First published on Labour Vision
Today on Labour Vision we bring you a debate between Richard Angell, (Director, Progress) and former Labour MP, Chris Williamson. We have asked Richard and Chris to answer the following question:
“Would the McDonnell Amendment help or hinder the Labour Party and the people it seeks to represent?”
Richard and Chris were each given 600 words up-front to answer the question, and a further 400 words each to rebut the arguments of their opposite number. Their thoughts are below.
N.B. The McDonnell Amendment is a proposal to reduce the threshold of MP nominations required to allow a candidate onto the ballot for the Labour leadership election from 15% of the Parliamentary Labour Party to 5%. Several MPs, such as Caroline Flint, are strongly opposed to the proposal.
This proposal is the brainchild of Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, who twice failed to acquire the requisite number of nominations from fellow MPs. It is argued that, if this proposal were passed by Labour Party Conference in September, then it would be to the considerable advantage of the Labour left.
RICHARD ANGELL – OPENING STATEMENT
Jeremy Corbyn seems to enjoy being leader of the Labour party – touring the country speaking to adoring crowds – but recoils from the part of the role which is paid and which exercises an important constitutional role: being leader of the opposition. His role in the privy council and £73,617 of his salary is derived from the latter, and it means he gets to ask six questions at prime minister’s questions each week. But to be a viable candidate for prime minister, the Labour leader must command the support not just of rally goers but also of those who sit on the green benches. In opposition this can be fudged: people can be given multiple roles, and three line whips and party discipline can be ignored or overlooked. This has little consequence, especially when what the opposition is saying has such little impact on the national debate.
Government, however, is altogether different. The leader must command a majority on the Treasury benches. To sit on the Speaker’s right hand side, the Labour leader must be able to populate a government – all 88 positions, no duplications – and sustain a majority beyond the ‘payroll vote’.
The current Labour leader can currently count on one hand the supporters he has in parliament. The lion’s share of Corbyn’s initial nominations to get him on the ballot were ‘on loan’ and those signatories have since stated their regret. But even among the ‘true believers’ there are rumblings. In the article 50 vote at the start of February, three whips defied their own whipping operation, frontbenchers walked through the opposite lobby to the Labour leader, a number were missing in action (one due to last minute illness) and shadow ministers resigned, among them Corbynistas Rachael Maskell and Dawn Butler. Had Labour been in office, this could have finished off its government and plunged the country into a constitutional crisis or a snap general election – most likely following a vote of no confidence.
All of this chaos makes it even less likely Labour will win a general election in the first place. Whether Labour members like it or not, basic competence and the ability to command the support of those who work with you day-in-day-out do matter. They matter a lot. When they see even pledged supporters unable to vote with their leader, it only makes matters worse.
So rather than correct this problem and remove yet another barrier to Labour beating the Tories, Momentum and the so-called Campaign for Labour Party Democracy are suggesting the threshold for standing for leader changes. In a motion to Labour party conference they suggest moving from the 15 per cent of Labour MPs currently required by the party rule book, to just five per cent. Regrettably, this is not done to advance Labour’s position in the country but to advance one faction’s position in the party. In particular, John McDonnell’s ambitions to become Labour leader. He has stood twice before and fancies one more shot. For this reason the proposal has been dubbed the ‘McDonnell amendment‘.
At the turn of the year, Fabian Society research suggested Labour could get down to 150 MPs. That could mean just eight people pick Labour’s next candidate for prime minister. I can fit more than that around my dining room table. That is a friendship group, not even a faction. More importantly, it would be a disaster.
The idea is coming to Labour party conference in September this year. And it must be stopped. The alternative risks turning Labour into a laughing stock with the public. Conference delegates will decide.
CHRIS WILLIAMSON – OPENING STATEMENT
The Oxford Dictionary defines democracy as “control of an organisation or group by the majority of its members.” Sadly, some elements of our party take a different view and want to obstruct proposals to ensure the membership has a genuine choice in future leadership elections.
But if Labour is to prosper as a mass party, this kind of Orwellian doublethink must not be allowed to prevail. You can’t claim to favour democracy while doing everything in your power to restrict the choice available to more than 600,000 members. And when Labour chooses its next leader that number could have easily leapt to more than a million!
Tristram Hunt summed up the feelings of Labour’s dissidents when in 2015 he expressed concerns about Labour becoming a populist anti-austerity party. But Tristram’s anxiety was misplaced. If we are to win back the millions who previously voted Labour, but stayed at home in 2010 and 2015, a populist anti-austerity party is precisely what we need to be.
It’s less than three years since delegates voted at a special conference by an overwhelming 86 per cent to back Ed Miliband’s one member one vote (OMOV) reforms for future leadership elections. Ed recognised that the party needed to aspire to be a mass movement again. I remember him addressing a PLP meeting where he talked about the prospect of having four or five hundred thousand members and registered supporters. Some of the cynics mumbled that this was naive pie-in-the-sky rhetoric and was doomed to failure, yet we’ve got well over 100,000 more full members than Ed’s most optimistic prediction.
Ironically, Labour’s doublethinkers universally welcomed Ed’s reforms at the time. It was only when Jeremy Corbyn announced that he was going to stand as Labour leader that many of them had a change of heart. Then when it was clear that he was likely to win, the howls of indignation by the former proponents of Ed’s democratic reforms was ear-piercing. I have been truly shocked and depressed in equal measure by this anti-democratic and uncomradely behaviour, the like of which I have never witnessed in my 40 plus years as a member of the Labour Party.
It’s not as if Labour’s electoral prospects would be enhanced by frustrating democracy either. We’ve already seen the impact on our poll ratings of the self-fulfilling prophesy merchants inside the party who refuse to promote the agenda that secured Jeremy Corbyn two landslide leadership victories. A cursory examination of that agenda shows that it’s plain common sense, and opinion polls suggest that the individual policy proposals contained therein have the overwhelming support of the British people.
Instead of accepting the democratic will of the membership and promoting popular policies, Jeremy Corbyn’s internal opponents give the mass media, which is already predominantly hostile to Labour, the perfect excuse to focus on divisions. Consequently, the party’s schismatic subcurrents make it nigh on impossible to secure a hearing. It is only because we now have a mass membership that we have a fighting chance of countering the hostile media during an election campaign.
Just imagine the outcry if MPs prevented a popular candidate getting onto the ballot paper? It would reinforce the view that Labour’s Westminster politicians are out of touch, aloof and arrogant. Instead of taking on the Tories and promoting a progressive alternative, we would be mired in internal conflict.
OMOV is meaningless if choice is restricted, which is why we must have a system that enables all the protagonists to participate. To lose the confidence to debate ideas is to lose the right to lead our party or the country.
RICHARD ANGELL – REBUTTAL
Chris Williamson has two arguments in favour of the McDonnell amendment. They are both about the party, not the public. They stem from a view that paid-for party democracy is more important than the free democracy of the British voters. This is not true.
His first argument is the party now belongs to the hard-left. If Jeremy Corbyn is not good enough and has to step down or is forced from office by a left challenger like Clive Lewis, the fact he was elected twice means the hard-left deserves the chance to see their ‘project’ through. Maya Goodfellow makes a similar point in the Guardian, ‘Corbyn’s leadership isn’t solely about him: it’s about the left’s long-term goals of transforming Labour into a leftwing populist party. The kind of party many have long yearned for.’
But Labour is not a factional plaything. The left have to pick someone who can not just lead members but our MPs too. That means getting more than a friendship group to back you at the nominations stage.
His second argument is that members must have a ‘choice’. 15 per cent of MPs ensures a choice of up to six candidates. Five per cent offers only chaos – up to 19 contenders, none with any meaningful support on the green benches. Williamson fears the ‘outcry if MPs prevented a popular candidate getting onto the ballot’. But how are they popular if they cannot get the support of those they work with day-in, day-out?
More importantly, what about the choice available for voters?
Being leader of the Labour party does not automatically make you a viable candidate for prime minister. It is the voters who decide your viability and they are the mass movement Corbyn has inspired – away from Labour. Corbyn – as of 3 February – is now behind with every age, every social class (the party is third amongst C2DE working class voters), every region, those who voted both ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’, men, women and 2015 Labour voters.
These people clearly do not believe Corbyn is someone they can trust to run their country. That is no choice. We are leaving the door open for a Tory win.
Guardian columnist Matthew d’Ancona described the politics behind the McDonnell amendment as ‘Replace the captain but maintain course towards the iceberg.’ Labour conference delegates want to chart a different course. It is the ship of state we seek to captain.
CHRIS WILLIAMSON – REBUTTAL
Richard’s opposition to Labour Party democracy is based on a false premise.
He argues that the proposal to lower the nomination threshold in leadership elections is only being made to “advance one faction’s position in the party.” But Jeremy Corbyn’s support can hardly be described as a “faction.”
Two crushing leadership victories clearly demonstrate the overwhelming backing for the direction he wants to take the party. Richard’s attempt to manufacture an alternative reality, by dismissing this massive majority as a “faction”, is worthy of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. The fact that Richard represents the ‘Progress’ faction inside the party is an irony that seems to have been lost on him.
His faction’s shameful behaviour has hit Labour’s poll ratings and is currently disproportionately represented inside the Parliamentary Labour Party. Richard is now indulging in a predictable power play to help his faction retain its inordinate influence, by suggesting MPs should continue to decide who grassroots members can vote for. But as anti-democrats like Nicolae Ceauşescu discovered, he is out of touch, out of step and out of time.
If we must have gatekeepers, it ought to be CLPs not MPs that determine leadership candidates because divided parties don’t win elections, and keeping popular candidates off the ballot paper would certainly create division.
As for Richard’s reference to the Article 50 vote, Labour had a bigger rebellion over Europe in 1971. Then, 69 Labour rebels, led by the infamous Roy Jenkins, voted against a three line whip on the European Communities Bill. He was joined in the division lobby by the three other members of the ‘Gang of Four’, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen. A decade later they formed the SDP that helped Thatcher win two subsequent election landslides and also had a hand in John Major’s unexpected 1992 triumph.
The PLP should consider the immense damage wreaked by the likes of Roy Jenkins and remember that millions desperately need a Labour Government. That means working with members and backing, not frustrating, their choice of leader.
We lost in 2015 because our policy programme was timid and insufficiently distinguishable from the Tories. Prior to that we haemorrhaged 3 million votes between 1997 and 2001 and 5 million by 2010.
Labour survived the 1971 rebellion over Europe and went on to win the two 1974 general elections. We can repeat history in 2020 if we remember that unity is strength.