In his latest step towards cementing left-wing control over the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has confirmed that his policy of consulting party members when formulating policy is here to stay – and has floated the idea of doing so on Trident.
He’s quoted in the Guardian as saying that “politics better get used to the idea”. But it really shouldn’t.
The motivation behind the Labour leaderships ‘democratisation’ agenda has been very clear for some time: it provides a means to outflank the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Labour MPs control the traditional policy-making apparatus of the party and are for the most part deeply sceptical (to put it mildly) of the Corbyn project.
Both they and the dwindling band of moderate members who support them were outraged by the leader’s office’s attempt during the Syria vote to bludgeon MPs into line with an ineptly-operated “survey of members”.
Many pro-intervention or simply non-Corbynite members took to Twitter to declare that they hadn’t been invited to take part, and Corbyn’s team was then attacked for allegedly misleading claims about the proportion of respondents they had sampled before publishing figures which purported to show the view of the membership.
But with hard left activists flocking to Labour and some 30,000 moderates having torn up their cards since the election, there’s little doubt that the leadership will be increasingly able to win entirely legitimate victories in the court of members’ opinion.
Unfortunately for Labour, this is not a sensible way to decide policy. At least not if the idea is winning power.
Here at ConservativeHome, we’re keen advocates of the voice of party members – hence our influential monthly surveys.
But it’s important nonetheless to recognise the limits of any approach, and the simple fact is that in an age of dwindling party participation the views of the membership are often an increasingly unrepresentative sample.
Of course, parties and movements which completely lose touch with their activists can end up in miserable places.
Just ask the unhappy Blairites, set hopelessly against the current of Labour opinion and being borne back ceaselessly into the past. Or CCHQ, who are dealing with the horrible consequences of outsourcing care for their activists.
As part of a broader base of decision making, including independent experts, elected representatives, and public polling, members have an important role to play.
Yet they can’t be the only source of input into policy making. It might have worked when a party had a million members who could be fairly said to represent ten million voter, but not anymore.
But Corbyn’s philosophy and electoral pretensions are not supported by many MPs, many experts, or – if we’re honest – many facts. Supportive members, however, he has plenty of, so he’ll work with those.
This surge in membership is being called, at least by those involved, a mass movement which belies the pessimistic assumptions about their leader emanating from pollsters and commentators.
This is a mistake. Even if Labour’s membership grows to a size impressive by the standards of recent times, it will still stand largely for itself and itself alone. Unlike the huge memberships of decades past, it doesn’t cast the shadow of a class interest behind it.
Indeed, the views of the urban progressives who make up Momentum’s infantry are utterly alien to most of the white, working-class voters who continue to form the bedrock of Labour’s strength in the country.
Even if they don’t jump ship en masse to UKIP – a prospect which looks less likely after Oldham – they could still switch, or simply stay at home, in numbers sufficient to put more Labour seats at risk.