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

This is the second of two posts offering a theory-based interpretation of the current Labour leadership crisis. Part One set out the various faces of the party — the party in office/parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the grassroots membership and activists (party on the ground) — and how Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader has upset power relationships between them. In this post, I consider how the narrowing of policy supply is impacting the leadership conflict.

2. restriction of policy competition

First of all, we need to borrow a basic concept from Economics. So we can think of a political ‘marketplace’, in which voters express their demand for particular policies, and parties supply policies that — at least theoretically — meet those demands. 

However, governments face constant pressure to meet the needs of globalisation. Stringent fiscal constraints and commitments to the elimination of deficit spending are not just government policy but laid down in law, so incoming governments have to work within this framework. Increasingly, the policymaking process itself is taken out of government hands and externalised, beyond democratic accountability (independent central banks, for example, or supranational institutions such as the European Commission). 

Parties therefore have to demonstrate their responsible, market-friendly and foreign ‘investment’-friendly credentials. It’s all about sending the right signals. So time and time again, we hear the ‘no alternative’ mantra. No alternative to austerity* and public sector cuts; no alternative to driving down wages or to removing safeguards and standards deemed a hinderance to global trade (see TTIP/CETA). At the same time, the ambition and language of political statements and public discourse are toned down accordingly. Framed in the ‘no alternative’ rhetoric, this is a powerful means of managing (downsizing) voters’ expectations and demands.

Parties have internal incentives to limit policy supply, too. Part One has already described how parties and elected representatives become ‘embedded’ in the state, sharing common institutions, resources and career paths. But it doesn’t stop there. If a party is voted out of office, its policies are often continued by the new government, at least to some extent. For example, Germany’s last Social Democratic/Green government coalition introduced some of the most draconian welfare and employment legislation the Republic had ever seen. The subsequent Conservative/Liberal coalition not only continued those reforms, but pushed the agenda even further.

And here’s an example from the Labour Party. When Tony Blair formally dropped the party’s Clause Four commitment to social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, he sent a very clear and reassuring signal to business, mass media owners and markets that a New Labour government, ‘free’ from ideology, would act ‘responsibly’ and continue from where the Tories had left off. So even a losing party can expect some continuity; both of access to power and resources, as well as of its political agenda. All in all, like the economic cartels who maximise profit by restricting output, parties too can benefit by curtailing the supply of fiscally expensive and politically risky policies. 

Therefore, despite fierce electoral battles in which parties compete for votes within a narrower policy space, the actual outcome of the election doesn’t change much. The election result is less about policy choice, and more about how the ‘game’ is played. And with the emphasis on continuity rather than meeting voter demands, elections are reduced to popularity contests between different management teams — and are a useful legitimisation tool for the parliamentary party and leadership.

how does this help us understand the Labour leadership conflict?

If a party abandons its core constituency it leaves behind an unmet demand for representation. Often, this is fertile ground for fringe parties, and not just in proportional electoral systems. However, as we know, something big happened in the Labour Party. The members and supporters who elected Corbyn last year wanted a clear alternative to austerity, and to ‘centrist’, ’Tory lite’ politics. Evidently, not everyone had given up on policy choice after all.

But this is a risky prospect for the PLP, who, like many parliamentary parties in western legislatures, have managed to get away with managing rather than challenging the diktats of markets, corporations and capital. Corbyn openly confronts the ‘no alternative’ rhetoric with ideas and language that had long been consigned to the ‘flat cap Old Labour’ archives. It’s interesting to see Corbyn’s challenger, Owen Smith, now pledging an end to austerity. But once the new leader is (re-)elected, it will be even more interesting to see how long this apparent anti-austerity enthusiasm among the PLP actually lasts.

Jeremy Corbyn’s habit of refusing to toe the PLP line has accompanied him from the back benches to the front. As such (assuming he wins this current leadership contest), he won’t be keen on restricting the supply of policy alternatives in order to appease the PLP. But will he have a choice? Here we come full circle to the faces of the Labour Party.   

Some MPs might take the nuclear option and split from Labour to form a new party. This raises the prospect of two competing centre-left parties — a rump Labour Party and a new, office-seeking, parliamentary-focused centre-left party — that, with plenty of bad blood between them, would struggle to effectively oppose the government. As Corbyn’s power base is the party on the ground, we’ll probably see a grassroots-focused Labour Party with a more socialist profile. Labour might also finally overcome its traditional squeamishness about proportional representation, and perhaps be amenable to a progressive anti-austerity alliance.

Another prospect is for Labour to avoid a formal split but continue the internal confrontation between the different faces of the party. Given the last-minute rule changes and legal appeals to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper, it’s quite possible that disgruntled MPs could deliberately obstruct their socialist leader and try to force through further revisions to Labour’s constitution, in an attempt to reassert the ascendancy of the PLP over the party on the ground.

However, restoring power relationships might bolster the PLP, but only in the narrow and arguably self-serving context of Westminster. At the same time, the party on the ground can’t exist within a sectarian bubble. It has to listen, engage, and mobilise, and, as a political party, do its job and articulate these views in parliament.

So the competing faces of the Labour Party continue to wrestle each other. But meanwhile, in the midst of the power struggle, the core problem still persists: the crisis of representation, disillusionment and disengagement from democracy.


*In this video  Mark Blyth, an important contributer to cartel party theory, explains the rationale and dangers of austerity. (Brown University)

cartel literature

Cartel party theory is a complex framework and this two-part blog article has only touched lightly on two particular aspects. Below is a list of key texts I used in my own research.

Bartolini, S. and Mair, P. (1990): Identity, Competition and Electoral Availability. The Stabilization of European Electorates 1885-1985, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blyth, M., Hopkin, J. and Pelizzo, R. (2010): Liberalization and Cartel Politics in Europe: Why Do Centre-Left Parties Adopt Market Liberal Reforms? Conference paper, 17th Conference of Europeanists, Montreal, 15‐17 April. Available at:

Blyth, M. and Katz, R.S. (2005): From Catch-all Politics to Cartelisation: The Political Economy of the Cartel Party, West European Politics, 28 (1), pp. 33-60.

Detterbeck, K. (2005): Cartel Parties in Western Europe?, Party Politics, 11 (2), pp.173-191.

Detterbeck, K. (2008): Party Cartel and Cartel Parties in Germany, German Politics, 17 (1), pp. 27-40.

Katz, R.S. and Mair, P. (1995): Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: The Emergence of the Cartel Party, Party Politics, 1 (1), pp.5-28.

Katz, R.S. and Mair, P. (1996): Cadre, Catch-all or Cartel? A Rejoinder, Party Politics, 2 (4), pp. 525-534.

Katz, R.S. and Mair, P. (2009): The Cartel Party Thesis: A Restatement, Perspectives on Politics, 7 (4), pp. 753-766.

Kitschelt, H. (2000): Citizens, Politicians, and Party Cartelization: Political Representation and State Failure in Post-industrial Democracies, European Journal of Political Research, 37, pp. 149-179.

Koole, R. (1996): Cadre, Catch-all or Cartel? A Comment on the Notion of the Cartel Party, Party Politics, 2 (4), pp. 507-523.


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