The debate on the proposed changes in the constitution of the Labour Party has been conducted without sufficient consideration of the policies which gave the proposals birth. These policies constitute an explicit commitment to produce rapid, comprehensive and irreversible changes in our economy and our society. The broad aims of such policies are by no means novel. What is novel is the Left’s intention to drive them rapidly through Parliament, and their frank recognition that this is not compatible with our present Parliamentary and constitutional practices.

The essence of these is that the party in power is bound to subject its proposals to full Parliamentary scrutiny. This in turn produces wider public discussion, echoing through television, radio and press down to the shop-floor, pubs and clubs. As public opinion forms and clarifies, it is able to express itself on policies and the consequences flowing from them. Only by this means does the power of public opinion, and of the electorate, become effective, not only at election times, but throughout the life of a Parliament. This right of the electorate to enforce meaningful accountability upon those entrusted with their mandate is protected by all the subtle conventions, habits and inhibitions of our processes of parliamentary democracy. These, however, are to a negligible extent based upon formal law. Even the most fundamental, such as the one which restricts the right of Parliament to extend its own life or those which ensure that the electorate is given full opportunity to absorb, digest and react to major changes, are wholly dependent on the general respect for certain conventions and traditions. At the centre of this process are the MPs, who accept their continuous accountability to their constituencies and to the country. Of course, parliamentary democracy requires that representatives should be open to pressures, organised and unorganised. But all organised pressure groups are controlled by minority interests. The rights of the unorganised majority are protected only by each Member of Parliament’s ultimate accountability to the electorate in the exercise of his judgment.

Our customary Parliamentary processes are therefore profoundly incompatible with the aspirations of those who want rapid, wholesale and irreversible transformations. To accomplish wholesale change quickly necessarily involves a curtailment of these processes. So far, governments, parties and our people have not been willing to accept such curtailments and extremists have been repeatedly disappointed in their expectations. That is why all Labour governments have inevitably rejected many of the policies pressed upon them by the Left, even when such policies have been backed by repeated Conference decisions. The Conference speaks for the Party. Parliament speaks for the people. The Party proposes. Parliament disposes. And Conference, respectful of the role of Parliament, has had no difficulty in giving standing ovations to the leaders who have overridden its wishes. It saw its MPs and their leaders, not as traitors, cynics or cowards, but as firmly wedded to the principles of parliamentary democracy, which Conference itself accepted and which compel a respectful accountability to the electors. The political parties have always been by far the most effective of the pressure groups, but the electorate’s sovereignty was protected by the respect which these parties themselves have always given to the processes of parliamentary democracy and by their voluntary acceptance of limitations to their control of MPs. Recent years have seen encroachments. But none have remotely approached the direct degree of control over the actions of governments and MPs which is now proposed.

The crucial ideological division in the Labour Party has always been between those who are respectful of the processes of parliamentary democracy, and who accept the restraints they impose, and those who are impatient of them and who seek to achieve purposes incompatible with them. Most, but by no means all, of the Left have come to recognise that, unless they can control what has hitherto been a confident majority of Parliamentary gradualists, their programmes cannot be implemented.

Personal ambitions and a false conception of what can properly be achieved by way of rapid change have in recent years led the Left to seek and accept allies who make no secret of their contempt for Parliament and for those who respect it. And with these allies they have manoeuvred to bring the Parliamentary Party under their control. They would radically change our conception of Parliamentary sovereignty without offering any compensating checks and balances. What has been argued for as mere changes in the Labour Party constitution is in fact designed to achieve fundamental changes in the British constitution itself.

The strategy of the Left has been based upon four proposals: 1. To bring sufficient continuous pressure upon Members of Parliament to make them directly accountable to their local party caucus. 2. To control the election of the Party Leader so as to ensure the election of one likely to prove compliant with their purposes. 3. To dictate the terms of the election manifesto in such a way as to make it binding on the Parliamentary Party and its leader. 4. To close down the House of Lords as a focus for the free expression of informed opinion (the demand to abolish its powers is fraudulent since they are already negligible).

In order to secure the acceptance of these proposals, the Left encouraged the admission into the Labour Party of extreme left-wing groups hitherto banned from membership. Favourable to their purpose was the growing recognition among a number of extremist groupings in recent years that their wilder dreams had little or no prospect of fulfilment in this country, and that the best means of achieving their purposes was to encourage their members to work in an organised way within the Labour Party and trade-union branches while at the same time retaining their separate organisations. Lord Underhill has reported on the effectiveness of this infiltration. Obsessive devotion to their cause and the carefully organised manner of their work readily gained them an influence within local Labour Parties quite disproportionate to their numbers. All this has constituted a major difficulty for the gradualist Labour Members of Parliament who have been their main targets.

At the centre of the Left’s campaign is the cry for direct accountability of MPs to their local party caucus. Let the local parties have a say. Let the grass roots have a say. Why should a candidate once elected be able to sit in Parliament for ever and ignore his local party? But the local party committee, in addition to the right to nominate the candidate, has always enjoyed considerable influence on an MP’s actions. If it was dissatisfied with him, there have always been careful, and by no means protracted, procedures for removing him. But local parties have in the past voluntarily restricted their power out of respect for Parliamentary conventions and have always allowed a wide measure of political judgment to Members. There is all the difference in the world between procedures which enable a party in exceptional circumstances to remove the nomination from its Member and the present procedures, which are designed to place a continuous threat over every Member to induce his conformity to the detailed wishes of his local committee. Before, they could argue but the Member decided. Now he must toe the line or be thrown out. It is very damaging that the Left and its new allies have succeeded in destroying among many management committees the convention which requires respect for the free judgment of an MP. The effects of this change are already apparent.

Several respected Members of Parliament have already come to understand that the reselection process will ensure their removal before the next election. Many others are under threat, and from now on all Labour MPs will speak and act in the knowledge that they are in peril. The Left majority of the NEC in effect acts to organise and guide the deployment of these constituency pressures. And, thus encouraged, the local Labour Party caucuses are becoming increasingly arrogant and aggressive in the deployment of their new powers. The range of pressure covers matters which it has never before been suggested were other than within the free judgment of the MP – including even such matters as the vote for the Parliamentary Leader. Many parties have contented themselves with badgering and menace. Others have demanded that the Member of Parliament should fill in the ballot form in the presence of his management committee. And this detailed harassing of MPs is in its infancy.

The spuriousness of the claim that this is an expression of grass-roots opinion is exposed by the fact that, whether in the reselection of MPs or in the proposed system for electing the leader of the party, the extremist caucuses have fought a vigorous battle to ensure that rank-and-file members should have no direct say. Of course, there will always be a minority of local Labour Parties who will continue to reject this attitude to their MPs. And there will always be a number of courageous and independent-minded Members who will continue, whatever the cost, in the traditional exercise of their duties. But over a period the majority will, either by coercion or replacement, become sufficiently respectful of their accountability to the local party caucus to transform the role of a British MP.

What is involved would become brutally plain if the Conservative Party were to imitate the actions of the Labour Party in respect of their MPs, and if the CBI and the Institute of Directors were given an affiliation and influence similar to that of the trade unions in the Labour Party. Instead of being important pressure groups, the main parties would come to enjoy effective control over Members of Parliament and governments. Parliament would become little more than the rubber stamp of policies of the majority party and the electorate would have suffered the gravest injury to its democratic powers. And if both parties were pledged to use their power to produce irreversible change, our democracy would not long survive.

There is a local back-up to the undermining of Members of Parliament which has received too little attention in the media. A similar process has been even more successfully and ruthlessly applied in the control of municipal offices. Hundreds of experienced Councillors of high quality have been ousted in favour of the nominees of this alliance of left-wingers and recently arrived extremists. Even more outrageous demands for control over Council members have been organised and to a large extent accomplished in all the great cities which enjoy large Labour representation – such as London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. The absence of these local figures further weakens the position of moderate MPs as well as dangerously undermining local democracy.

The Left have already succeeded to a large extent in the second of their objectives: namely, to control the appointment of the Parliamentary Party Leader. This campaign has been represented as a mere expression of the legitimate right of a party to appoint its own leader. The campaign has no such purpose. It seeks to impose by extra-parliamentary means the leader of the Parliamentary Party, who inevitably becomes the Prime Minister when that party is in a majority. Whatever its constituents, an extra-Parliamentary College deciding the leadership of a major Parliamentary Party outrages the fundamental principles and practices which have governed our parliamentary democracy. And this would be so even if proposals to allow one man, one vote were adopted in forming the College, though that would be less blatantly antidemocratic than what is now in prospect.

So far, the Left majority in the NEC have been thwarted of their desire to have exclusive control over the Manifesto. This is a limited victory for moderation, since their present role, backed by an increasing power to subordinate MPs, will ultimately prove to be sufficient to secure a broad achievement of their wishes. In the new situation, the Manifesto will have an unheard-of power of control over Members and governments. Measures and their timing will be enforced upon them in advance and unfolding realities will not be allowed to override the powerful purposes of a left-dominated NEC, who would become the true rulers of the country when there was a Labour majority.

The sum of all these changes, if they mature, would produce a parliamentary system quite different from our present one. There are sinister parallels where the forms of parliamentary democracy have been retained at least temporarily while the substance evaporated. Parliament’s role in organising the accommodations and adjustments required by events would be largely curtailed. More important, its role of identifying and adjusting policies to have regard to the interests and purposes of the minority groups in Parliament and outside would almost cease to exist. And with it would disappear the preconditions for the tolerant pluralistic society our country has so far enjoyed.

It is also clear that, in the event of a Labour majority being elected in Parliament, it is intended that the mandate of a single election shall be used so as to face the nation with a fait accompli of irreversible changes, in the context, almost certainly, of a state of extreme political, economic and financial crisis, which would be likely to leave the electorate a minimum of freedom when it came to making their next choice.

What is so dismaying is that, almost without exception, the most experienced and respected leaders of the party know that the course that is being pursued is dangerously wrong. Some of the most gifted of them have been driven to leave the party. Many others will follow. Unless the whole programme is reversed, and this very soon, I believe that the public will come to the concusion that it is wholly unsafe to elect a Labour majority. The Labour Party will be extensively abandoned, not only by moderate leaders but by moderate voters. It will become an extremist party, but one which has traditionally had the closest links with the Trade Union movement. This party, a rump of its former Parliamentary self, would recognise that the prospect of achieving its ends through Parliamentary means was virtually non-existent. It would be driven to attempt to organise acts of political irresponsibility and to seek to use its traditional ties with the Trade Union movement to link them with destructive acts of industrial irresponsibility.

If the Labour Party is to resume its former great role in developing our society within the framework of our parliamentary system, it will have to mobilise all the moderate democratic forces within it and within the Trade Union movement. The first and minimum step at the next Party Conference is not some irrelevant decision about the percentages of representation in an Electoral College, but the clear abandonment of this illegitimate proposal. The unrepresentative majority of the NEC must be corrected as a first step in restoring to Labour MPs and Councillors the democratic rights they have hitherto enjoyed as trustees for the electorate. Nomination and dismissal of candidates should be subjected to the vote of all constituency party members. The present Leader of the Labour Party knows well that the undermining of the independence of MPs, extra-Parliamentary appointment of the Parliamentary Party’s leadership, and the demolition of local representation which has been taking place, are all wrong. He ought now to act unambiguously in support of his own known convictions.

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Vol. 3 No. 6 · 2 April 1981

SIR: Harold Lever’s article (LRB, 19 March) illustrates the immorality of the British electoral system. The holder of any opinion has a right to express it and to try to persuade others to share it. What he has no right to do is to seek to impose his opinion on a majority who are not so persuaded. But our X-vote system puts us in exactly the opposite position.

A member of a party who holds what he knows to be a minority opinion can be deterred from expressing it openly and honestly by fear that this will turn voters against his party. But no such fear exists to prevent him from working behind the scenes to get members of his minority into positions where they control the selection of candidates and thus decide the actions of that party when it achieves office.

To avert the dangers to which Harold Lever points, what we need is to transfer to the voters control over which individuals become MPs. Instead of having, for instance, Bristol divided into five single-member constituencies, let it be one five-member constituency, voting by numbering candidates in the order of the voter’s preference. Any party can then have any number of candidates without risk of splitting its vote. Therefore any group can insist on having a candidate to voice its particular opinions; those whom that candidate persuades to agree will vote ‘1’ for hin, while those who dismiss him as a dangerous eccentric will give preference to the more orthodox. Not only will each party win seats in proportion to its popular support, but those seats will be filled by whichever of its candidates the voters prefer.

To avert the danger of measures imposed on the country against the wishes of the majority of electors, all we need is to change our electoral system to ensure that the majority will always win.

Enid Lakeman
The Electoral Reform Society, London SE1

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