Reforming Labour, Again

Reforming Labour, Again

By Carl Rowlands

There are a lot of things which seem more worthy of attention at the end of 2019 than internal machinations within the Labour Party. But, as it seems to me, there is never a good time to reform the party. There are always elections, and there are always disputes and factions which, at any one time, predominate. Proposals for reform normally come from the predominant side, aimed at suppressing the other.

But things have got quite out of control. Most recently, the abortive attempt to unseat Tom Watson, by abolishing the role of Deputy Leader altogether, reflected a breakdown of communication among the leadership, but also a degree of provocation. Most alarmingly, and depressingly, the internal discourse within the party, reliant upon trust and goodwill, continues to deteriorate. It isn’t clear that the new membership, though still large, is really able to engage with what we currently have, even if it were willing.

The last few years, though, have provided two main insights. The Labour Party membership can’t be convinced that Jeremy Corbyn and his allies should be dumped and that a return to Blair-era centralism presents a way forward. The Parliamentary Labour Party, meanwhile, cannot be purged of those who reject Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership on the basis of professionalism and a particular, media-based, conception of what politics should be. And these two factors are likely to persist, and contradict each other, for at least the next decade.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am much closer to the Corbyn/McDonnell wing of the party than the Tom Watson wing of the party. I joined the LRC, though I was never especially active, back in the very early 2000s.

Labour, as a political party, is constructed from many different moving components. Socialist societies, trades unions, MPs, councillors, members, the NEC. All of them have a story, regardless of faction. Social media, and the demand for 24-hour antagonisms, make being an opposition party an increasingly tense experience.

The idea that a single leader can represent this diverse array of elements is, I believe, mistaken. The Leader of the Labour Party, as currently conceived, is a role designed for dominance. Big, close-up leaflets, with a figure staring, as visionary, into the middle distance. Historical guides to how leaders should be, now seem of little help, no matter what we think of the Hardies, Attlees and Wilsons.

As it currently stands, a Labour leader should be strong in Parliament, and quick in debate. Decisive with policy, and in expressing the ‘national interest’. They should know at least as much as anyone else, anywhere, about every country in the world. They should know the prices of groceries. They should fight racism. But they shouldn’t complain about racists. They need to be tough enough. But they need to be empathetic, to hug convincingly at a care home, before boarding a tank at the next photo opportunity. They need to be campaigners, but they need to be pragmatic, they should be readers, but also people of action and passion. Oh, but never factional. They need to be tough enough to survive when their MPs take it in turns to pile abuse on their head, or someone punches them. But also tender enough to socialise and joke with these same MPs later.

There’s too much in this job description. The gap between MPs and members is too wide, because the conception of what a leader should be doing is too broad. There is a role for a leader of the labour movement, who can inspire values, drive policy from conception, run campaigns and, I would also suggest, enhance the active participation of members in the party. There is also a role for a leader in Parliament, who appears more as prospective Prime Minister and ‘statesman’, can handle media extremely smoothly and acts to interpret the aims and policies of Labour in a way that is convincing and leaves no hostage to fortune. But these are entirely different jobs, and the Labour Party at some point will need to face this.

This model is based loosely upon the German SPD and can accompany a programme of wider constitutional reform. Whilst both politicians should be directly elected, it’s clear to me that the leader of the movement should take precedence. The Labour Party is more than an electoral organisation. However, an elected President of a federal Labour Party will not be able to be also be an MP, and then to become Prime Minister. There should be a discussion about how such a position could assert authority over the leader of the Labour Party in Parliament – for example, how a President could, in theory, ask the NEC to hold elections for leader, thereby giving them the effective power to trigger a ballot at the highest level.

Such an arrangement could reflect that the job of Leader of Labour Party has become, over the years, an impossible role to fill adequately. It could allow for a balance of gender and perspective. Perhaps most importantly though: it would open up the delicate relationships upon which the effective operation of the Labour Party depends: the different connections between Parliament, the membership, the unions and associates. It all depends on negotiation, and people doing their jobs properly. And if neither the left factions nor MPs nor the Shadow Cabinet can deliver on this privately, then the process should be made more transparent. As members who want to see Labour win, and dread another decade of Tory government, we should demand minimal levels both effectiveness and integrity: and the removal of any politician that fails to deliver either.

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