Rules and Labourshambles
Javier Sajuria posted this over at the UCL Constitution Unit last week while I was busy finding new and efficient ways to haemorrhage cash in Geneva. It’s worth a read, and applies some political sciency-type stuff to the situation that the Labour Party finds itself in. Rules matter, they aren’t neutral (implied), and the Labour Party failed on two levels: codifying this set of rules in the first place in 2014, and then the PLP failed in their role as gatekeeper by allowing Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot at the last minute. The Conservatives, in contrast, made it more difficult for their MPs to fail in this regard by forcing a winnowing of the field presented to the membership to only two candidates.
The final two paragraphs capture the problem Labour faces:
Finally, under the current rules, the leader of the Labour Party is not accountable to the PLP. This might seem obvious given that those voting for the leader are the members and supporters, not the MPs. However, the current situation shows how important it is that the leader is able to bring together all groups within the party. As we have seen earlier this week, not even a vote of no-confidence with over 80 per cent support can force Corbyn to resign, nor stop him from putting his name forward in the event of a challenge of his leadership. Under the current situation, is difficult to see how the Labour Party can provide a strong opposition to the government, if any at all.
The main take home point from this exercise is that the Labour crisis is not (only) ideological. Preference heterogeneity within parties is a well-documented phenomenon and the internal mechanisms should be able to cope with it. This is exactly what has been failing in the case of Labour. MPs were not able to understand their role as gatekeepers and guardians of party unity, but also the rules do not give them enough power to fix the problem. It seems that in this case, the leader of the party is willing to test how much he can steer the party to the left before breaking it.
Back in August I discussed (neither as pointedly nor as eloquently) a problem the party might face with its electoral system:
Labour have invited such shenanigans, and have only themselves to blame for creating electoral rules that cast a modicum of doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome.
In re-reading that post, it’s apparent how the PLP worked out just a bit too late that they failed in forwarding candidate(s) that would not negatively effect party unity. Assuming that the NEC allows Corbyn on the leadership ballot automatically (and he will, of course, fight the NEC if they do not), he will probably win. His support within the party membership is down, but not enough to make it close in my estimation. He’s ahead of Angela Eagle 50% – 40% in a leadership contest, though this is against the backdrop of his net favourability (among party members) falling from +45% to +3% between May and (very) early July; in May 60% of members wanted him to lead the party into a general election, while now it’s 41%. These figures do not include the three-quid supporters, and this (astonishingly misguided) facility will again be in place:
What about the £3 supporters?
People who signed up to vote last year under the £3 supporter scheme will not automatically receive a ballot this time around – so they will need to part with another £3 and register again. This scheme will re-open once the NEC has confirmed the timetable for the election.
It’s not ludicrous to suggest that the £3 supporters will break for Corbyn in a leadership election.
The Labour Party is faced with a leader (under the current rules, this could be any leader) who is not accountable to the PLP. In a parliamentary system, this is dangerous, as we’re witnessing. It hard codes in an increased probability of dysfunction, and given that we delight in dysfunction when we’re at peak organisation, we don’t need the help from the rule book. If there’s a snap election, and Labour lose by a margin worse than 2015, what prevents Corbyn from hanging on as leader? Nothing. Sure, there’d be a leadership challenge, but the current rules combined with the cult-of-personality that the hard left have for Corbyn, it’s possible that this continues in perpetuity. The rules as currently constructed would not prevent this, even following a crushing electoral debacle.
Such an electoral tsunami is several years off, as odds are against a snap election. Theresa May should call one, for both electoral advantage and democratic legitimisation. Since the referendum, the Conservative lead over Labour has increased by four points in the ICM poll, but this is not due to an erosion of support for Labour but by what appears to be the Tories gaining support at the expense of UKIP; either way the Tories have an 8 point lead according to ICM. However, past experience suggests an election will not be called. The last three times there has been an internal leadership change that resulted in a new Prime Minister (Wilson to Callaghan in 1976, Thatcher to Major in 1990, Blair to Brown in 2007) there was not a resulting snap election. All three heirs saw out the statutory limit of the extant parliament before calling an election.
It appears that the only chance that the Labour Party have of shaking Jeremy Corbyn is to get obliterated in an election (and even then the outcome is not guaranteed). Of course, no sane person in the party would ever go into an election hoping for a devastating defeat (or a defeat of any variety). I’m not confident that some Corbynistas would likewise go into a general election behind Angela Eagle hoping for victory, however.