Don't let Labour infighting crush working-class ambition

Westminster needs more authentic outsiders. Turning the Labour Party’s rulebook on its head would be a useful start

December 23, 2022
Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria at Labour conference in September. Photo:  Karl Black / Alamy Stock Photo
Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria at Labour conference in September. Photo: Karl Black / Alamy Stock Photo

The Labour Party does infighting like nobody else, as I’ve recently been reminded in reviewing a stack of books that have appeared since the collapse of the Corbyn project. There are, as you’d expect, rival ideas from the left and right factions about where the party went wrong, and where it should go next. But what would surprise, and perhaps appal, outsiders is the way that just as much energy—and as many pages—are consumed with the mechanics of the party’s governance: who should choose the leader? Who should be allowed to stand as an MP? What can be done to keep those MPs true to the party once they are installed? And so on and on and on.

Traditionally, the Labour left is associated with “party democracy”, the idea that it is for the wider labour movement to set policy and the job of MPs to deliver it. The Labour right, meanwhile, usually emphasises that we live in a parliamentary democracy, and MPs have special rights to call the shots as the only people who the public at large have elected. But in practice, any principles reliably come second to power games: all factions approach the party rulebook instrumentally and rationalise structures that allow their side to pull the strings.

There was a time long ago, for example, when leftist idealists railed against the “block” nature of the union vote on party policy, which Attlee and Gaitskell could call on to crush their wilder demands; in more recent decades, they have often found it useful. On the right, Tony Blair and his followers embraced Ed Miliband’s 2014 reforms of the leadership election process, as a “modernising” move to one-person-one-vote which cut out the union bureaucracies. Only once it threw up Jeremy Corbyn did they notice the change had also cut out the MPs—they’ve been frantically thinking about how to strengthen their role ever since. 

Seeing as principle is always so secondary in party matters, I won’t dwell on the dull mechanics of recent changes regarding parliamentary selections, in a deal which gave some extra sway to the unions as well as more room for the centre to meddle. What matters is the purpose: to allow the party’s ascendent centre-right new scope to assert itself over the left. That is hardly shocking: it is the way factions have always behaved. But I am getting increasingly worried about what it could mean for the ability of the Labour Party to fulfil the promise of its name, and directly represent working class communities.

Starmer’s high command has been heavily engaged in long-listing suitable candidates and vetting supposed wrong’uns. Some candidates with deep local roots—including former MPs—have been vetoed, with the claimed justifications sometimes as flimsy as liking a tweet by a non-Labour figure like Nicola Sturgeon or Green MP Caroline Lucas. (I say “claimed” as some scepticism is always appropriate in reports of internal party spats).

But after Peter Mandelson chuckled to the BBC during Labour conference about the left being “purged and marginalised”, and as pundits purr about David Miliband being parachuted into a seat, the risk is that the collateral victims could be authentic outsiders. The awkwardly independent journalist Michael Crick, an unflattering chronicler of Militant and Arthur Scargill, is keeping tabs and noted in November that Labour had “now picked 40 candidates for winnable seats”, of whom only one had a “working-class job.”

To wake you up to what is at stake when politics becomes overly professionalised—particularly as a new penury envelops the land—I recommend Darren McGarvey’s The Social Distance Between Us. Raised in grinding poverty, McGarvey has used rap, writing and—most recently—an excellent BBC Reith lecture to elucidate how class gets under our skin and warps our fates. His book mirrors the structure of The Road to Wigan Pier: the first half is made up of arresting reports from the rough edges of life, and the second analyses why it is that our politics frustrates putting things right.

McGarvey is more reticent than his gleefully rude predecessor about laying into his own leftist tribe (although he has sharpened his critique of its shortcomings in the Reith lecture). But McGarvey’s book is stronger than Orwell’s in other ways because, from police prejudice to benefit bureaucracy, he can draw directly on personal experience in ways the old Etonian couldn’t, to expose the misrule that, he suggests, flows directly from a lack of representation: 

“Why does a tradesman have to look at a blocked toilet or a burst pipe before he lets loose with the tools? Why does a GP need to see you in person?... These conventions exist because it would be absurd and even dangerous to do otherwise. Yet decisions about Britain’s most pressing social problems in the 21st century are often devised remotely, behind closed doors, with no meaningful input for those the decisions affect.”

Few within Labour on any side would disagree with that analysis, at least not openly. The takeover of progressive parties by what Thomas Piketty has called the “brahmin left”, divorced from the experiences and culture of their traditional base, has seen them hollowed out and bolstered their populist rivals around the world. But the question remains: what to do about it?

Organisationally, I would upset all sides, by inverting the current mix of leadership meddling in the constituencies and open season in leadership elections. The Corbyn experiment tested to destruction the idea that you can run a successful party (let alone government) against the wishes of its MPs. No matter how often you rewrite the Labour rulebook, in the wider constitution parliament still calls the shots, so MPs should choose their boss.

But they should be kept on their toes, and true to those they are supposed to represent, with an assumption that they can be freely challenged locally in every cycle: no leadership meddling, and no jobs for life. The MPs bitterly resist what they call “mandatory reselection” on self-interested grounds, but might also have reasonable questions about whether local parties are representative enough to do the picking. There might be an argument for opening up the selections to voters across the community who declare themselves supportive, a local version of what the Americans call a primary. 

But however it is done, the support base must come from within that community which ultimately will be voting for or against the candidate at the election proper. Local roots and a feel for how locals think may not count for everything, but they will count for a lot. A process along these lines seems like to me like smart politics, but—more than that—it guards against the “absurd and even dangerous” position McGarvey describes, where MPs cannot directly see the problems we elect them to fix.