In an article from last August, Caroline Flint makes the case against. She argues that Labour is a party that uses the machinery of government to meet its objectives, has the tricky task of forging an electoral coalition crisscrossing a plurality of interests, and must have a leader who commands the support of the parliamentary team. The latter point is, ultimately, the litmus test for exercising confidence in the country as a whole. The role the PLP and its European counterparts have in acting as a gatekeeper - not her phrase - is balanced by the responsibility it carries as the main public face of the party. As she notes, politics is "a team game", a "collective effort". I therefore wonder if Caroline was one of the precious few Progress-affiliated MPs who tried reigning in the moaners and the whingers straight after Jeremy Corbyn won the the first Labour leadership contest in 2015?
No matter. There are two important features of the PLP, a strength and a weakness that cannot be separated from one another. The first is their collective proximity to mainstream public opinion. Taken as a whole, their positions on the NHS (keep it free), immigration (more controls), defence (replace Trident and support Our Troops), and the economy (growth and fairness) correlates roughly with the bulk of the electorate. Every time a poll drops from YouGov or whatever listing voters' priorities and fears, MPs can feel their views are shared by millions of people "out there". This then is a key resource MPs draw upon to legitmate themselves as representatives of constituencies rather than delegates of constituency parties, and its powerful because it is true. Getting a bellyful on the doorstep or a postbag bulging with complaints about immigrants, for instance, tends to reinforce the view that controls on immigration is a sensible position to take. Being conditions consciousness and all that.
The PLP's weakness is, well, their collective proximity to public opinion. What they think the electorate thinks is framed by the polls and the focus groups, and is subject to further filters. Every window looking out into the wider world is tinted by the preconceptions and hobby horses of the press, broadcast media and Westminster watchers. Effectively, the apparatus of the media is synonymous with public opinion. It washes over them all day every day, and is confirmed when one breaks free and speaks to constituents at surgery and suchlike. Politics here becomes reduced to addressing "very real concerns" and convincing voters that Labour has the means to sort them out. Of course, that is what any party should aspire to do, but also it should try to lead public opinion. Labour is the condensation of the interests of pretty varied groups of working people, a position guaranteed ultimately by the affiliation of the country's largest trade unions. To stand up for those interests in the context of a capitalist society in which a) workers are subordinate to capital, and b) the latter of necessity ceaselessly struggles against the former requires a knowledge of what the Labour Party is, who its natural constituents are (i.e. the vast bulk of the population), and a determination to challenge public opinion. For instance, introducing markets into public services helps break up our electoral coalition. Chasing the tabloid press into the gutter instead of challenging the lies told about immigration undermines the solidarity of our coalition. Promising to get tough with people receiving social security delegitimises the very idea of collective responses to market failure, putting a question mark over what our coalition is supposed to be working toward. And so on. In the topsy turvy world of Westminster, accepting the status quo as immovable and immutable is providing an effective opposition and leadership. Even raising questions about it, let alone vociferously attacking it is lefty indulgence.
There is, however, another link MPs have to the wider public, and that is through the party membership itself. While, as a rule, more left than the electorate (in much the same way the Tories' dwindling rolls are further to the right), they have far greater familiarity and exposure to what ordinary people think and say. The woman at constituency who bangs on about the bedroom tax, she knows people who are having a very tough time because of it. She might even be one of those folks herself. The chap who is concerned about the government's stance on bombing Syria - he works in a warehouse surrounded by blokes just like him, and knows how racist and xenophobic views ramp up when war talk is in the air. The new member concerned about Theresa May's encroachment on internet privacy works three part-time jobs and is struggling to scrape together a deposit for a flat. The old member who is concerned about the party's perceived distaste for the "traditional" working class is, at the same time, fighting for a care package for his wife. And there are those nice, "just-about-managing" middle class-types as well. Too many Labour MPs have little time for the members beyond their ability to deliver leaflets, but our army of unpaid couriers are more in touch with life in 21st century Britain than they because they live it in far less comfortable circumstances. More often than not, their politics are stamped indelibly by their experience. There is that, and the small matter of the members putting MPs there in the first place. There is not one, not a single Labour MP who'd be sat in the Commons without the party label.
And so, ultimately, I support the lowering of the threshold for exactly the same reason why I've always supported mandatory reselection for sitting MPs. If the parliamentary party has to actively work to keep onside members, to build deep roots in their communities to support them and ensure the party heads in the direction they desire, the less likely we are to see Labour actively pursuing policies that harm the universal interest. i.e. That of working people, of anyone compelled to sell their time to an employer in return for a wage or salary. Lowering the threshold means we won't ever have the spectacle again of what are effectively personnel managers (with the politics to match) being serious contenders. MPs who want to lead would have to up their game and pay attention to what Labour was set up to do in the first place. For sure, it's going to take more than nice write ups from your mates in the media.
This isn't a recipe for turning the Labour Party into a pure, permanent leftist opposition. The amendment is about building the rooted politics that has weight in communities across the land, a politics unashamed of its truly representative and transformative role. Socialism is the movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority, after all.
Choose your delegates wisely.