openDemocracyUK: Opinion

By crushing party democracy, Labour may sign its own death warrant

The Labour Right hopes that giving power back to MPs will prevent any future shift to the Left. But Britain needs more radicalism, not less

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
22 September 2021, 3.29pm
Keir Starmer has reportedly backed Labour's plans to scrap its 'one member, one vote' system
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Gary Calton / Alamy Stock Photo

Imagine the scene.

Britain is emerging from a long, painful pandemic, which has revealed quite how hard our public services have been kicked over the past decade.

Brexit is a domino of disasters, independence movements are gaining momentum, and the deep corruption of Boris Johnson’s regime is becoming clear.

A global climate conference is coming to the UK in a couple of months, as concern about environmental breakdown burns more intensely than ever.

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Black Lives Matter protests have shifted public attitudes and a new generation is deeply sceptical about the political and economic system it has grown up into.

Even Joe Biden, the Mr Establishment who finally made it to the White House, has recognised a shift in public mood and has broken ranks with neoliberal orthodoxy. He is confronting the data giants and has withdrawn troops from Afghanistan.

At the same time, authoritarians rule over billions of people. President Xi is pouring cement into the foundations of his growing global megalopolis. Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Modi and Putin are trying to make the world stand to their attention. Trump may have been defeated, but the shadow of authoritarian capitalism still darkens the planet.

And in response, a flourishing of democratic imagination has brought ideas that were once seen as radical into the centre of political debates everywhere.

But somehow, Labour cannot catch the Tories in the polls.

Then, a Labour staffer in a meeting somewhere in the party’s HQ pops a finger up and says: “Let’s get rid of the ‘one member, one vote’ system for electing our party leader.”

The thing that’s surprising isn’t that someone suggested the move, since the right wing of the party no doubt sees it as a way to prevent a left-winger like Jeremy Corbyn from ever being elected leader again. What’s astonishing, if media reports are to be believed, is the suggestion that Keir Starmer has given it his backing.

Unintended effects

The one member, one vote (OMOV) system for Labour leadership elections was adopted in 2015 after a campaign to do so – ironically enough – by the Right of the party. The aim was to curtail trade union influence.

Under the previous electoral college system, three parallel elections were held: among MPs, among members, and among unions and other affiliated groups. Each election was allocated a third of the overall vote. This meant that a couple of hundred Labour MPs had as much say between them as tens of thousands of party members. It also meant that if, say, you were an MP, a party member, a trade union member and a member of an affiliated group all at once, you would get a total of four votes.

In the years since Corbyn was elected, the Right of the party has obsessed over its error

This system, which dates back to the election of Neil Kinnock as leader in 1983, was really the result of a philosophical compromise about what Labour is. Is it a parliamentary party? ( Before 1983, MPs alone had chosen the leader.) Is it a membership-led party? Or is it the political wing of an alliance of trade unions?

In the 2010 leadership election, soft-Left Ed Miliband narrowly defeated his Blairite brother David. Even though David won among members and MPs, the structure of the electoral college meant that trade union support delivered victory to Ed. Afterwards, David’s backers resolved to stop this from happening in future.

To do this, they took advantage of a punch-up in the House of Commons bar in 2012, which led to the resignation of Eric Joyce, Labour MP for Falkirk West. During the process to select a new candidate in his constituency, the Labour Right kicked up a fuss about the influence of the trade union Unite, which had significant power locally as a result of a dispute over pensions at the nearby Grangemouth Oil refinery.

Unite paid for local members to join Labour, as was permitted at the time, and vote for their preferred candidate. After the row that ensued, a report commissioned by Labour recommended, among other things, that the party move to the OMOV system for leadership elections.

The Labour Right were jubilant. They believed that the supposedly left-leaning attitudes of union leaders had carried Ed Miliband to victory, and this was a distortion of ordinary members’ opinions. Once empowered, they judged – not entirely unreasonably, when you consider who had remained members during the Blair and Brown years – that the membership would line up behind their preferred candidates.

Yet the opposite happened. When Ed Miliband stood down after the 2015 election, Labour – buoyed partly by hundreds of thousands of new members – elected Corbyn as leader. (A further irony is that Labour lost the supposedly ‘safe’ seat of Falkirk West to the SNP in the 2015 election, as part of its wipeout in Scotland: it had been too busy fiddling with internal structures to realise its century-old fortress had been burned down.)

One more tweak

In the six years since Corbyn was elected, the Right of the party has obsessed over its error. Rather than attempting to understand any of the currents which carried Corbyn to the party leadership – and, in 2017, nearly into Downing Street – they have harboured hopes of undoing its mistake. “This one technical fix,” they seem to think, “will stop us going through all that again.”

The logic is laughable. Labour’s electoral struggles come not from the fact that they aren’t sufficiently bound up in the Westminster system, but that they are trapped in it. Returning so much power to MPs won’t take them closer to the voters they need to win back, but tie them to the diminished number of constituencies they now represent.

Labour has failed to challenge Johnsonism, yet has decided to declare war on its members

For Labour, though, that’s not even the major threat. The party’s finances are in crisis. With members already deserting, and taking their subs with them, it’s having to make staff redundant. Another whack at the membership, closing off the possibility of a Labour Party capable of rising to the radical moment, is only likely to provoke an exodus of Left-leaning, younger activists.

For the Labour Right, this is probably the desired effect: they’ve long cared more about stopping the Left from controlling the party than they have about stopping the Conservatives from controlling the country. They have come to realise that Starmer isn’t the election winner they hoped for, so this new move will allow them to sacrifice him without risking another Corbyn. Or so they think.

The change won’t be easy to make, yet the consequences for British politics will be profound. At a time when the Labour leadership has failed to challenge Johnsonism, it decides instead to declare war on its members.

With the Greens creeping up the national polls, the UK constitution in perma-crisis, and a generation casting about for somewhere to place its political hopes, the Labour Party choosing to shed its members ahead of what looks to be a hard winter could prove to be a transformative political moment.

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