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How to fix the Labour Party

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The polls have closed, the results are in, the watchmen leave their stations. The Labour party, fighting to hold two seats in what was once thought to be its northern heartland, successfully fought off the challenge of UKIP in Stoke Central. But – and this is quite remarkable – it was defeated in Copeland by the Conservative candidate. It’s only the fifth time in more than 90 years that a governing party has gained a seat in a by-election.

Stoke Central, where a Labour victory was always thought to be more likely, nevertheless looked for a time as though it would be a close-run thing. Despite the frequent mistakes and missteps of the testicular Paul Nuttall, the Labour candidate, Gareth Snell, never seemed all that secure.

This is due, in part, to his own remarkable propensity to kick himself in the face. Sensible observers seem to agree: it is unwise, when running in a constituency which voted so heavily to leave the European Union, to describe the result of the referendum as a “pile of shit.”

In the event, he survived a 2% swing against him and took the seat. But this would seem to say more about the inadequacies of the UKIP strategy than the boons of Labour, and it is the loss of Copeland that is – rightly or wrongly – setting the tone today.

How exactly has this happened? How is it that the Labour Party, founded to give representation to the very working-class communities that now seem wont to disparage it, is facing the very real prospect of losing seats it once considered safe? And how, since that is the case, can the party possibly recover?

One is naturally wary of simple solutions that attempt to account for far too much, but it strikes me that there is one principal reason which, if properly understood and acknowledged, might help to reverse this apparent decline.

That problem is not – or not just - Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, there is a bitter irony which is lost on far too many of his opponents and allies: he was elected, in part, because he appears to be a principled man. Anyone familiar with his record knows that those principles to which he is committed include, or did until recently include, a deep opposition to the European Union, a belief in direct democracy and the power of the people. That he has bowed under the pressure exerted by the Parliamentary Labour Party and reneged upon almost all of the above suggests that those principles were not as important to him as they first appeared, or that he was never that principled to begin with.

And yet those very principles, learned under the tutelage of Tony Benn (arguably the most popular toff ever to set foot in the North), represent exactly those things that the people of Stoke and Copeland, for example, would seem to want more of.  (The obvious exception to this is Copeland, where Corbyn’s anti-nuclear stance was understandably toxic. That it was left to the Green Party to point out that nuclear really isn’t ‘all that’ is at best evidence of laziness.) So recriminations should be far more evenly spread around than have been.

Labour’s troubles have been long in the making. They stem, ultimately, from a lack of democracy; this lack was never properly addressed by the marginal gains made by the party’s democrats in the ‘70s, which were themselves undermined by the breakaway Gang of Four in any case. But, even if the Bennite faction had accomplished far more of what it desired, it wouldn’t have been enough: Ed Miliband, by introducing the £3 membership fee and expanding the franchise in leadership elections, effectively fulfilled one of the key aims of the ‘70s democratisers.

But this is a top-down measure. The problem Corbyn now faces is that he is elected democratically whilst his MPs are not, or are not in the same way. They have a very different kind of mandate, having been chosen to contest their seats in the first place not by the party membership but by a local party apparatus which tends to exclude anyone radically different from the prevailing orthodoxy.

Since Kinnock began the process of ‘professionalising’ the party, and then Blair stratified it around the urban middle-classes, that orthodoxy has been geared to promote the group of people now maligned as ‘metropolitan liberals’, excluding almost all others. The old cliché about the Labour Party, that it is a ‘broad church’, is no longer accurate; the parliamentary party has ossified around a distinctly homogenous set, which is why so many Labour voters – particularly in the North – now complain, rightly, that the party has ceased to represent them. Rather than working class constituencies selecting working class representatives, they instead find themselves hosting prospective MPs who may not even have local, let alone class connections. Stoke Central is a case in point: how on earth did such a constituency find itself with Tristram Hunt, a man for whom the ‘North-South divide’ is the M25?

This drive toward the managerial is concomitant with the party’s wholehearted embrace of the EU, and the centralisation of powers in Brussels and Strasbourg. And it is this, rather than any particular working class tendency toward xenophobia, which explains the divide between Labour’s Remain and Leave voters. Those who do well out of the technocratic method – high-skilled, metropolitan, liberal academics and services workers – do not much mind who is appointed to represent them, since their values more-or-less align with those of the European Commission and the ECJ, and the domestic mainstream consensus which supports it.

But those whose values, needs and interests are not served by the European hegemony are rightly disheartened and displeased by the fact that they have no representation. Power has been lifted and enshrined above the ability of these voters to affect change, or offer affirmative consent, at the ballot box. Their MPs, similarly, are chosen for and not by them. They are dispossessed and disenfranchised.

So, how do we solve this problem? I suggest a form of devolution. It is a form made possible by our vote to leave the European Union. It is a change that requires participation by both the party and its supporters, for it requires the former to be willing to change and the latter to want to affect it.

Much as the franchise has been expanded for the leadership elections, so it must be expanded at the level of the CLPs. Power should be transferred downwards from the General and Executive Committees to the grassroots. Participation must be made easier and the decisions should be made by a committee of the whole membership, not merely a clique of the same. Every member of the CLP must have the right to become its MP, and the membership should be balloted before every election – or by-election – in order to choose the party’s candidate. This should end the practice of ‘parachuting’ supposedly orthodox candidates into allegedly safe seats. No more Hunts in Stoke. Labour Party MPs will be accountable, first and foremost, to their constituencies and not to the leadership, the PLP or the NEC. Re-selection at every election will ensure that this remains the case.

It may be argued that this will make ‘governing’ the party more difficult. Yet this is a poor argument, for it denies the very idea of a ‘broad church’ that Labour MPs are so keen to champion. And given the present tribulations, could it really be much worse? Compared to the Blair era, where the party was ‘governed’ in a presidential fashion and the membership and voters were ignored, would it really be so bad to have a party structured in a such a way as to force dialogue between its various constituents?

I think not. And I can see no other way to redress the present crisis. Either the Labour Party finds a way to grant equal standing to its working and middle class members, or it serves one and sacrifices the other, so rendering itself not as a national party but as one of niche interest.

Reform is necessary. I believe this to be the right one, though I do not hold much hope of it happening.

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