As an old inhabitant of the Westminster bubble, I give my prophetic testimony. Having been bombarded by emails from different sections of the Labour party and paid to qualify for a vote, I’m now waiting for my ballot papers in the leadership election. For the first time in my life, I’ve declared a party allegiance. I’m only doing as a personal gesture in favour of Labour remaining a party of government. While it’s all great crack ( sic), it’s completely bonkers that I have an equal share in deciding the identity of the alternative UK prime minister on the basis of paying £3 a couple of weeks ago and clicking a mouse three times. Please don’t delude yourself that it’s any closer to real democracy like than the X Factor or the Eurovision Sing Contest.
What’s the problem you may ask, when voting in a general election is even easier? Because voting in elections is based on the universal franchise developed over decades, whereas this Labour party franchise is improvised, poorly run and perversely designed for capture by narrowly motivated groups, the very antithesis of a system for a mass democratic party. How Lenin would have laughed as he took it over! The new Ed Miliband version of OMOV is worse that Union bloc vote which at least was a bloc that could be wooed and weighed. Falling between two stools, it’s a travesty of democracy. It neither embraces the entire electorate in something like an open primary, while by opening registration so casually, it fails to foster a sense of responsibility to a party that needs to win elections to survive.
There are two ways of looking at the phenomenon, the micro- political and the macro. In the micro analysis, a trebling of Labour membership to 600,000 is a stream not a flood compared with the 9,347,000 who actually voted Labour. It’s the fumbling of the leader franchise which has prompted so much over heated speculation about a radical shift in British politics. If a proper election system had been in place you would never have heard the half of it. Although there has undoubtedly been the shift to the left which is usual when Labour is defeated, the drama of Corbynmania has been caused by two factors: the panicky introduction of OMOV to halt the long term decline of party membership, and the final absolute loss of authority by MPs despite their popular mandate.
So why did the Labour hierarchy leave themselves so vulnerable by choice? For the same reason as they were wiped out in Scotland. Complacency. The y never thought for a moment thought they lose control via the broad church, big tent strategy. The ignored the warning of the power of factionalism in the unexpected election of Ed Miliband against the wishes of MPs, through big Union muscle . This time they opened the tent even wider to all in sundry with what looks like even more disastrous results.
There is no ideal system as Mike White recalls in the Guardian. His fellow columnist Martin Kettle has the macro analysis of the debacle. However accidentally we may be witnessing the strange death of Labour Britain, with parallels to the Liberals of a century ago.
( The Liberals never recovered from) three such changes in particular: Ireland, where the Liberals were powerless to prevent violence and revolt; the rise of the labour movement, whose interests the Liberals could not bring themselves to embrace adequately; and votes for women, a radical demand for equality over which the Liberal party fatally hesitated..
Labour’s handling of Scotland has echoed the Liberals’ handling of Ireland, giving the initiative to the nationalists….. Just as the Liberals in the last century were unable to embrace labour, so the Labour party today is unable to free itself. In post-industrial Britain, the embrace is fatal….if we reframe the suffragette challenge as an essentially democratic, rather than a gender, issue, the parallel is much clearer. Labour does not do modern democracy. Labour won’t reform the voting system, won’t revive local government, won’t abolish the House of Lords, won’t energise industrial and corporate democracy and won’t revive its own internal party democracy either. It is a top-down party, much as the Asquith Liberal party was.
I can think of only two consolations if Corbyn wins. Entryism by social democrats will become a flood and there will be a new leadership election within two years. It will open up the real popular debate they all claim to want at last and drag in the Tories, the SNP and the UK’s relationship with the EU too. And none of the present candidates will stand.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London