By Jake Watts
Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism celebrates its 55th anniversary this year. A key historical work, it examined the relationship between the Labour Party and the UK Parliament. From a Marxist perspective, it argued that the failure of the British Left to achieve radical strides towards unadulterated socialism could be in substantial part attributed to the acquiescence of the Labour Party to the rules and norms of the United Kingdom’s parliamentary democracy. In putting forth such an argument, Miliband struck at the heart of a debate about the relationship between Labour and Parliament that underpins the disunity that now threatens the party’s efficacy as Her Majesty’s Opposition.
Many parallels have been made between the period since the seemingly unstoppable rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the 1980s in which the party’s left wing saw a spike in its influence. However, Corbyn’s election as leader, and the upheaval and instability that has followed, has seen a series of new developments that have taken Labour into the depths of the unknown. In this unknown, arguments over the role of the party in Parliament and questions about who Labour MPs are sent to the Commons to represent have taken on a far starker relevance than before.
Following the overwhelming vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn taken by the Parliamentary Labour Party, Labour’s coherence as a block in Parliament has been further chipped away. Without the ability to act consistently and dependably as a grouping in the Commons, Labour’s structural position as the largest party of opposition is substantially weakened. In the face of open rebellion, the party’s leader can no longer assuredly whip and coral his members in either chamber (in the case of the recent trident vote this fracturing was papered over with a ‘free vote’). This substantially impedes Labour’s ability to mount resistance to government legislation through the basic voting mechanisms that the legislature provides.
Furthermore, after the mass resignation of Labour MPs from the shadow cabinet, the functioning of the opposition frontbench stands reduced. The inability of the leadership to fill a full frontbench shadow ministerial team will inevitably affect the ability of the party to mount the systematic and thorough examination of any proposed measures that the job of opposition requires. With some members of the Shadow team even doubling up on portfolios, it is difficult to see how they will manage the extensive work required and be able to cover both the debates in the chamber and in committee packed into the parliamentary schedule. In refusing to resign and pressing on with Labour in this state, Corbyn has already begun to push the bounds of the British parliamentary system and his likely reaffirmation as leader the September may well do little to change this.
From the beginning of Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy for leader, he made clear that he wished to act as the mouthpiece for members and the people within the Labour movement. And, since the latest episode of fractious infighting that first erupted in June, Corbyn and influential union figures like Unite’s Len McCluskey have alluded to the threat of deselection in their attempt to dampen the revolt. Furthermore, the prospect of bringing mandatory reselection back into the party’s constitution has emerged. With this, larger questions now loom over how Labour MPs in Parliament should conceive of their role within – and relationship with – the UK’s central political institution. Whilst things have gone further than Labour’s left had imagined in their ascendency in the 80s, old ideas about the functioning of MPs in Parliament are now resurfacing. Then, as now, the party’s left sought to transform the internal workings of the party. Mandatory reselection was introduced in 1979 and existed to give Constituency Labour Parties the power to deselect sitting Labour MPs. Such a change was designed in the name of giving members the opportunity to unseat those they felt were not adhering to Labour values or failing to support Labour policies. With this, it was felt that Labour MPs would be more tightly bound by the will of the party membership and the policies adopted by conference.
The left of the party remain defiant and committed to rebirthing the Labour Party as a movement in which the voices of members are to be heard much louder and given much more weight. Within such a conception of the party, Labour’s parliamentarians are transformed from representatives into delegates. They are to be subordinate to the decisions taken at conference and to the party and union members that form Labour’s grassroots.
At their heart, the ideas that drive Corbyn’s attempt to bring about a movement renaissance and to give the membership from which he takes his support greater control raise bigger questions about the representative function of Labour as the official opposition and as a parliamentary force. If Labour MPs are to be delegates on behalf of the Labour movement, rather than understanding their role as one of representing their constituents first-and-foremost, then this directly challenges the commonly understood role of the party in the UK Parliament. Consequently, whilst the present tumult jams the day-to-day functioning of the official business of opposition, the politics that a re-elected Corbyn and his supporters in the rank-and-file and amongst the union General Secretaries envision have implications that are more radical. If Corbyn’s end goal is a party in which Labour MPs listen to their members’ political preferences above all, then what of the traditionally understood linkage between parliamentarians and their constituents? In a post-Brexit UK, issues of economic stability, international trade and immigration loom large on the horizon. Amongst this, the form of Labour’s internal power structures and democratic ethos in the years ahead may well define the real limits of its democratic representative function as a party of opposition.
About the author
Jake Watts is a doctoral researcher in the Politics Department at the University of Sussex. His research explores organisational change and culture in the Labour Party since 1979. He tweets @JakeTW91. Read more about him here.