Agenda Setting

Written By: Chris Williamson
Published: February 26, 2017 Last modified: February 26, 2017

A motion is due to be considered at this year’s Labour Party Conference to lower the proportion of MPs required to validate future leadership candidates from 15% to 5%.

This modest proposal has generated some noisy opposition, particularly from ‘Progress’, Labour’s internal rightwing pressure group. They have adopted a rather curious definition of democracy inside the Labour Party which, according to the ‘Progress’ rationale, only applies as long as the Parliamentary Labour Party approves the outcome. Of course that might be because ‘Progress’ is disproportionately represented inside the PLP. But this elitist attitude is one of the reasons why members enthusiastically embraced Jeremy Corbyn’s people powered politics.

Tony Benn said: “Democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world”, and he was right. Members fed up with the status quo backed Jeremy Corbyn because they could see more of the same would mean more cuts, more inequality and more election defeats. Sadly this democratic revolution spawned a counter-revolution inside the party.

The Oxford Dictionary defines democracy as “control of an organisation or group by the majority of its members”.  That definition is anathema to the counter-revolutionaries, in spite of Labour’s constitutional proclamation that it’s a “democratic socialist party”. But this is the twenty first century and Labour’s membership is in no mood to allow a parliamentary aristocracy to continue treating them like political serfs.

The very modest rule change that is being proposed is the minimum we should expect in a democratic socialist party; if anything, we should go further. Why should it only be MPs that can legitimise leadership candidates? Surely Constituency Labour Parties should have a role as well as, or even instead of, MPs.

It’s less than three years since delegates voted at a special conference by an overwhelming 86% to back Ed Miliband’s ‘one member, one vote’ reforms for leadership elections. Ed recognised that the party needed to aspire to be a mass movement again. I remember him addressing a PLP meeting where he talked about the prospect of having four or five hundred thousand members and registered supporters. Some of the cynics mumbled that this was naive, pie-in-the-sky rhetoric and was doomed to failure, yet we’ve already got well over 100,000 more members than Ed’s most optimistic prediction.

Ironically, most of those opposing the threshold reduction universally welcomed Ed’s reforms. It was only when Jeremy Corbyn announced that he was going to stand, as a candidate committed to a socialist programme, that many of them had a change of heart. When it was clear that he was on course to win, the erstwhile advocates of democracy began their war of attrition. I have been truly shocked and depressed in equal measure by their anti-democratic and uncomradely behaviour, the like of which I have never witnessed in my 40 plus years as a member of the Labour Party.

It’s not as if Labour’s electoral prospects would be enhanced by frustrating democracy either. We’ve already seen the impact on our poll ratings of the self-fulfilling prophesy merchants inside the party who refuse to promote the agenda that secured Jeremy Corbyn two crushing leadership victories. A cursory examination of that agenda shows that it is plain common sense, and opinion polls suggest that the individual policy proposals contained therein have the overwhelming support of the British people.

Instead of accepting the democratic will of the membership, and promoting Jeremy Corbyn’s popular policy programme, internal opponents give a predominantly hostile mass media the perfect excuse to focus on divisions.

Consequently, the party’s schismatic subcurrents make it nigh on impossible to secure a hearing in the media. It’s only because of our motivated mass membership that we now have a fighting chance of countering the hostile media during election campaigns.
Just imagine the outcry if MPs prevented a popular candidate getting onto the ballot paper? It would reinforce the view that many of Labour’s Westminster politicians are pompous, aloof and arrogant.  Instead of taking on the Tories and promoting a progressive alternative, we would haemorrhage members and be focussed on internal conflict.

The malcontents inside the PLP and their external cheerleaders did immense damage to the Labour Party when they mounted their coup last year. After that failed, we discovered, via leaked emails published in the Huffington Post, that a new plan was being hatched entitled ‘Project Anaconda’. According to the leaked internal emails this would “…involve isolating and weakening JC and ultimately crushing the life out of his leadership”.

But a day of reckoning is coming.  The process of selecting candidates for the 2020 election will begin when the Boundary Commission’s recommendations are agreed by Parliament next year. Those MPs who rejected the membership’s decision to elect Jeremy Corbyn could themselves be rejected by members in favour of alternative Labour candidates who do respect the membership’s democratic decisions.

About Chris Williamson

Chris Williamson is Labour MP for Derby North.