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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