The Labour Party is undergoing a revolution. If one glances at the party’s Rule Book and finds it unreadable, or casts an eye over the sweeping procedural changes which are under way and reckons life is too short to take them in, what is happening can seem incomprehensible.
But the new rules are of crucial importance, for if this revolution succeeds, Labour MPs will be reduced to the status of mere delegates, the grip of the Bennite Left will be confirmed, and Parliament will suffer a loss of sovereignty compared to which the incursions of the European Union will come to seem benign.
Labour MPs have already suffered a humiliating loss of power, which sprang from a quite minor event. In 2012, the Labour MP for Falkirk, Eric Joyce, resigned from the party after being involved in a brawl in a Commons bar, and said he would leave Parliament at the next general election.
The choice of the Labour candidate to replace Joyce led to allegations of undue influence by the Unite trade union, which in turn prompted Ed Miliband to reduce the power of the trade unions in electing the Labour leader.
In place of an electoral college composed of one third trade unions, one third MPs and MEPs, and one third individual members, a system of one man one vote was introduced, and it became possible to join the party for only three pounds.
The disastrous impact of these rule changes on moderate Labour MPs was not foreseen. After all, any leadership candidate had to be nominated by 15 per cent of MPs, a safeguard which it was thought would exclude any member of the Bennite Left from standing.
But at the last minute, Jeremy Corbyn, a true friend and disciple of Tony Benn, gained the required number of nominations, thanks to MPs such as Margaret Beckett, a former Foreign Secretary, who later agreed that she and others who did this were “morons”.
For Corbyn soon emerged as the front runner, with hundreds of thousands of activists joining the party in order to vote for him. The revised rules were a golden opportunity for left-wingers who felt ignored and insulted during the long Blairite hegemony, indeed ever since Michael Foot had stepped down after losing the general election of 1983, to take revenge and seize control.
The party’s membership tripled, from 200,000 to 600,000, and Corbyn won on the first ballot, in which he took almost 60 per cent of the vote. The story of how the Labour Left triumphed after three decades of defeat and ridicule is told with admirable lucidity by George Eaton in the current issue of the New Statesman.
Labour MPs found themselves saddled with a leader most of them regarded as utterly unfit to become Prime Minister, or indeed to lead them into the next general election. So in 2016 they rebelled against him, and passed a motion of no confidence in him by 172 to 40 votes, with 65 shadow ministers handing in their resignations.
In parliamentary terms, that was a shattering defeat, which no leader could survive. But Labour no longer runs its affairs by parliamentary rules. It held another leadership election under its own rules, and Corbyn stormed to victory with almost 62 per cent of the vote, even better than first time round.
The general assumption, shared by Theresa May, was that Corbyn would nevertheless prove a disastrous handicap to his party at the general election. He instead increased Labour’s share of the vote by almost ten percentage points, and gained another 30 MPs.
That was not enough to put him into Downing Street, but compared to the dismal showing which had been predicted for him, it was a triumph. No wonder Labour politicians in Brighton have been claiming victory. Any party which so far exceeded expectations would be tempted to say the same.
But Corbyn is 68 years old. He cannot be immortal. Who will succeed him?
For his Bennite supporters, this is a crucial question. They realised the rule that any leadership candidate must be nominated by 15 per cent of MPs would have to go. Some wanted it cut to five per cent, while others were prepared to settle for ten per cent.
A yet more daring possibility suggested itself. Why give the MPs any say at all over this question? For as Chris Williamson, one of the few MPs loyal to Corbyn, recently told the Guardian:
“There shouldn’t be a leadership threshold at all. That needs to change. Who are the PLP [parliamentary Labour party]? They are a tiny percentage of the party.”
It would be more democratic for the MPs to be written out of the decision altogether. Corbyn and his close ally John McDonnell like nothing better than to proclaim how democratic they are. As Corbyn told Andrew Marr on Sunday:
“We’re having a Democracy Commission in the party. We’re expanding the size of the National Executive and we’re looking at how we can open the party up much more and make conference the final decider of policy. So there have to be some structural issues decided in the party. But that’s fine and I have to say it went through the National Executive with no opposition.”
No opposition. Here is a Soviet level of democracy. Everything is so reasonable, and so virtuous, that no one can object. The National Executive is to acquire three new members to represent the membership, and one new member to represent the trade unions, which means the representatives of MPs and other elected figures will be reduced from a third to a quarter of its membership. But the whole body will be democratic, and loyal to the Bennite organisation whose front man is Corbyn.
And conference will be the final decider of policy. How odd, one may think, that conference did not decide Labour’s policy on Brexit, even though many who went to Brighton have passionate views on that subject. But here is Theo Bertram, who worked in Downing Street for both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, explaining why conference is “an awful place to make policy”:
“The process is the worst type of sport, where the winners are those who best know the rules.
“Conference delegates are in theory the ones who write & choose the motions that are debated on conference floor. But that is only in theory.
“The process begins in August, when local parties are quietly pressured by one side or another to submit ‘contemporary motions’.
“If the motion is over 250 words or doesn’t contain something ‘new’ since August, then it is inadmissible. So motions get obtuse. And weird…
“This is just the start of the process. It becomes so gloriously complex that only Labour’s big institutions can fully navigate it.
Motions are considered by the Conference Arrangements Committee & a list of successful motions is distributed to delegates.
“Delegates then vote in the ‘priority ballot’ to choose the most important topics for debate.
“This happens over the first weekend at conference when nothing else is happening & many ordinary delegates have not arrived.
“Successful motions are grouped together & delegates from the constituencies that submitted the motions are invited to a meeting Sunday night.
“This meeting is called the ‘compositing meeting’ and it is the pinnacle of conference arcanery & chicanery.
“Still with me? No? Well, you’re not alone: most ordinary members are usually lost by now too. You need institutional nous to get this far.”
The Conference Arrangements Committee is for the first time in Labour’s history in the hands of the Left. They can determine what gets debated and what doesn’t, and next year, they intend to use this power to the full. As Tom McTague explained two days ago in a piece for Politico:
“Proposed constitutional amendments which have been put forward for consideration…include giving members and trade unions, rather than MPs alone, the power to nominate leadership candidates. Under this proposal a candidate could stand in a leadership contest with 15 per cent of the votes of affiliated national trade unions or with backing of 15 per cent of constituency Labour parties.
“Other proposals suggest raising the proportion of MPs required to get rid of a leader from 20 per cent to 40 per cent; the introduction of two deputy leaders, of which at least one would be a woman; forcing the party’s general secretary to stand for election for a three year term no more than one year and eight months after the rule is introduced — i.e. before the next election. The current party chief Iain McNicol would be entitled to stand in a ballot of all party members but would almost certainly lose.”
So no MPs at all will be needed to nominate whoever succeeds Corbyn. Here is the apotheosis of democracy, as run by Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum, and by other Bennite apparatchiks with an inexhaustible appetite for procedural manoeuvrings during which their opponents can be worn down by the application of, among a number of ruthless qualities, sheer boredom.
If these apparatchiks get their way, MPs will also be made far more subject to their local parties. They will no longer be able to offer their independent judgment. They will be puppets.
Throughout Labour history there has been a tension between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary methods. Ralph Miliband – father of David and Ed, protégé of Harold Laski, intellectual soulmate of Tony Benn – suggested in Parliamentary Socialism (1961) that Labour’s devotion to Parliament had rendered it ineffective.
But during the great reforming government of 1945, the greatest leader in Labour history, Clement Attlee, would have no truck with extra-parliamentary instructions. As he told Laski, Labour chairman, in 1946:
“You have no right whatever to speak on behalf of the Government. Foreign affairs are in the capable hands of Ernest Bevin. His task is quite sufficiently difficult without the irresponsible statements of the kind you are making… I can assure you there is widespread resentment in the Party at your activities and a period of silence on your part would be welcome.”
Corbyn would never dream of issuing such a rebuke. For him, a period of silence on the part of his MPs would be welcome. For three decades, he was a backbencher of independent outlook, but as leader, he has become the front man for a Bennite system of rules which amounts to a coup d’état against parliamentary democracy.
One indefatigable Labour campaigner who has the courage to say what is going wrong in Corbyn’s so-called “Democracy Review” is Richard Angell of the centrist group Progress:
“We are now in a permanent campaign to undermine the role of MPs, marginalise their voice and get them to acquiesce. Never before has a review of this kind been conducted from behind closed doors in the leader’s office. It is a bizarre, factional and unparalleled power grab.”