Joining the Labour Party in 2009 felt a lot like signing up to a glorified market research agency. Rather than feeling like I was a part of a movement that gave me a voice, it instead resembled doing unpaid work for an increasingly detached political elite. So it’s no surprise that political activity within Labour has often been viewed through the prism of careerism. If you’re giving up your time, money, and effort for a cause but your voice isn’t being heard, the rational reason to continue on is a belief that you can climb the ladder, one day become a member of that ‘detached political elite’, and finally be heard.
But that political culture attracts only a very specific personality. Someone who will sit through hours of boring meetings, trudge through rain to knock on doors, and spend weekend evenings writing up minutes despite being ignored by the organisation they sacrifice a lot for. Until their career ambitions are realised, they’re aware of their status as mere foot soldiers in the party machine.
This is an unappealing prospect for most people. When Jeremy Corbyn ran for the Labour leadership in 2015, he did so promising to give more of a voice to party members, particularly in policy-making. Finally, people who had put in so much time, money, and energy felt like they had a leader who might give them some say over the party’s direction. The fact that this is a much more appealing arrangement can be seen in the dramatic increase in Labour membership since 2015.
It’s pretty obvious that parties offering people a meaningful voice will increase the levels of political participation and engagement in society. But this is what the establishment media and economic elite are afraid of, which is why they have sought to frame the power for members to choose their candidate for Parliament before each general election — known as ‘mandatory reselection’ — as an illegitimate ‘purge’. Democracy, so often held up by our leaders as sacrosanct, is suspect as soon as it means accountability for politicians.
Currently, if a general election is called and the incumbent Labour MP wishes to stand as the candidate again, the process for challenging them involves a ballot of all constituency party branches, forums, and affiliated organisations, such as trade unions, who must respond with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. A simple majority of affirmative nominations from these organisations means the MP avoids an open selection contest. This process, known as a ‘trigger ballot’, is open to gerrymandering and is highly confrontational, which is why it’s discouraged that members open reselection processes against their MPs. By contrast, mandatory reselection would mean an open contest every time a general election is called, with members empowered to decide on their candidate through a democratic selection process.
One argument often levelled against mandatory reselection is that MPs are already accountable via a democratic process, namely a general election. But of course, most MPs — especially those parachuted into seats in areas they’ve barely even visited — would not get elected were they not Labour candidates. The process of entering Parliament is not a one person show, it’s the result of years of building up the presence and reputation of a party within a community, the resources that the party puts into policy-making and producing a manifesto, and most importantly, the activists who take that message out to the voters. This is why only 6 percent of people voted Labour at the last election on the basis of the candidate themselves.
In our political system, where the government is derived from the legislature, we elect a government at the same time we elect a local representative. So most people vote for a party rather than a candidate. It only makes sense, in that context, that candidates should be accountable to their parties.
It’s often claimed that mandatory reselection would mean MPs being reduced to mere ‘lobby fodder’, mindlessly accepting whatever the party leadership or bureaucracy decides. But another layer of democratic accountability to local members is hardly likely to further ingrain them in Westminster politics — and besides, primary systems exist across the world without sacrificing diversity of opinion in political parties. Just look at the competitive processes in the United States, which produce Democrats and Republicans of many differing stripes.
In fact, with this extra accountability, it’s possible to envisage a time where there is no longer a need for a ‘Labour whip’ in Parliament, whose job it is to ensure MPs vote the way the leadership wants them to. Instead, constituency Labour parties would act as the whip, ensuring their representative reconciled themselves with the views of members. You don’t have to think too far back to envisage the catastrophes such a system might have prevented.
Despite the narrative peddled by the establishment media, mandatory reselection isn’t about settling old scores. It’s about opening up politics, increasing participation, and expanding Labour’s membership by giving people the power to influence how their representatives vote on issues affecting their lives. It’s absolutely essential that we support the proposal to introduce mandatory reselection at Labour conference in September.