Jeremy Corbyn’s convincing 62 per cent to 38 per cent victory over Owen Smith in the Labour leadership election ensures that the party continues to navigate uncharted waters in the relationship between leaders, MPs and party members. Debates about the desirability of internal party democracy have often assumed a tension between MPs and activists over ideology and electability. Typically, though, the leader was assumed to stand with “moderate” MPs against radical activists.
Corbyn, by contrast, is the figurehead and delegate of the activists against the overwhelming bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), three-quarters of which expressed no confidence in him in June. Many believed that the PLP would reassert its control because of the practical necessity for a leader to organise a viable front bench and hold the government to account in parliament. Only MPs can do that, not activists (or trade-union leaders). If MPs withdrew their support, the leader would be finished. The no-confidence vote was duly followed by mass resignations from the shadow cabinet.
But Corbyn would not budge. Losing a confidence vote was moot for someone who never enjoyed the MPs’ confidence in the first place. (It’s one reason why comparisons with Michael Foot are misplaced: Foot was chosen to be leader by Labour MPs, not by activists.) Corbyn takes his mandate from the members alone. They in turn noisily demand that MPs respect it.
There is no precedent for this situation in a major British party, where a leader consistently sides with the grassroots against MPs. The assumption that the PLP will eventually bring him to heel can no longer be taken for granted. Indeed, the MPs’ positions look shakier than their leader’s, with a growing clamour among the activists for deselecting Corbyn’s critics.
The nature of the party membership—and its extraordinary rate of growth since May 2015—is the second challenge to older ideas about internal democracy. Membership has surged from 200,000 to 500,000 in 16 months—and that doesn’t even include registered supporters. Post-May 2015 members constitute a majority of the membership. Their loyalty appears to be to Corbyn and his leftist platform, not to Labour as a party (many are ex-Green voters). There is strong resistance to trimming radical policies for the sake of “electoralism.”
The new members were mobilised into the party via social media, which has hugely disrupted the old pattern of intra-party politics. The PLP has floundered in the face of this online whirlwind, but so have local Labour parties. Many have shared in the membership surge but also seen new recruits increasingly take over.
To describe this phenomenon as “democracy” raises questions about what that term means. The democratic process conventionally assumes debate and deliberation. But how many minds were changed in this leadership election? The immediate response of both pro- and anti-Corbyn factions was to recruit more members to tilt the vote in their favour. “Democracy” then becomes more about membership packing than persuasion.
Corbyn’s victory means that this experiment in intra-party politics will continue. Labour MPs must reconcile themselves to a leader who survived their assault and owes them no favours. The PLP could one day try another putsch. The unions might resume their historical role of stabilising the party and fighting the left. Or perhaps the whirlwind will continue its course, with deselection now on the agenda. If MPs offer the last resistance to the new internal democracy, then making them too delegates of the membership would complete the left’s transformation of the Labour Party.