A long wet summer poses questions

Trevor Fisher a summer of quiet politics


In the Independent of 11th August, ex-Liberal MP, Norman Baker argued that Britain was heading for a one party state as the Tories extend their grip. Owen Jones on the New Statesman blog has also argued that the Tories are behaving as though they had a majority of 200 instead of 10, and both their confidence and the way they are steamrolling forward is the decisive fact of current politics. One party statism also exists in Scotland, though for different reasons. In Scotland, the SNP does have a majority support – 60% on current opinion polls. At Westminster, the Tories do not have majority support but are using their windfall elected dictatorship to close down effective challenges.
Baker acknowledged failings in his Lib Dem Party’s record, though the biggest was to give the Tories the Fixed Term Act, giving them a majority even if they lost 10 seats – the DUP would prop them up, but the bigger problem is their splits over Europe. This could bring their majority to nothing, but they would soldier on regardless for the full five years. Nevertheless, the issue is not what the Lib Dems did wrong but what the prospects are now the Lib Dem restraint has gone And the abolition of the grant system for poor students shows that all restraint really has gone, even when a move is unpopular as this was.
Baker identified three main thrusts to the current offensive- the attack on union funding, check off for union subs in government employment to be ended as a first stage, the objective being to reduce Labour funding while their own goes through the roof. The Blair failure to secure funding systems becomes a key failure of New Labour in power. However the attack on the BBC, identified correctly by Baker, is pure ideology and would not have happened under New Labour.
Meanwhile boundary changes are being forced through, which will impact on Labour and other parties, allowing the Tories to look on a majority at the next election almost automatically. At the very least, these should be suspended while investigation takes place of obstacles to registration and the disappearance of millions of voters from the system – something worrying councils as it affects the money they get for services. However as Mary Southcott argued in the last (July) Chartist, the Tories only want the low hanging fruit to be on the register, the Tory inclined middle classes.
This puts the old centre left concern for PR even further from the agenda as far as I can see. It was clear from May 7th that it no longer helped the centre left – UKIP would have entered government on that scenario, not the Greens – while the attraction of electoral reform had already declined after the failure of the AV referendum. The Tories could and would argue that a change in the system was designed to move the goalposts to defeat them illegitimately – and such an argument would resonate with a public that has voted for FPTP and thinks – wrongly – that their majority in parliament means a majority of votes. In reality this is a minority government with majority power, and the Tories claim a democratic legitimacy they do not have in reality. Labour, alas, is not inclined to contest the point.
This has been clear in the Labour leadership election, where electoral reform has been virtually invisible. While it is now clear that the position is a shoe in for anti-Establishment candidate Jeremy Corbyn, this leaves the basic issue of party democracy unchallenged. Early in the campaign there was some talk of the need to make the party leadership changeable, a basic democratic requirement shown very clearly by Gordon Brown hanging on in 2009 to 2010 when he was obviously going to lose the election. Miliband was also a dead duck after the Euro elections, but it is impossible for Labour to remove failing leaders – one of the many ways the Tories are so much better at real politik than Labour is. Labour has not removed its leader since 1935. The only way to do it under current rules is by a parliamentary revolt, and this the M Ps have never done effectively, the coup against Brown being particularly badly run.
One of the reasons Corbyn gained impetus early on is, I would imagine, a statement he made on Newsnight in June, when he said “I think there should be an opportunity to elect or not elect the leader regularly, every one or two years – so that we shouldn’t go into this idea that ‘the leader’s vulnerable, we’ve got to get rid of the leader or not get rid of the leader’, because the system is already in place. Bring back democracy into the Labour Party and the labour movement”. Its one of the better things he has said, but not much heard of recently.
The wider movement should pick this up and run with it. Annual elections would be impossible, and an all member ballot on the present farcical system would provide four months of chaos, but a vote at conference is feasible. Whatever the system, if Labour is to take part in a defence of democracy against the one party Tory state, it has to start within its own ranks.

Trevor Fisher                                                              


  1. Trevor raises an important question with wide ramifications. What are the contenders’ party democracy credentials, and future plans?

    On Leader/Deputy leader, the trigger process currently rests with the PLP which will need no encouragement, but may be constrained by the extent of the victor’s mandate or their place on the political spectrum if Corbyn were trumped by second/third preferences. A better approach would be to reintroduce the annual nomination process – which (in theory) gave all stakeholders an opportunity to call time on a leader/deputy leader – by putting forward other names through their CLPs/affiliated unions or socialist societies ahead of Conference.

    Time to revive the Labour Democratic Network (successor to Save the Labour Party, which Trevor founded with Gaye Johnston and Mark James)?

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