Tuesday 13 October 2015

Party or Constituency? The Accountability of Labour MPs

I can't say I'd heard of Mike Gapes, the Labour MP for Ilford South, until the summer brouhaha that was the Labour leadership contest. But that's okay, I bet he hasn't the foggiest who I am either. Since September, Mike has made a name for himself as someone unrepentant about his politics, which are decidedly on the right of the party. Though to be fair it's not because Mike has deliberately courted controversy or is positioning himself to lead a Neo-Kendallite counter-insurgency from the back benches. For whatever reason, the trollish wing of keyboard Corbynism have taken objection to Mike and regularly bombard him with criticisms. Some fair, mostly not, Mike at least should be commended for taking the time to respond to this nonsense.

One persistent criticism of Mike and co runs along the lines of "if you like the Tories so much why don't you go there?" Of course, there are very significant differences between the Blairist of the Blairist and those who sit on the benches opposite. Unfortunately for some, cats are either white or black - there's no room for nuance, let alone big differences on our side of the fence. It's the new politics way or the highway.

However, I must take issue with these ripostes. He tweets:

Yes, that old chestnut. Who are elected representatives of the party responsible to? For me, the issue used to be quite simple. If you're in the business of building a revolutionary socialist organisation, you're taking on a huge political project. If Rome wasn't built in a day, the New Society is going to take a bit more time than an Enabling Act to get off the ground. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that the party, dedicated to this objective, should expect of its members to act in a disciplined way and are responsible to it, regardless of whether they're a paper vendor, a workplace militant, a full-timer, or a Member of Parliament.

A cadre party of the Leninist type is something Labour definitely is not. Dear old Vlad used to refer to it as a bourgeois workers' party. i.e. An organisation stuffed full of salt-of-the-earth proletarians but where the top was not only pro-capitalist but were implicated in and integrated into maintaining the rule of capital. He was right in this. And wrong as well. Lenin's formulation was frozen in aspic and became a model variously used by his latter day British followers for decades afterwards. After all, it shortcut the need to continue analysing things afresh (critically applying Marxist concepts can be such a chore) and allowed them to make a neat distinction between goodie proles and bad 'un bourgie types. Actually, it's more accurate to describe Labour as a proletarian party. As the political voice of the labour movement, which itself organises working people in all their variety around the workplace, the varied experiences, the progressive politics, the sectionalism, the - sometimes reactionary - sentiments find themselves expressed in the party too. And because the labour movement is in the business of fighting the worker's corner in capitalist workplaces, surprise surprise the party it bequeathed seeks to ameliorate and reform capitalism, not overthrow it. One doesn't need semi-conspiranoid theorising or convoluted theories about third world super profits to explain why Labour has always sought compromise with capital, not confrontation.

Whereas Leninist parties are organisations of self-selected revolutionaries who claim to be the most conscious section of our class, Labour is a party of proletarians - people who have to sell their labour power in return for a wage - as a whole. Unsurprising that the former has tight control of elected representatives, whereas the latter does not. Hence Labour MPs cannot be mandated under party rules by their CLPs to vote in certain ways. And herein creeps the tension Mike's ripostes to his anti-fandom touch on.

It's not enough that Labour is quite a loose party. Labour MPs are selected by the party and then elected to Parliament on a constituency-by-constituency basis to represent everyone in that constituency. And a good MP with a good team will strive to do precisely that, regardless of the political persuasions of constituents that seek assistance. Who then is a Labour MP accountable to?

Perhaps it's one squirt too many of the polemical juices, but Mike does sound as though his party doesn't matter and should have no hold over him whatsoever. It's the constituents that put their faith in him and it's them to whom he's beholden. Formally speaking, this is true. I'm also sure Mike's an all-round good fella and does a fine job by the folk of Ilford South. However, Mike - like practically every Labour MP - has the privilege of serving because he's Labour. If for whatever reason he was to stand as an independent, he knows he has very little chance of winning against the party. That's because most people still tend to vote on a party basis. Incumbency factors and personal followings count for little in the grand scheme of things. It comes back to the party and who it decides to select for elections. The electorate are formally sovereign, but in the substance it is the party members who participate in selections. It's the party and only the party that consistently holds MPs to account for their actions at constituency meetings and has the first say over their fates. If that wasn't the case, we wouldn't be seeing so much crying in the media about deselection panic and the like.

It always comes back to the party in the end. And if people like Mike want to stay on, and I suspect he does, it's best not to hide behind the cushioning illusion of constituency sovereignty lest one start really believing it.


Michael Kelly said...

Good article, but the most interesting thing for me was your SP resignation from five years ago. It's almost prophetic about the movement of the LP. I mean, from a historical/sociological viewpoint accurate predictions of the future are mostly luck, but great careers have been built on less accurate predictions.

Igor Belanov said...

I suspect when his own opinion goes against both the party and his constituents then he will just pull the old Edmund Burke trick.

Boffy said...


Your analysis here basically comes down to the same analysis I made a long time ago, which is that a Marxist terms and categories - as Engels himself says - are not fixed in stone. Those terms are historically determined, or as lenin might have put it, the truth is always concrete.

The term "Workers Party" can refer to things which are significantly different in one time period compared to another. Marx and Engels joined the German Democrats, because they said it "gave them the ear" of the german workers who saw it as their party. That was despite the fact that, as they both said, by ideology, it was a bourgeois party.

A party can be a Workers Party, or as you term it here a Proletarian Party, quite simply because it is the party that workers see as being their party, but precisely because the working-class itself is normally imbued with bourgeois ideas, the party it creates, and sees as its party, must necessarily reflect those bourgeois ideas.

The left sects might like to believe that the working-class is really just being held back by a reformist leadership, but generally speaking, for the majority of the time, the party, including the leadership is more class conscious and progressive than the majority of the class. That same relation is displayed in the Trades Unions too.

That problem cannot be addressed, therefore, by seeing it only as a problem of leadership that can be resolved simply by changing the leadership, which is the point I made months ago, in relation to Jeremy's bid for the Labour leadership.

Its similar to the point Engels made to the US socialists about the need for the workers themselves to develop that class consciousness in their mass, as the fundamental basis for creating a Workers Party with a truly socialist programme.

What i find promising, is that Jeremy did win on the basis of the creation of a real grass movement within the party, rather than just manoeuvring and wrangling, which the left has often relied upon, in the past, particular in respect of broad left and "rank and file" organisations within the unions.

The question now is whether Momentum can mobilise that movement to turn outwards to the class, to start developing the kind of programme - which does not at all immediately have to be one that relies upon parliamentary actions - that can provide solutions for workers, change material conditions, and thereby create the conditions, for changing workers consciousness.

The question the MP's have to answer is the one that Corbyn and others have had to answer all their political lives, which is, "If I want to defy the line of the PLP, or Party in general, can I sell my position to my local party, who are the ones who selected me, and have the job of getting me elected next time round.

Badger said...

The problem that a number of Blairites have is that they are very directly beholden to the national LP for their seats. They were parachuted in with little or no reference to the local parties. In my area both Chris Leslie and Gloria De Piero received more than a little help from their friends in high places. As a consequence of the expected Tory changes to constituency boundaries there will be a significant number of reselections. PLP potential Corbynicides should be looking over their shoulders before they do anything rash

BCFG said...

"Unfortunately for some, cats are either white or black - there's no room for nuance, let alone big differences on our side of the fence. It's the new politics way or the highway"

Yes but all the PLP are white and Jeremy is black! And the black side are gently sticking the knife in at any opportunity.

When the PLP are mostly black then the nuances of the whites will be more than tolerated!

Phil said...

It's very simple, so simple that acknowledging how simple it is would short-circuit a lot of these arguments. As a Labour MP you're answerable to your voters and the Labour Party, because they're what put you in the position to get elected as a Labour MP in the first place (the local party in particular). Good MPs acknowledge this and - if they're intending to plough their own furrow - work on taking the local party with them. Bad MPs bank the votes and hope the local party dies on its feet.

Speedy said...

The thing is, no one expected JC to become leader of the LP when they voted in the general election. Your argument is a bit anamolous as this is a transition, and only relevant after the next election - ie, this MP stood on Milliband's platform and not Corbyn's. I realise leaders change all the time, but he does have a point: he may be elected on one platform, but he represents an entire electorate. So it swings both ways - ie, the party can claim he is their man, but the law does not care which party he represents, as an individual lawmaker. These are the legal facts, which are 100 per cent of the law. Even if the local party de-selected him, he would remain an MP. Of course, if he subsequently stood on Corbyn's platform, and won, you would have a stronger moral case, but no legal one. And he looks like he's getting on a bit now anyway, so probably doesn't give a toss and is looking forward to his gold-plated pension.

Gary Elsby said...

An MP is accountable to the vote that elected him, the constituents.
The MP is a representative and they, the voters 'ask him/her for their opinions.
The constituents are not necessarily their voters as the rules of eligibility does not mean they live or vote in the constituency.

'The 21' include 16 whom asked for special privileges to abstain from our consciences leaving the rest to represent approximately 4.5% of the unpopular internal Labour vote rendering the remaining 95.5% not giving a monkey's fuck about them.

So we are left with 5 odd one's who reckon Labour's future is shadowing the Tories to such an extent that in Victorian Britain you'd get 5 years hard Labour.

I'm hesitant to bring Stoke-on-Trent into this but courtesy appears to allow Stoke Central look like a bunch of traitors who haven't got a clue how to solve this problem.

All Labour candidacies leading towards 2019 must undergo reselection/selection following the same principles that Corbyn was involved in.

Then let them piss into the tent to their hearts content.

Gary Elsby said...

I used to witness open conflict between councillors and an MP having a public view on local events.
The grandiose councillor would often suggest that "my constituents are hopping mad (about what you've said in the sentinel)"
To which the reply often came: "but they're my constituents also".
A wise MP is all things to all people but good house-keeping keeps a willing General Committee, willing.
To whom is the MP accountable to? A good question but quite often a principle can be their undoing.
Try telling me that a Stoke MP is 'for' austerity and 'against' spending and I'll give you circus short of a clown.
I used to sit at home and laugh at this or that policy statement on the hoof by Blair trying to second guess my MP's exact wording the following GC meeting.
Yvette, Phil? Nearly!

Anonymous said...

Well, here are two Tories who have not automatically been re-selected to stand in the Welsh Assembly elections next year.

No big deal being made about it. Despite being Assembly members already, they are having to compete with others to stand for their Party.

Maybe, that's the solution. Tell Labour MPs they have to "embrace the market" which, remember, you can't "buck" and let the battle of ideas and personalities commence as to,who should stand for Labour.

After all, if the Tories can re select without a fuss why can't Labour?


John R