speri.comment: the political economy blog

The battle for Labour: competing visions of representation

Do parties exist to represent the views of members, or to organise and represent a diverse range of interests and views? Answering this question is key to Labour’s future.

Maha Rafi Atal, Doctoral Researcher, Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge

Maha Rafi AtalIn his recent trilogy of blog posts on Corbynism, Craig Berry argues that the Corbyn movement is best understood as an uneasy alliance between two distinct groups: old leftists, who, after two decades on the margins of politics, are disillusioned with parliamentary politics except as a precursor to something more revolutionary; and young, middle-class activists, politicized by the Iraq War and the Great Recession, for whom the Corbyn movement is an extension of their work on anti-war and anti-austerity campaigns.  Despite their history of direct action and professed disdain for Blairite ‘spin’, this group is issue-oriented, and therefore interested in the potential for bringing their policies into being.  Momentum’s expert use of Facebook and The Canary to drive support for Corbyn during the recent Labour leadership race represented a sophisticated understanding of the role of the media in mobilising voters, and a desire to fight and win elections.

Berry is right to note that these groups make strange bedfellows, and that the latter is increasingly dissatisfied with the direction the party has taken.  He argues that these young activists can be reconciled with Labour ‘moderates’ in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) as the foundation for Labour’s renewal.  In this entente, the activists would accept that the PLP represent votes and views from Labour’s historic working class base, while the PLP would accept the young activists’ call for a ‘progressive alliance’ with other left-of-centre parties as a path to power.

I am sceptical.  While there are gaps in ideology between the old leftists and young activists in the Corbyn coalition, there is a far larger gap between the young activists and the PLP, who differ over the fundamental purpose of political parties and party membership.  The complaint that young Corbyn supporters make about elected Labour MPs is that both individually and as a group they have taken policy positions on Iraq, Syria or welfare not supported by party members and that this is an unacceptable betrayal.  Their call for ‘party democracy’ is a call for the PLP to derive their voting instructions and policy positions from the views of the party membership.

This is a radical notion.  In a system of representative government, whom do legislators represent when they take their seats?  Do they represent themselves as individuals, the party as a national bureaucracy, the party as a membership body, their particular geographic district, the voters who elected them, or the local party activists who nominated them?  These forms of representation can and do co-exist, but when they come into conflict, different theories of representation offer different answers to how legislators ought to vote.

Scholarship on Westminster-style systems of government generally holds that legislators should, and do, prioritise the views of their geographic constituency (and their supporters within it), and seek to balance this with the views of their party leadership once in office.  Party members, by contrast, are given far more power in proportional systems of representation where legislators don’t represent any geographic constituency, but are elected from a national party list.  When voters are choosing a party and not a candidate, party members can exercise a great deal of control on how individual legislators behave.

Corbyn’s young supporters want Labour members to have a greater say in how individual Labour MPs behave and vote in parliament.  But it is hard to see how this model of representation can be implemented in a Westminster system with geographic constituencies.  The renewed call for mandatory reselections should be seen in this light.  This would be a workaround approach in which the local party membership could enforce members’ views on MPs within the framework of geographic districts, but it would bring several challenges.

First, if MPs are bound by the views of their local party members, then it will be hard for them to earn the votes of those constituents who are either members of other parties or not party members at all.  Why would, for example, a Liberal Democrat party member in a Tory-Labour marginal seat vote for the Labour candidate if that candidate only promises to represent the views of local Labour members, rather than the views of all their constituents?  If, as a result of this logic, the Labour candidate can’t earn the votes of anyone who isn’t already a Labour member, then the candidate could only win office in a seat where a plurality of voters are Labour members.

Berry’s call for a ‘progressive alliance’ might mitigate this, as different centre-left parties could dominate different regions.  Many party members would welcome this, but party membership is not for everyone, and can be more accessible to middle-class activists than to working-class voters who may lack both leisure time and the financial resources to be regularly engaged.  Trade unions help in this regard by providing the framework for working-class voters to press their views in the Labour Party, without individually needing to commit to attend every rally and meeting.  Yet Britain’s major unions do not share the policy positions – especially on foreign affairs – that Corbyn-supporting activists hope to enforce on Labour MPs, and it is hard to see how the views of working-class voters fit into the vision of Labour’s future that many Corbyn-supporters wish to achieve.  In this way, radical party democracy is in tension with the citizenship rights of voters who are not committed party activists, and will be resisted by the Parliamentary Labour Party, who derive their mandate from citizens of all parties and no party.

Second, local party memberships vary greatly in a country as diverse as the United Kingdom.  The United States is a useful foil: it has regular candidate reselection through the primary process, and yet the elected officials of any given party have historically been an ideologically mixed group, to the frustration of party activists.  Attempts by activists from more ideologically ‘extreme’ regions to parachute in candidates that share their views and beat more ‘moderate’ candidates are frequent.  Where they succeed in unseating and replacing legislators – as the Tea Party movement has done in the Republican Party – they also shrink the electoral potential for the party in national races like the presidency, confining it to the regions where a majority of voters hold the ideologically puritan view.

The challenges of running an ideologically pure party in a diverse country may explain why proportional systems with strict party discipline are most common in small, and less diverse, continental democracies like the Netherlands.  Berry’s call for the Labour Party to embrace ‘the national significance of local politics’ is welcome, as is his call for greater devolution of power to local authorities.  This would help to develop a more ideological diverse Labour Party that could win elections across the country, but it is directly opposed to the vision for an ideologically coherent party governed by members that young Corbynistas have in mind.

Ultimately, Berry is right that the young activists and the PLP must reconcile if Labour is to have a future.  But to do so, they must agree on the function of Labour as a political party.  Is it a vehicle for the ideological self-expression of its members, or a mechanism to organise diverse interest groups?  In a country as diverse and divided as the UK, it cannot easily be both.

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