the faces of labour’s leadership conflict (part one)

Still keeping up with the goings on in the Labour Party? Every day, there’s another twist and turn (of the knife). All of which leaves little time or energy for confronting the government or listening to the communities who have shunned Labour (or did Labour shun them first?). What explains the dramatic rift between the leadership, the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) and the grassroots members and activists — in other words, the different ‘faces’ of the party? And is it really about leadership, not policies? To try and make sense of it all, I’ve revisited some of my own research.

First, some background. My research tested two aspects of cartel party theory* to help explain the emergence and success of Germany’s Left Party**. The first aspect of cartel theory concerns characteristics of party leadership and organisation; the second focuses on the restriction of policy supply. Both deserve attention and are, I believe, relevant to Labour’s current conflict. However, the theory is a complex one, so rather than squeeze everything into one monstrously long post, I’ve organised the analysis into two parts, with policy supply to follow in Part Two.

1. party leadership and organisation

As parties become more rooted in the state, power becomes concentrated around the leadership, resulting in a top-down structure of authority. This, together with the heavy emphasis on the interests of the parliamentary party, eventually leads to the ‘divorce’ of the party in office from grassroots members and activists (party on the ground). Furthermore, the leadership has various tools at its disposal with which to bypass activists and appeal to an inactive and scattered membership. For example, referenda, welcomed as proof of inner-party democracy, are generally reserved for selection purposes rather than for major policy decisions, and are therefore a tool for asserting and legitimising leadership authority. What’s more, while social media democratises political communication, it also allows leaders to communicate directly with members — sending the ‘word from the top’ straight to an individual’s phone, and evading activists, meetings and publications. Another method is opening up candidate selection to non-members. Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) weighed up this option, with the aim of circumventing ‘old Labour’-type members who wanted to halt their party’s drift to the centre ground. (We’ll return to this idea shortly.)

That’s not to say that grassroots activists are dispensable. In fact, they are an essential campaigning resource, especially in the run-up to elections. But during this period, efforts and resources prioritise the needs of the party in office. In my research, for example, an activist observed that, during election campaigns, all they seemed good for was pasting up posters from central office, displaying central office-approved messages.

Another important feature is parliamentary collegiality. As elected members (at local, regional and national level) go about regular business and cooperate on various cross-party committees, they tend to view representatives from other parties as professional colleagues, rather than as adversaries. Particularly in proportional electoral systems, like Germany’s, such relationships are useful for sounding out potential coalition partners. What’s more, these ‘colleagues’ share a working environment, professional practices and, every four or five years, similar job security concerns. Ultimately, elected members — the ‘political class’ — have more in common with their opposite numbers than they do with their own party’s activists.

All well and good, but how can this shed light on what’s happening in the Labour Party today?First of all, let’s return to that idea of involving non-members. Reeling from a particularly bitter General Election defeat, Labour’s decision to allow ‘supporters’ to vote in the subsequent leadership election had unforeseen consequences; namely that disenchanted, angry grassroots members, activists and supporters voted overwhelmingly for Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner for nuclear disarmament, a vocal opponent of the Iraq war, and, above all, a socialist backbencher notorious (or renowned) for rebelling against the Labour front bench. This has turned everything upside down.

Whereas leaders are expected to emerge from the (shadow) front bench, Corbyn is most closely aligned to the party on the ground. ‘Momentum’ has grown from an initiative supporting Corbyn’s leadership campaign into a highly organised and driven network of activists who aren’t about to toe the PLP line, and are fiercely critical of MPs who voted for the Iraq war or, more recently, abstained on the Welfare Bill or supported the renewal of Trident. In fact, given the accusation that, under Corbyn, Labour is becoming a social movement merely with a parliamentary ‘bolt-on’, we could even conclude it is the PLP that now finds itself being ‘leapfrogged’. Unsurprisingly, the PLP is none too happy with the new rules of the game.

Much has been made of Corbyn’s leadership skills, or lack thereof. While challengers claim to have personal regard for Corbyn, or even sympathy for his political positions, they criticise him for either bad leadership or even non-leadership. So what kind of leadership would be preferable? Someone who makes the party ‘electable’? Someone who inspires? Perhaps someone like Tony Blair? But let’s not forget Blair was a keen enthusiast of ‘sofa government’ that circumvented not only the PLP but also the Cabinet. And in fact, Jeremy Corbyn does meet these criteria: Labour have performed well in mayoral and by-elections, and there is no doubt he inspires a huge number of activists. However, for the PLP, a socialist leader with a large and energetic grassroots following constitutes a threat:

  • The ascendency of the party in office is questioned.
  • A resurgent and more socialist party on the ground raises the prospect of MPs’ deselection by their local constituency party (especially in light of boundary changes) and therefore threatens MP job security.
  • There is a greater cost associated with the policies themselves. Why adopt a radical programme when repackaging and modifying the status quo offers a cheaper and lower risk proposition?

In other words, Labour’s crisis is not just about the battle between left-wing and right-factions, but is also very much driven by the different and often conflicting interests of the faces of the party. The impact on policymaking is further explored in the second key aspect of cartel party theory, policy competition, which is explored in Part Two.

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* For a very brief overview of cartel theory (first developed by Katz and Mair, 1995), see this wikipedia entry. If you’re interested in exploring the theory further, just contact me for a detailed literature list. I’ll also add a bibliography at the end of Part Two.

** Given Labour’s current state of affairs, it’s worth mentioning that the Left Party resulted from a merger between the (mainly eastern) PDS and the WASG, a new party which had split from the Social Democrats.


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