In 2014 the Labour Party voted to change the rules by which the leader of the party was elected; finally moving to a ‘one-member, one-vote’ system.  Under that system, each person who was a member of the Labour Party could vote for the party leader.  Previously to that, the Labour Party had implemented an ‘electoral college’ system which gave one third of the votes for leader each to members, MPs & MEPs and affiliated groups (Unions): a system to which the current leader Keir Starmer wishes to return.

The stated motivation for this is to avoid the election of a leader who does not command the full support of the Labour Party MPs – a situation in which the previous Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn found himself.  The lack of support from Labour MPs that Corbyn suffered resulted in several years of infighting amongst the MPs themselves, and perhaps this is something that Keir Starmer feels can be avoided by again returning to the ‘electoral college’ system.  Starmer may well be right, but I wonder whether or not the Labour Party is trying to fix a process to please the few, as opposed to encouraging a culture change within the party and in particular, the Labour MPs…

From the outside, it appears (certainly to me) that MPs of all colours, consider themselves to be ‘special’ – somehow distinct and separated from the electorate (even within their own party); and that this belief is in fact the real issue: and a return to an ‘electoral college’ system can surely only serve to reinforce that view.  The Labour Party currently has some 430,000 members, and at present there are 199 MPs.  This means that the MPs represent less than 0.1% of the total membership – yet this proposal would accord this minority a full 33% of the votes for Leader.  Does this strike anyone as being even remotely democratic?

The principles of the Labour Party have changed over the years, and are briefly encapsulated in Clause IV of the Labour Party Rule Book.  This Clause refers specifically to a ‘Just Society’ and ‘An Open Democracy’, and contains the following key phrases:

  • “a community in which power, wealth and opportunity* are in the hands of the many not the few”
  • “government is held to account by the people, decisions are taken as far as practicable by the communities they affect*

*emphasis added here, not present in the original text

It would seem to me therefore, that putting a third of the voting power into the hands of less than 0.1% of the electorate doesn’t in any way fulfill the objectives of any of these apparent ‘aims’ held dear by the Labour Party.

The Labour Party may well fear a resurgence of the rebellious behaviour of the MPs that was seen under Jeremy Corbyn, believing that such a change will ensure that most of the MPs will be supportive of any leader chosen.  However I would argue that this is a clear case of the ‘tail wagging the dog’.  Under Jeremy Corbyn, the leader had the overwhelming support of the Labour Party members, winning the leadership contest by 61% to 39% (a support ratio opposite to the ratio across the MPs).  I wonder then, what transpires in the minds of Labour MPs to believe that they can/ should go against that vote; perhaps that their views count for more that the other members of the party?

I would argue that any person who believes themself to be worthy of a greater share of the vote than any other, is by definition someone who does not believe in democracy.  I would further argue that any MP who believes that their views are more important than the views of other members of the same organisation are also not supporters of democracy – the very premise is elitist and discriminatory.  How can such people ever hope to implement a democratic form of government when they already consider themselves above everyone else?  These are the very people who, in opposition, criticise the members of the present government for their flagrant demonstrations that they believe themselves to be above the rules which apply to everyone else!

This situation gives to rise to questions:

  1. Does the party exist to represent the views of members, or do the members support the views of the party?
  2. Are MPs responsible for deciding the direction of the party, or should MPs follow the direction of the party

Leaving to one side my views of the relevance and impact of party politics;  I believe that these questions should be answered – and before any vote is taken on this proposal.  The role of an MP should be clarified, not least to the MPs themselves.  If MPs are there to follow the direction of the party, then MPs should accept the policies of the party and support them (including the choice of leader) or they should leave the party.  If on the other hand, the MPs are considered to be the relevant and driving force behind a political party, then I would argue that members shouldn’t be given a vote in the leader at all – and hence it would be the members who then need to decide to either follow or leave.

The present, unclear mish-mash of ideas is not fit for purpose: it perpetuates an atmosphere that allows MPs to consider themselves to be above the herd, and it leaves room for confusion and dissatisfaction across the members of the party.

My view is clear, MPs are there to represent the electorate and not to dictate to them.  MPs should therefore be treated no differently to other party members. Perhaps if Keir Starmer wanted to effect real change, he could think about that.

One Reply to “Do Democratic Political Parties have to be Democratic?”

  1. Perhaps Starmer has thought about and so was persuaded to drop the idea. However I really would like to de-select my MP and get a better one!

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