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Should We All Be Worried About The Labour Party?

27/09/2016 12:39

It's critical to British democracy that politicians aren't just concerned with their party, argue Andrew Blick and Sean Kippin. "Public office holders have wider responsibilities that extend beyond their particular party, and are also able to exercise a degree of personal discretion". These responsibilities include a duty to represent all of their constituents in parliament, and the entire electorate should they become members of the government.

There are rules to demarcate the party and democratic duties of politicians, and pressure valves such as free votes help a single individual to play a dual role. But MPs must be faithful to their local electors to the extent that they deliver on campaign pledges made individually, and by supporting party policy they deliver for the national electorate who vote them in en masse. From a constitutional perspective, of course, Labour MPs also need to stop fighting for long enough to serve as an official opposition.

That makes the goal of its leader - that Labour "must become a social movement again" - problematic for our constitution should this assemblage seek power. Paul Mason provoked some jeering when he pointed out that the Corbynistas packing out venues are a new phenomenon in British politics. The idea floating around the Twittersphere that Labour is now the biggest political party in Europe is very questionable (you might start with United Russia), but Parliament's latest numbershttp://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN05125 give it 515,000 supporters. That's three times larger than the Conservative membership the last time they bothered to guess, and 20% larger than Podemos claimed this year: it's also completely contrary to the five-decade decline of party membership across Europe.

The question of winning elections in the traditional sense is a little irrelevant, argued Momentum founder Jon Lansman over the summer, and Ellie Mae O'Hagan more recently in the New York Times. But should we all be concerned about a Labour party no longer interested, as Blick and Kippin describe it, in "playing the elite level game within Parliament"? They believe any further splits within the party:

"might call into question Labour's effective commitment to ensuring that the political system offers voters a choice between genuinely competitive groups. This outlook also implies a reduction in the importance of those within the party who have been elected to public institutions."

This first argument is putting rather too much responsibility for the deficiencies of our first-past-the-post electoral system at the feet of Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. Our skewed constituencies only now being reconsidered after five years of failed reform efforts. The proposed changes would reconfigure constituencies by number of electors, not population - privileging those already engaged with the game as currently played. Scholars differ over whether Labour and the inner city constituencies it tends to win well are getting a fair hand. In any case, it's no surprise that Corbyn supporters want more direct access to democracy.

The second concern seems a little out of place given that Labour is expected to easily scoop up the newly-created Mayoral offices of Manchester and Liverpool. Will we see a party shifting its focus back to its members, but also to the places it can actually expect to rule?

It's been a subdued conference in Liverpool for Labour. One source told me that in terms of policy, there's not actually that much on the table: Corbyn is only now diverting his team away from political firefighting to building a platform. How Labour approaches the task after the mayoral election here and in Manchester next May might be more definitive for its future than a summer spent feuding.

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