Blair’s reputation in the party is so tarnished that Blairite has become a smear. 26% of Labour members didn’t even know enough about Clement Attlee to form an opinion! Imagine a fifth of Tories being ambivalent about Churchill or Thatcher!

The Labour party also gives its membership a key policy making role. Again unlike the Conservatives, whose front bench take ownership of the policy agenda, Labour’s manifesto commitments are decided by member’s votes at the party conference.

Remember the upset and chaos from the 2019 Labour party conference? Despite its support from many MPs and shadow ministers, the members rejected an outright remain policy, instead voting for what became Labour’s bewildering Brexit policy in the 2019 election: negotiate a new withdrawal deal (credible leave option ) and then have a second referendum pitting this new deal against remain, all the while being unclear as-to which way Labour would then campaign… This is but one example that shows this uncomfortable divide.

Sir Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary and now runner for the 2020 Labour leadership had this to say:

So we have made progress but I was disappointed by the outcome. The party and the unions have taken a different views on this, and I agree with Unison on this, and that’s why I’ve said what I had about campaigning for remain. But it is important for me to respect both sides, and I have faithfully tried to do that over three years, but do I think we should campaign for remain? Yes I do.

How is a Labour MP or shadow minister supposed to convincingly argue for policies they didn’t choose and wouldn’t have devised themselves? How can you expect the electorate to trust them to be implemented? You can almost see the lack of conviction in their faces when the BBC’s Andrew Neil has them bent over a barrel, trying to justify the nonsense.

Many MPs and canvassers have blamed this Brexit policy, second only to Corbyn’s leadership, as the reason they lost so decisively in the December 2019 general election.

After the Conservatives won a stonking majority and Labour saw historic defeat in the election, Corbyn is finally on the way out. In the immediate aftermath, the rage emanating from some Labour MPs and activists was palpable – they know who lost this election for them. For others, it was anything but dear Jeremy to blame.

I believe the Labour members have just as big a responsibility to listen to the voters as me. And what I would say to Jeremy Corbyn and his apologists […] is that they had everything they wanted in this election. They had the the leader they wanted, the NEC they wanted, the manifesto they wanted, the Brexit policy they wanted, the political strategy they wanted, and having sacked loads of people in head office, the executive leadership that they wanted too.

The one thing they didn’t have, was the support of the British people. […]

It’s time we started listening to voters. […]

I said to Jeremy what people are saying about you in the tea room, but won’t say to your face is that you’re a bigger problem for us on the doorstep than Brexit. […]

Wes Streeting
13th December 2019
Sky News (YouTube)

This thrashing clearly hasn’t proved thrashing-enough for a die-hard clique of Corbynistas in the party. Front runners for the new leadership team Rebecca Long-Bailey and Richard Burgon are continuity candidates and are doing well. Too many in the Labour party cannot accept its policies, leader and trajectory were squarely rejected. Burgon has even suggested that Labour members should be given the power to vote on military action Labour deputy leadership candidate Richard Burgon heavily criticised over plan to have members vote on military action
6th February 2020
by the Government. This madness drew all reasonable people’s eyes skywards, and it again goes to show how factions of the party are looking evermore to the membership not the parliamentary party.

It’ll take Labour a long time to recover – though, they’ve got until 2024. To place themselves back in a strong, electable position, much more than the party’s constitutional defects will need to be put right. The party must place its faith in those that sit on the green benches, and let them lead.

The upcoming London mayoral election will be the next major encounter Labour has with the electorate. We’ll see how that goes…

See Also

The Labour leadership election only matters if the party breaks with the past – Martin Kettle
The Guardian, 6th Feb 2020

Labour leadership: The party’s ups and downs charted over a century
BBC News, 10th Feb 2020

The Inside Story of Election 19
BBC Radio 4, 10th Feb 2020