By Nick Tyrone
In regards to what is happening inside of Labour at present, there is no precedent. In the past, even large minorities of MPs in any party calling for the leader to step down would be met with acquiescence. It is part of the unwritten rules of British politics.
Corbyn has decided to ignore this history, citing the supremacy of the membership. In order to understand why he is wrong about this, it is important to look at what the basis of the Labour Party is and why that foundation has managed to keep Labour as one of the two mainstays of the two-party system, despite numerous crises that have threatened that position over the last seventy years.
The Labour Party is essentially a pact between the Parliamentary Labour Party, the trade unions, and the party membership. Each, in theory, are equally important. This was the logic around the way Labour used to elect its leaders: by thirds, with each of the constituencies I’ve just outlined having an equal say in the matter.
But Labour didn’t always elect its leader by thirds pre-Miliband reforms – for most of its history, the Labour leader was selected directly by the parliamentary party only. In other words, the PLP chose its own leader directly and the leader of the party was the head of the PLP first and foremost. From the 1922 election (the first) until it was changed for the 1983 leadership contest, this was the case. This initial system made a lot of sense – clause one of the Labour party manifesto is about maintaining a parliamentary Labour party, so it is vital that the leader in the Commons commands the full throated support of the PLP. Otherwise, it is essentially useless from a legislative perspective.
When the leadership contest rules were changed in 1983, it was felt that the process needed to be more inclusive of all of the elements of the Labour movement. And besides, would there really be that much of a disconnect between the constituent elements?
Miliband’s reforms in the last parliament did signpost the idea that the party was in essence the members forthwith, whether that was intentional or not. So Corbyn hasn’t gone mad – in this regard he has a point. However, the historic idea of what the Labour Party in fact is revolves around the synthesis between its elements being strong and working as one unit. By insisting that the PLP is voiceless, Corbyn has destroyed this – possibly temporarily, possibly forever. And in destroying this, he has destroyed the Labour Party – again, possibly temporarily, possibly forever.
Beyond Labour Party history and inner-workings, no party can function in a Westminster-style democracy if the MPs of that party do not recognise the legitimacy of the leader of it. This recognition cannot be faked or forced either – in a democracy, the feeling of leadership must be genuine. Momentum think they can wait it out and simply replace most of the PLP wholesale via deselections. This, again, will be the undoing of the Labour Party, at least as it has been historically constructed. They should think careful about whether that is something they wish to do or not.