How to dislodge a leader who doesn’t want to go

Ross McKibbin tries to rouse Labour’s backbenchers

Whether or not the prime minister was cheered to the rafters at the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party after the local/European elections I do not know. That he was allowed an easy run by MPs is agreed. Given the extent of Labour’s defeat (or non-victory if you are a loyalist), the continuing disaster in Iraq and the constant readiness of the prime minister to undermine what Labour is actually achieving at home, such passivity is both surprising and depressing. It is not wholly inexplicable, however. As many have pointed out, electoral calculation probably lies behind the reluctance of MPs to panic. Labour’s vote is still remarkably ‘efficient’. A large number of its MPs will be re-elected on an almost scandalously small fraction of the national vote. Furthermore, to the extent that the polls are not misleading, Labour remains well ahead of the Conservatives in that crucial indicator of public favour: who is best fitted to manage the economy. And the polls suggest that the benign effects of increased government spending have at last been discerned by the electorate. Although the prime minister is alleged to be no longer ‘trusted’ he is still personally popular, and the well-known Blair charm will be ladled out in gallons at the next general election. Even in the party’s awkward squad, many MPs are convinced that Blair remains their surest electoral hope. They have probably also concluded that, given the proportionate decline of the old working class, working-class abstention matters less to Labour than in the past. There is thus less fear of antagonising the heartlands and more conviction that Blair’s electoral coalition is, despite everything, intact.

Yet the inertia, the seeming complacency, so much more complacency within the PLP than outside, the touching readiness to forgive, is still surprising. Blair’s failings as leader of the Labour Party are not a secret. He is impulsive and endlessly ready to adjust Labour’s policies – whatever the moral cost – to suit the interests and prejudices of the powerful. He has also diminished the benefits to Labour of the rapid increase in state expenditure by repeatedly playing down its significance and playing up the significance of ‘reform’, ‘variety’ and ‘choice’ in the public sphere – all of which run against the dispositions of the electorate and the traditions of the Labour Party. For the Europhiles, who are a majority in the PLP, he has by endless opportunism perhaps irredeemably damaged British interests in Europe. And there is Iraq. Hitherto, the real disasters of modern British politics have been Tory disasters – Suez or the Poll Tax. Whatever their failings, Labour governments had never done anything dramatically foolish. No longer. And the folly is overwhelmingly Blair’s, to whose egoism the Labour Party has been subordinated. Although he might well believe that he will be justified in the end, he does not seem to care much about the consequences to the Labour Party if he is not. This is usually regarded as an elementary failing in a party leader.

The passivity of the PLP in these circumstances, however, has its origins not in straightforward electoral calculation but in its undemocratic structures and in the collapse of the old pluralism which once added a certain informal democracy to its life. The formal rights of the PLP are few and declining. It elects the front bench when it is in opposition and it participates in the election of the party leader. Once it alone elected the leader; but the ‘reforms’ of the 1980s, which established the electoral college, abolished even that right. When it is in government the PLP has no part in the choice of ministers (though it is understood that ‘shadow’ ministers initially have a claim on posts) and it has no formal role in the introduction and framing of legislation. The powers of the PLP, therefore, have been weak. Why this is so is itself an interesting historical question. The Labour Party has always thought of itself as different from the older parties: different both in its moral purpose and in its internal democracy. But the internal democracy was distributed among its extra-parliamentary bodies – the national executive and the party conference – which were endowed with formal powers once assumed to be effectual. This proved not to be so. The founders of the party guessed wrong. In order to check an irresponsible party leadership they would have done better to have endowed the PLP with these formal powers. In practice, however, they adopted a hybrid model of a parliamentary party: one based on what they imagined to be the unity and discipline of the pre-1914 Irish National Party and on the parliamentary practices of the Conservatives and Liberals – all of which tended to increase the powers of the cabinet against Parliament. The present structure of the PLP, therefore, matches the weakness of the House of Commons vis à vis the executive both in formal rights and what we might call political culture – those assumptions which condition the behaviour of Members of Parliament.

The Labour Party has been loyal to its leaders but there was a time when at least it had the nominal power to remove them. The new procedures, although well-intended, were forced on the party without thought for the consequences, and have made it immensely difficult for the party to dislodge a leader who does not want to go. The convening of a special party conference (which now elects the leader) would demand a more or less simultaneous revolt by the cabinet, the PLP and the party membership. Furthermore, the culture of the back bench is heavily distorted by the demands of loyalty, and the fear, endlessly repeated, that party disunity is electorally fatal. The back bench, precisely because of its historic powerlessness, lacks esprit de corps. MPs find it very difficult to act together against the wishes of the party leadership. A classic example of this is the way the leadership wrecked the chances of a democratically elected House of Lords. A majority of MPs were in favour of some form of election but were incapable of organising themselves to achieve it. We have been left, consequently, with a system of appointment to the upper house which is a disgrace to a democratic society. If, however, the leadership cannot bully or bypass the back bench it has another weapon: co-optation. The British prime minister has powers of patronage that would make an 18th-century placeman weep. Few MPs enter politics because they want to be backbenchers. Most either become ministers (of whatever rank) or want to become ministers; they know that the prime minister has many jobs at his disposal and know also that being a troublemaker does not look good on the CV of an aspiring minister.

Nor is the cabinet likely to make up for back-bench timidity. In the past, the authoritarian structure of the party has been checked by powerful ministerial barons – men, occasionally women – who had standing in the party independent of the prime minister and who could not be ignored or overridden. They either had their own power bases in the party, like Arthur Henderson or Herbert Morrison, or in the unions, like Ernest Bevin, or had a political standing, like Aneurin Bevan or James Callaghan, that made them to some extent proof against their leader’s displeasure. With the exception of Gordon Brown, and possibly John Prescott, no member of the present cabinet has such standing. Ministers have no power bases within the party or the country and are largely unknown to the electorate. They owe their places in the cabinet almost entirely to their relationship with Blair. As far as can be seen by an outsider, the cabinet is largely marginalised. It has no collective spirit, is rarely consulted by the prime minister, and meets mainly to be informed of actions taken by Downing Street or to consider how the unfortunate consequences of actions taken by Downing Street can be minimised. Ministers stick to their tasks, which on the whole they do well, but have no wider or critical sense of what the government is up to. It may be that the decay of the cabinet under Blair simply continues a long constitutional process: that the problem is wider than just the character of the Labour Party. But the docility of the present cabinet has to do with more than constitutional process: it is a result of the changed sociology of the Labour Party. The decline of the old industrial working class and its institutions – especially the trade unions – has done much to reinforce the formal weakness of the PLP. In the past a multiplicity of loyalties – to Parliament, to constituents, to the unions, to the Labour Party’s organisation and membership, to the old ‘socialist societies’ like the Independent Labour Party or the Fabians – introduced a plurality into Labour’s political culture which did something to counteract that. And the rough and readiness of historic Labour politics was often anything but passive. The passing of the old industrial working class and the general democratisation of British life has had a paradoxical effect: it has favoured Labour electorally but has undermined the viability of the PLP’s political culture.

Yet I do not believe for a moment that if the cabinet were elected by the PLP all its present incumbents would still be there. And on certain (though not many) issues – like university fees – there are a large number of dissidents. Which brings us to the party leader; or, more particularly, to the question, should the Labour Party have a new leader? Whatever one thinks of the current leader’s policies the case for unseating him is not absolutely self-evident. Those electoral calculations which have clearly influenced the behaviour of Labour MPs in the last month do have some force. Nevertheless, whatever calculations one makes about electoral advantage or disadvantage, the fact is that the Labour Party is led by a man who has little sympathy for its fundamental principles; a man whose conduct of Anglo-American relations has been almost inexplicably reckless and careless of the national interest, and who has entangled Labour with people (Bush et al) who despise its principles and who are in turn despised by most members of the Labour Party – possibly even by members of the cabinet. In a sense, Blair is an accidental leader; one who emerged in the extraordinary circumstances of the 1990s – the sudden death of John Smith and its destabilising effect on the party leadership – but who could not have become leader in any other circumstances.

Yet the issue of the leadership is at the moment unreal – and it is the unreality of the issue that is the issue. The prime minister shows no inclination to go and MPs show no desire to embark on the gruesome business of replacing him: indeed it is no longer their business or right to do so. If the problem for Labour is primarily the powerlessness of the PLP – as I think it is – what can be done about it? In the short term nothing; and possibly nothing in the long term, either. Of those factors which I suggest have brought the PLP to its present low state – its constitutional weakness, its political culture and prime ministerial powers of patronage – none can easily be modified. It would be utopian to imagine that any prime minister of any party would freely give up his patronage, even though there are now an absurd number of ministers. Furthermore, the immense number of posts makes the election by the PLP of a ministry more difficult – is even the most humble PPS to be elected? The passive political culture of the PLP is partly the result of long historical development and cannot be easily changed. As to the constitutional rights of the PLP, they can be modified only with great difficulty; and certainly not quickly.

They can, however, be modified – if the party conference can be persuaded. Unlike questions of patronage or culture these are technical matters. There are formal procedures by which they can be altered. There are three additions to the PLP’s rights which would do much to democratise it as well as to encourage a more active back-bench culture. The first would be to restore its right to elect the party leader and establish a right to open the leadership to election when a clear majority of MPs favour that. (The Australians call this a ‘spill of offices’ and it is practised both by the Labor and non-Labor parties.) Nothing is more inclined to keep a leader on his or her toes than the knowledge that a spill is just around the corner. The second would be to allow MPs to elect the ministry in the same way as they elect a parliamentary executive when the party is in opposition. There are now, as I have noted, so many ministerial posts that the right to appoint to junior rank would almost certainly have to remain with the prime minister. But it is the election of the cabinet that matters. The third would require all legislation to be approved by the PLP acting as a caucus before it could be brought before the House of Commons. This change would be less of a violation of the constitution than its opponents think – in most cases the cabinet would probably get its way – and would not be necessary if the House of Commons as an institution possessed real authority. The introduction of these changes would by no means be easy. Yet it would be a tragedy if the Labour Party’s disastrous adventure in the parched wastes of Mesopotamia yielded no benefits.