Yesterday it was announced that Jeremy Corbyn had received 61.8% of the 506,438 votes cast in the Labour leadership contest making him a clear winner amongst those who voted. The balance of the party membership, around 147,000 people had either chosen not to vote or were prevented from doing so by the party. The party refused to allow some members from voting for various reasons including cases where people were accused of tweeting support for other political parties. The hypocrisy of some well known party members who justified this approach, yet had previously worked in Councils and Parliament alongside people who joined Labour from other parties without ever seeking re-election is painfully clear. It is sad to see many people who have taken to social media since yesterdays result was announced, a number of my personal friends and many more who I don’t know who have announced their decision to leave the party or have explained their view that the party is now unelectable because of the approach Jeremy Corbyn has taken. One of those postings came from John Rentoul who pointed out that even with this substantial membership of 650,000 that if these people all lived in the same area, they would represent a mere 10 constituencies between them, out of a total of some 650 constituencies across the UK. He also argues in the Independent that Owen Smith would have made the party electable in a way that Corbyn does not, although I did not find it a very persuasive article.
The fact is that the largest political party in the UK has these problems to resolve, and our party of Government has a membership that would add only a further two constituencies to the total on that basis. Thus the two largest parties represent a mere 2% of the population in their membership. The Conservatives are led by a woman who whatever her strengths and weaknesses was chosen to the lead the party as a result of her success in the early rounds of the election process in which only MPs were eligible to participate. The strongest contender then dropped out of the race to be elected, just before the wider party membership was allowed to make a final decision. This outcome raises all sorts of questions about the democratic legitimacy of her appointment.
As part of the legacy of David Cameron, the Conservative Government is in the process of imposing a slimming down of Parliament from 650 seats to 600, using a criteria that will give advantage to their party when compared to the rest of Parliament. I am a big supporter of a smaller Parliament, but do not believe that the parties should get to choose how this is achieved, or else the Government of the day will set things out to benefit them. The Conservative proposals when coupled with the impact in Scotland of the SNP winning all but one of the seats, and the lack of confidence in Labour here in England means that the Conservative Party, despite only having about the same number of party members as the SNP will win all future elections for control of Westminster and the idea of a stable opposition party is now at an end. This is a matter of great concern because a permanent single party of Government, unchallenged by a meaningful opposition will wreak untold damage on our nation. Even many within the Conservative Party are clear that without a strong opposition, they will continue to make mistakes such as when this Government failed to plan for a positive Brexit vote. Their failure risks our nation being treated with ridicule around the world and more concerning that they will make even bigger mistakes as we try to fight our way out of the EU and into a new relationship with it and the rest of the World.
There is an alternative to the idea of a permanent one party state with a diminished opposition, but it will involve all of us, not just those who don’t like the Tories. We need to reconsider what we want from Democracy, and how we want our Parliament to operate. All of the problems with party funding, become diminished when begin to elect MPs on the basis of their personal qualities rather than their party affiliation. The power that any MP can control when in the party of Government currently depends on how willing they are to climb up the pole towards the top of their party. This inevitably means that many MPs are more focused on what the Party machinery demands, than what their constituents need. If the party structures were dismantled, or at least significantly diminished in the running of Parliament, then the impact of each vote would count equally. The forming of a Government would of course become more complicated and many people claim to find the idea of coalitions unattractive. Yet as we have discovered in recent months, behind the gloss and polish of even the shiniest party machinery, lies an endless array of coalitions (or broad churches). If we are to avoid the one party dominance that some at 4 Matthew Parker Street are plotting to achieve, we need to change our actions as we look ahead to the next election. Party membership has become a minority activity in many senses (even despite the resurgence in Labour, SNP and Green membership) and we need to find a way of doing politics that can be seen as an activity that all of us can participate in.