The actual quote is ‘‘I don’t care who does the electing as long as I get to do the nominating’ (Boss Tweed) … which is actually more to the point in the LP.
Think about it and it’s obvious – there is never just one election. There’s the one that we all know about and can vote in … and the one before where the candidates are chosen. The small numbers of people who determine the candidates are the gatekeepers and it doesn’t matter how good the franchise in the total electorate if the candidates are all out of the same box.
This isn’t a new problem. The rioting in Hong Kong 2014 (and since) was because the people were only offered a ‘democratic choice’ between those candidates chosen by the Chinese government.
In the US, they have primaries to choose the Democratic and Republican candidates who will contest the presidential election… but in reality only those candidates who are fantastically rich like Trump or funded by a small number of the mega-rich will make it as far as the primaries (hence Boss Tweeds’ quote). Bernie Sanders was the notable exception in not being beholden to large donors or Wall Street … and not coming from the 0.01%.
With legal limits on donations, there is nothing like the same big money problem in the UK… although there is much to be written about donors making it into the Lords and doubtless a great deal more, shrouded in secrecy. We also know that there are corporate and wealthy individual donors* from outside of the LP who are funding anti-Corbyn groups…
However, the Labour Party has a much more immediate, home grown, internal problem with gatekeepers, which has really come to the fore with the unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
Currently, the LP is a bit like a toasted sandwich. The top and the bottom are on the same page… democratic socialists. But the squidgy layers in the middle are the branch/constituency officers, councilors, LP staffers, MEPs and MPs who largely pre-date the Corbyn surge and are various shades of social democrats … the so-called soft left, Labour First and Progress aka the ABCs (the anyone but Corbyn brigade).
But significantly, it is the squidgy bits (and not the grassroots) that constitute the gatekeepers as to who can stand as a candidate.
Unsurprisingly, the ABCs choose candidates who share their social democrat politics and are invariably anti-Corbyn (eg Stoke Central, Oldham, Copeland and so-on)…
In other words, they choose candidates who do not represent the 61% of grassroots members who voted for Jeremy Corbyn… and the result is that the social democratic squidgies maintain their presence in positions of power.
Clearly by so doing, they put the majority of the grassroots in a hugely difficult position. Do they actively campaign for a right wing candidate, unrepresentative of the leadership or the grassroots, because ‘anyone from Labour is better than a Tory’**? Or do they reject the squidgies’ choice and lose a Labour seat? (The election of Sadiq Khan as London Mayor is a perfect example of the conundrum).
Given this state of affairs, anger is mounting to new heights as the ABC gatekeepers try to block democratic socialists from becoming branch/CLP officers or from standing as parliamentary or council candidates.
For many, this is the final straw on top of the last 22 months of coups, expulsions, suspensions, false allegations, tricks and sleights of hand by the ABCs. The stories are legion from packing selection meetings, excluding the full membership from voting, suspensions on spurious grounds and other techniques from the playlist provided by ‘The Hammer of the Left” (John Goulding’s book about ridding the LP of militant and excluding Tony Benn supporters).
It’s no surprise then that formal challenges are beginning to be mounted, and given the lack of support from the squidgy regional and national bodies, these are including legal ones.
For example, last month, eighteen pro-Corbyn members in Ealing LP were given unconvincing reasons as to why they were not considered as suitable to stand in selections for next year’s borough elections. This scale of rejection at this stage in the election cycle is unprecedented. And as a result, left wingers in Ealing CLP have decided to take legal action. (Donations gratefully received).
In Newham, there is an appeal to the national LP and their MPs to investigate the 2016 Mayoral ballot and the suspension of dissenting members. This is backed up by a 38 degrees petition. https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/justice-for-newham-s-left?bucket&source=facebook-share-button&time=1492379140
Now, it needs to understood that these are not isolated examples of the squidgy bit blocking toasty Corbyn supporters. These are just Corbyn-supporting members (like the majority of the membership) not feeling that they have any other choice. The grassroots left can’t even appeal to the regional or national bodies because those bodies are also overwhelmingly dominated and controlled by the squidgy layer.
Of course, this internal mismatch all started with the unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn.
Cast your mind back to June 2015. The Left were in despair because there was a choice of three pretty much identikit and non-descript candidates. It was so uniform and uninspiring that non-Corbyn supporting MPs were persuaded to make up the numbers to nominate Jeremy in an attempt to make the whole process look a bit more democratic.
In other words by default, the PLP gatekeeping process broke down… and to the ABC’s horror, Jeremy was elected by an overwhelming majority of the grassroots. (The Right has done nothing but try and depose him ever since – using not so much fair as foul means).
The issue boils down to whether the LP is a democratic organization representing its grassroots membership or whether the LP is actually its elected representatives… and of course, taking note that the LP’s elected MPs and councilors have all been successful in being passed by the gatekeepers.
Why is this particularly relevant now?
It’s because we are in a bit of an impasse. The ABCs say that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable in 2020. However, this view is hardly convincing when it is clear that they will fight tooth and nail to make it impossible for another more ‘plausible’ but similarly leftwing candidate to replace Corbyn. The most obvious way out of the impasse is for the number of nominations required from sitting MPs to be lowered (although in my view, nominations should be abolished completely)
This is the purpose of the so-called McDonnell proposal scheduled for LP conference in September. The argument is that by lowering the ‘gate’ to 5% of MPs, left wing MPs would not be excluded from standing for the leadership of the LP.
How are they ‘fighting tooth and nail’?
One is by proposing an amendment to reverse the leadership voting away from OMOV and back to the old system in which the MPs, the Trade Unions and the membership each have a third of the vote.
Another is by trying to pack the conference with anti-Corbyn delegates to vote against the McDonnell amendment …
And yet another is to try and make sure that their candidates re-elected onto the Conference Arrangements Committee and the National Constitutional Committee.
So this is but another version of the gatekeeping… by engineering to pack conference with anti-Corbyn delegates, the ABCs hope to ensure that amendments contrary to the views of the Corbyn-supporting majority of the membership are carried. This can well happen because this is exactly what occurred at last year’s conference.
To be clear these tricks have been used over and over again, reaching their zenith, under the command and control tactics of New Labour. They are profoundly undemocratic in both spirit and structure and the very future of the LP is at stake unless it can be reformed and reconstituted. Needless to say, they also underpin the parachuting of candidates***, like Tristram Hunt, into safe Labour parliamentary seats but that’s a topic for another day.
For now, the imperative is to make sure that we send representative delegates to conference, preferably mandated to vote for the McDonnell resolution and to vote for these grassroots candidates to the CAC and NCC.
Unfortunately, we seem to be fighting for a Labour Party against a core of people such as Blair and Mandelson, who would rather that the LP was dead than red. In fact, Tony Blair is said to be intending to create a new ‘centre’ SDP2 party and announce it just before the 2020 GE. I think that says it all.
The LP needs to be less of a toasted sandwich and for the whole membership to gain a proper respect for democracy and fair play.
* Gossip is that Lord Sainsbury is transferring his thousands away from Progress to Tony Blair’s new party.
**New Labour managed to lose 5m voters by 2005 but were still returned to gov’t because the blairites relied on there being nowhere else for the Left to go.
***In fact, with Constituency by-elections, there are two sets of gate-keepers, and arguably three. Three members of the NEC draw up a short-list, from which the CLP can choose a PPC (Prospective Parliamentary Candidate) .. So, whoever chooses which NEC members will vet the short-list has a tremendous impact on the final choice of PPC. This is the mechanism by which Blairite candidates like Tristam Hunt were parachuted into safe seats like Stoke Central, regardless of their lack of local roots.