The price of a seat in parliament

Mandatory reselection could reduce Labour MPs to the status of delegates

The idea of mandatory reselection of Labour members of parliament was born out of the frustration with the 1960s and 1970s governments which, according to the Labour left, routinely ignored Labour conference decisions and the policies carefully crafted by the National Executive Committee. Specifically, it was Harold Wilson’s avowal of Labour’s Programme 1973 which had called for state control of the 25 biggest private companies.

Mandatory reselection has echoes of the Paris Commune, and of the Russian Soviets, where delegates were subject to recall if they displeased their local citizenry. It rests on the idea that leaders will always be tempted to sell you out, once they get power. It found theoretical expression in Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, when he argued that ‘the historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.’

Trotskyists inside and outside the Labour party have always argued that the main obstacle to socialism in Britain is not the Conservatives, the civil service, the security service or the army, but the NEC, leader of the Labour party and the general council of the Trades Union Congress. In the Labour party, ever since Ramsay MacDonald, this myth of betrayal runs deep. It was not Margaret Thatcher but Neil Kinnock and TUC general secretary Norman Willis who blocked real socialism in the 1980s.

But the appeal went beyond the Trots. The idea of mandatory reselection is that a Labour MP should face a reselection in every parliament, so that none becomes complacent, cosy or lazy. Before the policy was adopted at the 1980 conference, many Labour MPs with safe seats lived and worked in London, and visited their constituencies a few times a year to attend their general management committee and make a speech or two. Many had little or no relationship with their local parties outside of elections.

Writing in 1983, Peter Hain noted that, ‘MPs now take more notice of their local parties than they used to … one of the results of reselection has already been … to increase pressure on MPs genuinely to represent local residents, rather than taking them for granted as often happened in safe Labour seats.’

So what is not to like? The problem is that mandatory reselection is a policy designed to enable the hard left to take over the Labour party. In the early 1980s, it was used as a weapon of fear and intimidation. Before Twitter, the hard left called Labour MPs ‘Tories’ in Gestetnered newsletters, and to their faces, in speeches at Labour party meetings.

Roy Hattersley in 1982 told the Sunday Times that,

hard-working and devoted MPs have been dismissed without reason or warning. There have been purges of moderates on general committees and pogroms against delegates who listened to their consciences and obeyed their mandates, but offended the prejudices of little tightly organised sects.

In The Battle for the Labour Party, published that same year, the authors, David and Maurice Kogan, state that, ‘much of the behaviour of the left, though constitutional in principle, was coercive in practice. The constant public harrying of MPs and councillors, the scrutiny of their voting behaviour, the strident attacks on hard-working party members and elected representatives … and the ruthless removal from office of people with a long record of fighting progressive causes do not constitute comradely or even civilised behaviour.’

It is no coincidence that it has been top of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy’s shopping list since the mid-1970s, even before being adopted by Tony Benn and the Bennites. It remains the number one CLPD goal, and it is submitting model resolutions to this year’s conference. It wants to change from the current system of ‘trigger ballots’ which allows a local party to get rid of a Labour MP who really has fallen asleep at the wheel, and instead force every MP in every parliament to face a lengthy and costly reselection.

Their logic is that an MP faced with the prospect of being ‘sacked’ by a few dozen local activists will act in their own self-interest and endeavour to keep the local party sweet. If the price of a seat in parliament is voting for Pete Wilsman for the NEC and Jon Lansman for the conference arrangements committee and to abolish Trident and leave the European Union, then it may be a price they will pay. It ends the idea that a Labour MP is a representative of their community in parliament, and reduces them to being more a delegate from their constituency Labour party. This is politburo politics. The party selectorate – close to 600,000 – becomes more important than the 9.3 million working men and women who voted Labour in 2015.

Tom Watson warned in the dying hours of the leadership campaign that mandatory reselection is a recipe for chaos and conflict. He is right. The Corbyn camp was forced to deny this is their aim, just as Benn did in 1980 when he wrote in his diaries, ‘it was never intended to start a vendetta against certain members of parliament’.

Yet those behind Corbyn, the shadowy Bennites who have waited 30 years, will be identifying parliamentary seats and totting up delegate numbers before the dust of the leadership contest finally settles.

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Photo: Parliament

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Comments: 7...

  1. On September 28, 2015 at 10:13 am Comrade Darling responded with... #

    Though I understand that mandatory reselection is a recipe for a new SDP as MP’S fighting for their careers may well have nothing to lose. This is because some would have every reason to believe their CLP would deselect them.
    However, there remains a problem, and not simply that MP’S would become delegates.
    Surely no MP can be demanding a safe seat for life, irrespective of what they do in parliment and for their constituency party? What is more, every party must have the right to renew itself according to changing circumstances, it is why we have elections for leadership roles in the party and trade unions. Was it not always the mantra of those on the right of the party that dinosaurs were a brake on the modernisers attempts to renew the party and this formed part of the argument to change rules and personell? Well the same can now be argued by the left against the right as the membership have clearly demanded renewal and resoundingly rejected the old guard.
    To my question. If not through mandatory reselection and/or simplifying deselection what mechanism would people propose to remove a sitting MP? It seems completely illogical that voters can remove an MP, though in the safest seats the liklihood if this happening is remote, but that the party who place them in parliament cannot because voters elect parties not MP’S.

    • On September 28, 2015 at 12:33 pm Sandra Fisher responded with... #

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  2. On October 2, 2015 at 8:00 pm Alan Ji responded with... #

    The rules we have, providing for an affirmative vote process every Parliament (denounced by CLPD when they began as the “Kinnock compromise”) are working fine. The anonymous author should note that General Committees do not make decisions; votes of members in Branch meetings and of affiliated organisations are totalled.
    However, during this Parliament most boundaries will change. The challenge for sitting MPs who want to stand again will be to keep in touch will all those 2015 new members, rather than worrying about a new wave of factionalism.

  3. On October 7, 2015 at 3:26 pm Peter Wicks responded with... #

    At the age of 78 I have seen the Halcyon days of the 1945 Labour Party and the Hellish days of Tory Blair and the rise of the right wing of the hated Progress group of “labour” MP’s. The Progress group have NOTHING in common with the CLP grass roots of working class labour members. Its time for these right wing prigs to exit the labour party or be forced to face de-selection because the majority of labour party members are sick to death of being shit on by Progress Group members who have created the notion of “them and us” within the party. Go now, or be chucked out

  4. On May 2, 2016 at 11:37 am Gerwynimo responded with... #

    I would describe myself as a moderate Labour Party member and supporter and have voted Labour since 1983. What I cannot abide is that many MP’s seem to want to consistently rubbish our leader, Jeremy Corbyn, but who supported a very poor candidate for the leadership – Liz Kendall – who was almost universally disliked by the party members. The more I have learnt about politics and economics the more clearly I understand that Neo-Liberalism is a moribund approach.
    If the whole party does not get its act together then I think a number of MP’s will, quite rightly be deselected by their local CLP’s and a better candidate put in their place. You can dress the matter up all you want but if you are not contributing to the well-being of the party then you should find another job. At the end of the day Michael Dugher was very poor at his job.

  5. On May 2, 2016 at 2:38 pm terryec responded with... #

    One of the problems with Progress is that most have been Parachuted into their seats because their own group had a strangle hold on the Labour Party and have shaped it in their image, many CLPs have been rode over rough shod with MPs they didn’t want and didn’t represent their interests, They have changed the Party completely, it is no longer there for the working class but for the City, and yes the City is important but so too is mrs Jones in no. 57 who cannot afford her ever rising rent.
    I think it right that MPs should be challenged for their seat, if that had happened before we would never ever have seen Labour, yes “LABOUR” MPs abstaining from the most evil Welfare bill ever put before Parliament. Progress are walking a very dodgy line and will find themselves out of office because their actions will split the Labour Party, Labour will survive, They won’t!!!!

  6. On October 2, 2016 at 4:23 pm Rob responded with... #

    Their logic is that an MP faced with the prospect of being ‘sacked’ by a few dozen local activists will act in their own self-interest and endeavour to keep the local party sweet…The party selectorate… becomes more important than the 9.3 million working men and women who voted Labour”.

    You speak as if a constituency party is an exclusive club of out-of-touch politicos. In fact, the immoderates in the party structure have done everything they could to try to keep it that way, purging, suspending, excluding members and would-be members from participation in the party’s democratic process.

    Membership is (or should be) open to all Labour supporters. CLP members are not a parachuted-in elite, but local people. We live on the estates in your constituency, work in local businesses, study, volunteer, socialise in your constituency. We vote in your constituency.

    If you are the right candidate for a constituency, you should have no difficulty convincing those politically active Labour voters of this. If you cannot win our confidence and support, what makes you think you are the right candidate? What makes you think that another candidate, with the backing of our party, might not do better than you?

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