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Members or MPs – who’s in charge of the Labour Party?

This article is over 5 years, 11 months old
The turmoil inside the Labour Party has uncovered the deep rift between its members and MPs. The cause of the tension lies right at the heart of the party, explains Dave Sewell
Issue 2510
Thousands rallied to show support for Jeremy Corbyn outside parliament earlier this week
Thousands rallied to show support for Jeremy Corbyn outside parliament earlier this week (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The battle to unseat Jeremy Corbyn will put to the test the question of who runs the Labour Party. Is it the MPs who overwhelmingly oppose him, or the membership which overwhelmingly backs him?

Labour’s fixation on parliament has always meant a hugely privileged position for its MPs. From 1922 to 1981 they had a monopoly on choosing a leader.

The first act of the first Labour MPs in 1906 was to form what is still formally a separate party, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).

Labour’s 1907 conference made clear that members’ democratic decisions couldn’t bind MPs.

Philip Snowden, later Labour’s first chancellor, said, “Conferences will talk; let them talk. Governments, including Labour governments, dispose of conference resolutions.”

That’s been the practice ever since, right up to Ed Miliband’s front bench ignoring a hard-won conference vote to renationalise Royal Mail.

That’s why a PLP of 242 people now thinks it can face down a Labour membership of 400,000.

The PLP’s independence expresses an unbridgeable division at Labourism’s heart. The Labour project of winning reforms through parliament relies on looking two ways.


Labours deputy leader Tom Watson

Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson (Pic: Chris Boland/Flickr)

It has to convince workers they have class interests of their own and need a party to represent them. Many workers look to Labour as a force for change. Without this Labour loses its base.

Yet it also has to show that it can rule for “the nation”—not just the “private interests” of workers.

MPs say they are answerable to their constituents of all classes, not just Labour’s working class membership. They mean that they have to show they can be trusted not to endanger ruling class interests.

As bosses’ and workers’ interests are irreconcilable so, ultimately, are the tensions in Labour. The separation of the PLP creates a distance that makes them manageable.

As Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein wrote in their book, The Labour Party—A Marxist History, “Much of the history of Labour revolves around the struggle for dominance between the party leadership centred on the PLP and its supporters outside.”

Yet the PLP doesn’t have fully free rein—as Snowden and his leader Ramsay MacDonald found when they formed a coalition with the Tories in 1931. The bulk of the party didn’t go with them.

There are limits to what its members and structures will take, with union leaders playing a key role.

Battles inside Labour have taken many forms over the years, particularly as capitalism becomes less able to concede positive reforms.

But neither side can finish the other off without destroying the party—an outcome that’s increasingly plausible.

It will be an outrage if the PLP topples Corbyn. But it will also be a tragedy if the aspirations of Corbyn’s supporters are held back by Labourism’s limits.

Power in the unions – but which side are they on?

Over-zealous attempts to marginalise union leaders inside Labour may have handed them back the balance of power they held historically.

Union officials mediate between classes. They live by showing workers that they can win some gains from bosses, but also that the gains bosses concede are good enough.

This makes them masters at the Labour balancing act.

For a long time their main role in Labour was using union members’ “block vote” to veto the left wing demands of the working class membership.

But after the bitter 1980s Labour’s mass base dwindled and so did union influence.

Tony Blair moved Labour’s centre of gravity so far to the right that union leaders found themselves to its left.

After unions kept David Miliband from becoming leader, Ed Miliband went on the offensive. He hounded the Unite union for attempting to get its supporters selected as candidates.


He removed union block votes and opened leadership elections to non-members—presumed to be former Tory and Lib Dem voters.

This was meant to free Labour from any remaining accountability to workers, turning it into a purely electoral party more like the US Democrats.

Instead working class people with hopes of real change flooded in behind Corbyn.

No longer being channelled through union leaders’ block votes, they gave an historic mandate to Labour’s most left wing leader in 90 years.

Union leaders once more stand between a renewed, more working class and more left wing membership and a largely contemptuous PLP.

So far they back Corbyn—but at a price. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s support could be decisive—and dependent on Corbyn softening his opposition to Trident nuclear weapons.

Union members must ensure their leaders don’t betray Corbyn or squander workers’ money on the MPs who stabbed him in the back.

Making executive decisions

There are other centres of power inside Labour. One is its full time apparatus of around 200 organisers, researchers, spin doctors and wannabe ministers.

They answer to the general secretary—currently Iain McNicol.

In local Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) a tension between councillors making cuts and activists who joined to oppose them replicates the tension over the PLP nationally.

And the national executive committee (NEC) brings together representatives of all wings of Labour to test the balance between them.

Current members range from Corbyn’s staunch ally Dennis Skinner to Angela Eagle, who could be the one to challenge Corbyn for leader.

Elections for CLP representatives on the NEC run until 5 August.

Labour left group Momentum has made it a priority to get Corbyn supporters elected—in the face of similar efforts from right wing group Progress.

To howls of hypocritical outrage, some activists raise the possibility of getting CLPs to deselect sitting MPs in favour of candidates who represent them.

But for our class to win we have to fight on the battlegrounds where we are strongest.

That isn’t inside Labour’s bureaucracy, but on the streets and in the workplaces.

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