Party transformation has to be bigger and more balanced than the “McDonnell Amendment”

Sometimes standing fast means that the world just moves around you. Such is the situation for realists on the left when it comes to electing Labour’s leaders.

Labour is a federal party with four internal stakeholders. First and foremost are our members. As well as our party members, we now have the system of registered supporters, which has brought tens of thousands towards involvement in the party. The bedrock of our movement, the trade unions and socialist societies, make up our affiliates. Last of all come our elected representatives, though conspicuously not councillors.

When a one member, one vote system for leadership elections was suggested, giving voice to Labour’s constituent parts was the key socialist argument in opposition. But the combination of registered supporters and OMOV proved incredibly successful for Jeremy Corbyn, whose support surged in both recent leadership elections. The principled position which went before has now been abandoned for the promise of short-term gains – the left’s advocacy of a federal type of party democracy has been forgotten in favour of the liberal and ‘consumer-individualist’ rules we now have.

For some, this is still not enough, particularly if the only leadership worth backing must also be one with a very marginal amount of support from parliamentary colleagues. The proposal to reduce the nomination threshold makes this case brazenly. This said, the idea that a high nomination threshold privileges the voice of members of parliament over members is a fair one, a point stubbornly not acknowledged by many who would rather close down debates than win them. Everyone is wrong.

What is being missed by factionalists is that a compromise-based approach would be best for the movement as a whole, particularly if we want the party to be stable and cohesive in the long run.

When dealing with constitutional rules, there are two bad ways to think. The first is only looking one step ahead for a permanent change. The second is making changes based on the outcomes you want, but not on the political culture they create.

The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association has apparently taken the lead in proposing a compromise of 10 per cent – significantly more parliamentary support than five per cent. This is a better start, but trade unions are the part of Labour which has a good record of dealing well with both ‘wings’ of the party – where is their organised voice? There is also a lack of imagination – if the system is about giving power to members, why is the emphasis on how more MPs can be sidelined, when alternatives ideas could be found to positively empower members?

Leadership involves keeping trust with voters, colleagues and the wider progressive movement. The proposed rule change gives no priority to any of these.

There is nothing wrong with giving MPs an easier opportunity to put the argument to members. But treating the ‘McDonnell amendment’ as anything but a conversation starter could mean leadership contests with 19 candidates, and fails to embed a broad federal democracy of the Labour ‘family’.

To widen ‘buy-in’ for future leaders, a bigger, more balanced transformation is needed. Without it, the proposed amendment is unstable, and a missed opportunity.

This piece first appeared as part of a debate on the Progress website. 

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