Labour’s much changed leadership rules are a case study in the law of unintended consequences

by Trevor Fisher

Lenin once said that some months only contain a week’s worth of action. While some weeks contain many months of activity. Currently the Labour party is living through years of action in a few weeks, but the last weeks of July saw particularly significant developments.

Firstly, during the 48 hours 18th to 20th June, the NEC devised window for upgrading £3 supporter subs to £25 to buy a place in the leadership ballot passed. Astonishingly, even in the Corbyn era, the Labour party gained 133,000 registered supporters in a matter of hours. One third of the selectorate was now registered supporters. By 28th July the BBC – Shaun Ley – was reporting the figure was 183,500. Where the extra members had come from is part of the current mystery.

We will not know till September who this benefits But it is very clear that a politically savvy cohort of some size now exists, understanding deadlines and able to spend £25 without blinking an eyelid to vote for the leader. And the Labour party has effectively no way of knowing who they might be – even if local parties tried to check the validity of the applications, they do not have enough time to do so. Ley reported that in HQ a mere 15 people are trying to check social media for unacceptable attitudes. But the problems are not about classical entryism.

Labour leadership elections are increasingly randomised, a marked contrast with the Tories who carried out a selection process which secured the choice of the M Ps. Labour’s M Ps have not just lost control of the process – which they did under the Miliband reforms – but have demonstrated this by launching a coup which seems to have relied on Corbyn not being on the ballot paper.

The NEC allowed him on, which lead to Michael Foster, ex- Labour PPC, launching a legal challenge which is the second major development. But before considering this, a few background points on the assumptions going for a dubious revolt, rather than a sensible redrafting of the rules for a mid-term election. This is increasingly necessary as the party fragments and shows the failure of the core theory of New Labour.

Internal party politics under New Labour assumed that the left wing activists could be outflanked by involving the uninvolved grassroots, thought to be more numerous and  representative of the voters. Membership democracy was advocated by the Soft Left as a radical measure, but was turned by the leadership to undermine radicalism. And for two decades the theory worked, notably in the 2010 leadership election when hard leftist Diane Abbott came bottom of the five candidates that year.

Miliband then felt safe to create a new class of registered supporter, costing a mere £3, whose sole right was to vote for the leader. Supporters were created by Miliband as a device to make the party more manageable. This move was rooted in the New Labour belief that the activists were still left wing but there was a great mass of people who were in tune with the leadership and these could outflank the activists. The party would, in a phrase attributed to Mandelson, be massive – but passive. Very different from the soft left prescription.

The theory came apart in 2015 when Corbyn won with a New Labour selectorate. Their theory had chose to put Corbyn on the ballot paper. It is futile to blame the Corbynites for mobilising effectively once it had happened. Kevin Meagher has written of ‘£3 trots’, but the registered supporter system did not lead to classic entryism. What it did do was undermine the view, still held by the PLP majority, that the Party members are more right wing than the activists. We will see if this is the case on September 24th. But it is likely this theory is now about to disintegrate.

The new supporters who are attracted to Corbyn appear to be idealists. In a very perceptive article in the current edition of Renewal, ex-LCC chair Paul Thompson quotes a young activist in the Observer of 28th August last who wrote that Corbyn’s electability was not an issue and “please, stop talking about Michael (Foot).”

Both New Labour and The Corbyn surge looks back to the 1980s, but the Corbynites have more in common with the Bevanites of 1951 than with the Bennites of 1981. The grassroots revolt has a long tradition – back to 1931 –  and the fourth revolt is following the pattern of the previous three. A long period of Tory dominance followed the previous three rebellions. But the idealists believe, with justice, that the New Labour project failed and a New Politics is needed.

Corbynism is nothing like a New Politics. As Thompson argues Corbyn’s roots are in Vanguardism, the belief that politics is about “building hard left power and ultimately controlling the machine.” Thompson also quotes Ken Spours as arguing Corbynism is a “primitive political bloc.”  This is true, and it may fragment. But not while the Parliamentary Labour Party is dominated by the ideas of New Labour, and making damaging mistakes like the legal challenge of Michael Foster.

Foster was trying to remove Corbyn from the ballot paper, which would leave Owen Smith as the only candidate and thus leader. But the move had little legal substance and no political force. This rule is relatively clear, dealing with a challenge when there is no vacancy, and specifies that the challenger has to have parliamentary backing. But when there is no vacancy, the leader does not need to have MP support – he can hardly challenge himself. The judge backed this reading of the rules, stating “The leader would not in that situation (where there is no vacancy) be someone who is a ‘challenger’ for the leadership and accordingly, would require no nominations in order to compete in the ballot to retain his-her position as leader.”

This ruling is eminently sensible. While internal party battles will continue, however, its worth ending on a final point about the politics of those whose detestation of Corbyn is affecting very basic political judgements. One of the great masters of practical politics, Winston Churchill, wrote in The Second World War” (Vol II) that “The loyalties which centre upon number one are enormous. If he trips he must be sustained… If he makes mistakes they must be covered… If he is no good he must be poleaxed. But this last extreme process cannot be carried out every day: and certainly not in the days just after he has been chosen.”

Nine months after Corbyn was elected, his record, did not justify the extreme process, and the risks that the challenge would fail. The PLP and their supporters appear not to understand the practical politics to which Winston Churchill was referring.

Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007

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24 Responses to “Labour’s much changed leadership rules are a case study in the law of unintended consequences”

  1. Mark Livingston says:

    Labour did have a problem with entryism. In the 90s, the Labour PLP became infested with Tories.

  2. John p Reid says:

    Although members maybe give money to Fabians/co-op, affiliated Trade unions, or Christian societies, if we are to have OMOV,the amount of money that members pay ,should equate with union members, if I pay £49 a year and a union member contributes £1 of their 100 a year they pay to the union, why should their vote be the same as mine
    I appreciate students and others dint pay the full £49 a year, And the cut off date is a good idea, or maybe if so,wine pays the full years membership in advance,

    The primary £3/£25 should be scrapped

  3. Martin says:

    Labour MPs and MEPs failed to understand that by requiring their nominations, they are the gatekeepers to the process. I do not pretend to understand the legalities, but it is patently absurd that a political leader is unable to muster support from a sizeable portion of his own MPs.

    Another important precedent has been set in the Labour Party, that a leader has refused to step down in the wake of a no confidence vote from fellow MPs. Presumably there were no written rules about this, it having previously been considered unthinkable that a no confidence vote would be ignored in this way.

  4. What puzzles me is quite what the plotters would have been left with if the coup had succeeded. How would Hilary, Yvette, Tristram and Chukka have moved forward if they had forced Corbyn’s resignation?

    Were there plans to remove the little power that the membership had? Would new rules leave leadership choices just in the hands of the PLP? What about finances if they were to lose half of the membership and union support? Had they already lined up some rich people to donate? Would there have been expulsions on a massive scale to get control of the CLPs back? The questions are countless and I wonder if they, or Mandelson and the old Blairite hierarchy, had worked it through in their minds.

    The other choice would be that they were prepared for it to be a kamikaze mission with just a slight hope that they would come out the other end intact. Probably twenty years from now we will find the answers in one of their memoirs.

  5. NickT says:

    Earth to Mark Livingston:

    Purity parties never win. In a democracy, you win by assembling coalitions of people who don’t agree on everything, but think that what you offer has something that they like better than the offer from the other side of the fence. Failure to realize this is what dooms Corbyn to the status of cult leader who only talks to those who agree with him – and confuses that small slice of the electorate with the views of the British people as a whole.

    In 10 years time, Corbynism will be be remembered as an entirely predictable disaster – and Tony Blair’s reputation as an effective politician will have recovered among Labour party members. No doubt you and your comrades will spend your declining years whining about how life is unfair, even though you refused to think through the basic rules of how democracy actually works like intelligent adults.

  6. Richard MacKinnon says:

    Trevor Fisher’s final point is a good one, this challenge to replace the leader is poorly timed.
    A leadership contest after 12 months is too early. It looks like a panic measure. If Corbyn wins again, what then? another challenge in 2017.
    Labour are in a mess of their own making. How can a party be trusted with running a country when they cant even run themselves?

  7. Richard MacKinnon says:

    I just read an article in todays Telegraph titled “Labour rebels plan to elect own leader and create ‘alternative’ group if Jeremy Corbyn is re-elected”. These rebels call themselves ‘moderates’ and if the article is accurate they plan to persuade the Speaker John Bercow to recognise them and not Corbyn and his shadow cabinet as the official oppostition.
    If you thought things could not get any worse then how wrong you are.
    If there is any hope of uniting the Labour Party there has to be a purge after the September leadership election. If Corbyn wins he has to set up the party machine to deselect the rebels or they should resign. If he loses the same has to happen with the Labour MPs that back him. This has to be understood before 24/09/16. If not Labour are finished by their own crass inability to organise.

  8. Bob Crossley says:

    Not impressed by this account. For a start the Miliband rewrite of the Leadership election rules were not just Ed’s idle whim. The £3 supporters were supposed to balance the influence of the new individual Union Affiliates, who themselves were invented as a propaganda excercise, an attempt to show that the TUs were no longer in charge of Labour. If Corbyn hadn’t been on the ballot, a completely different group of £3ers would have signed up. The Great Left Turn would not have happened.

    So what really had “unintended consequences” was the decision to let JC on the ballot “to broaden the debate”. Without that we’d all be wondering how to get rid of Andy Burnham.

  9. Tafia says:

    These rebels call themselves ‘moderates’ and if the article is accurate they plan to persuade the Speaker John Bercow to recognise them and not Corbyn and his shadow cabinet as the official oppostition.

    If they did that they would face immediate expulsion. They are basically refusing the whip. Permanently. At the very very very very least they can expect all union funding and union favours such as offices etc to be withdrawn from them, motions passed against them within their CLPs, refusal by the CLPs to work with them, Labour councillors within their constituencies to refuse to attend events at or share platforms where they are present etc.

  10. @Richard MacKinnon

    Hi Richard,

    In my opinion, the root cause of the problem is the first past the post system, which has forced people with incompatible politics into the same party.

    If we had some kind of proportional representation, a split wouldn’t be necessary, because there would be a viable party for one or the other of the groups to switch to.

    My personal sympathies are with the social democrat MPs. But I don’t blame the Corbynites. I think their politics is totally unrealistic, both economically and politically. But they have a right to a different opinion, and a right to fight for it within the system as best they can.

  11. Tafia says:

    NickT Purity parties never win. In a democracy, you win by assembling coalitions of people who don’t agree on everything
    The days of cosy consensus politics and the ‘centre’ are over – not just in the UK but right across western Europe and even the USA. And about time too.

    Richard “Labour rebels plan to elect own leader and create ‘alternative’ group if Jeremy Corbyn is re-elected”.
    It hasn’t dawned on the PLP yet that in the real world, people don’t look at Corbyn as the problem – the look at the PLP as back-stabbers. Even if Corbyn stood down tomorrow, Labour are only going one way – down. The public won’t vote for back-stabbing traitors – they simply cannot be trusted and they’ve proved that by their own actions.

  12. NickT says:

    ARichard MacKinnon

    “If there is any hope of uniting the Labour Party there has to be a purge after the September leadership election. If Corbyn wins he has to set up the party machine to deselect the rebels or they should resign. ”

    I am sure Corbyn will be delighted to go back to his Stalinist roots and arrange a purge – and a year after that he can have another purge after his “vision” fails yet again and then the year after that. Give him enough time and he’ll end up purging himself. Corbynism is a dead end and the sooner all concerned realize this, the better for Labour and, more important, the British people who deserve an honest, functional opposition rather that the Corbyn Clown Car.. Much better for everyone if the majority of the PLP effectively remove Corbyn from his “leadership” position by constituting themselves the opposition and letting Little Jeremy rage uselessly from the back benches – as he has spent his whole career doing, generally without showing any sort of party loyalty at all.

  13. madasafish says:

    >Richard MacKinnon.

    You appear to be under the misapprehension that deselecting an MP means they leave the HOC. They continue as an MP until teh next GE.

    So your proposal will ensure a prolonged bitter shambles in the House of Commons…” Labour are finished by their own crass inability to organise.”

  14. Tafia says:

    This is a statistic that’s hard to find in the media but of those CLPs who have so far nominated one of the leadership candidates, 82% of them have gone for Corbyn, 18% for Smith. In last year’s contest only 39% of CLPs went for Corbyn. So despite being a useless leader by all accounts of the bullies of the PLP he has grown grassroots support exponentially

    To say he is not a leader is now laughable – he is galvanising the party at grass roots level, members (and thus revenue) are flocking to it and despite the purile antics of his childish PLP not only is he going to very publicly rout and humiliate them (ending the careers of many in the process) but at the same time he continues to do what he’s supposed to do – attack the tories. Would any of the back-stabbers be able to match that?

    I think not.

    If he’s crap then the rest are even crapper.

    By the way, anyone see much in the press of Corbyn’s rallies? Didn’t think so – they are massive. Seen any of Smith’s? Whoops, not likely. On the day Corbyn held his in Hull last week, he had over 4000 people present. Whereas ‘Oily’ Smith’s in Liverpool had around 60, half of which were wearing press badges, meaning really it was around 30. (there’s an aerial photo of it. There’s an ice cream van nearby and the queue for that is nearly as big) – and Merseyside is a supposedly staunch Labour area – except in ‘Oily’ Smith’s case.

  15. Richard MacKinnon says:

    I am not under any misapprehension. I understand that if a sitting MP is deselected he does not loose his seat automatically. The point I am trying to make is, dangerous times call for drastic actions.
    I maintain that there has to be a reckoning after the leadership contest and that the stakes need to be clearly understood by all beforehand. MPs have to state their preference now. Any rumours of rebel MPs doing a deal with The Speaker have to be flushed out. Likewise talk of forming a new party after 23 Sep. need the media to name these MPs and then demand they state unequivocally that if it is their intention to do this that they would resign as Labour MPs and trigger a byelection.
    If Corbyn wins de-selection of opponents has to be an option. Likewise if Smith wins.
    Labour is destroying itself from within. In such circumstances a purge has to follow a coup. It is what strong leaders do.

  16. Richard MacKinnon says:

    You don’t need an annual purge if you do the first one properly.

  17. Richard MacKinnon says:

    If you think Labours problem is the voting system then I cant help you.

  18. Patrick Nelson says:

    Jeremy Corbyn is most likely to win and when he does – for the sake of the Party – he must see to it that Labour expels all those who refuse to accept that result and who continue to undermine the elected leader and damage the Party’s reputation.

    It has to stop. They must go – and we would not expect anything different if it were the other way around.

    Public internecine struggles and disloyal press briefings must not be allowed to continue to harm the Labour party. Those who refuse to accept the result of the ballot and continue to misbehave must go.

  19. Anne says:

    I do not believe all the figures being branded about regarding who is supporting who – at the moment there is too many unknowns. For example, my local Labour MP is popular with a safe majority. He does not support JC. I suspect he would be re elected come a general election. There are many Labour MPs- such as Alan Johnson, Jess Phillips who would be re elected should there be a general election – they are popular with their constituents.
    If JC is re elected then I suspect a split is a probable outcome. Maybe this should not be viewed with doom and gloom. Preparations should really start for this probability. My favoured name for this party is Democratic Labour Party (DLP). Yes, I do know this is a party of this name in Australia. A leader for this party will need to be elected and a new arrangement made with the unions. Possibly some assists such as buildings may be shared. It may be more problematic for counsellors – they will have to decide which party they wish to belong too. As I have said many times change is always with us — the country needs a modern party which provides solutions to today’s problems – a forward looking party.

  20. Jack Macintosh says:

    Do people seriously think splitting the Labour party in a first past the post system- because ‘A Labour party needs to be in power” sounds right?

    The plp have either contempt for our intelligence or reality. Perhaps one has followed the other.

  21. Bagehot says:

    For those of us in the libertarian camp, that despises both tribes, this collapse of the artifice in the Labour and Conservative parties is welcome and long overdue. You’re being used. Parties are the problem.

  22. Tafia says:

    For example, my local Labour MP is popular with a safe majority. He does not support JC. I suspect he would be re elected come a general election. There are many Labour MPs- such as Alan Johnson, Jess Phillips who would be re elected should there be a general election – they are popular with their constituents.
    To be re-elected at the next GE, first of all they will have to avoid deselection by their PLPs should they remain Labour. Should they split, they will have a meagre activist base, virtually no funds and will meet the same end as the SDP.

    A leader for this party will need to be elected and a new arrangement made with the unions.
    And why on earth would Corbyn supporting unions (such as Unite, CWU etc) support an anti-Corbyn breakaway party.

  23. john P Reid says:

    Danny speight, both side of the party, have been trying to find ways of silencing those they disagree with one person who revealed anti Semitism, was suspended for signing a libdems nominations papers, rod liddle the journalists suspended for pointing out that there are some muslims in the UK who dislike jews, and then the instances like Andrew Fisher tweeting, vote class war.

    I know of people who’ve backed Galloway for mayor ,while putting up anyone who has put up anti sematic stuff on line should be allowed to re join the party, when these people have been reported to region ,nothing got done about it
    there have been momentum only meetings , parading as labour party branch meetings where they’ve put motions on behalf of their constituency to region, ,something militant were expelled for, if the moderates got hold of the party, they had a fight at local level ,but at least the NEC should respect theparty rules these days, and kick out people who break them

  24. Mike Homfray says:

    The idea that any of these MPS would win as independent candidates is fanciful as best. Few MPS have any sort of personal votes. Phillips is loathed by as many as who like her. They get elected because they stand as Labour.

    Should the hardcore right split they would not be allowed to use Labour in their party title. SDP2 might do. Let’s hope it meets the same deserved fate

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