The PLP v The People


I would argue that the real battle for power going on in the Labour Party is not  left v right, or Blairism v Corbynism but between the PLP on one side and the trade unions and rank & file members on the other.

The trade unions and the rank & file of the Labour Party have, by electing Corbyn with such a huge mandate, made it unequivocally clear that they want the party to reassert it’s traditional democratic socialist ideals and that the era of New Labour is over. On the other side of the divide, many of the professional politicians in the PLP see this ‘turn to the left’ as a threat to their reelection, and thus an immediate threat to their job security and in the longer term an end to their future career progression up the greasy pole of ministerial office. They think, mistakenly in my view, that the only way they can get reelected is to reassert Blairism after the disaster of the minute twitch to the left represented by Brown and Milliband.

Now, the truth is that any reading of Labour Party history will tell you that this PLP v Rank & File split has always, always, from the very beginning, been at the core of Labour Party politicking (as opposed to politics). For over a hundred years, Conference and the NEC have tried to assert themselves over the PLP, with the PLP repeatedly fighting off motions demanding a formal mandate and recallable MP’s. In the end a compromise was agreed whereby constitutionally Conference (i.e. the trade unions + the rank & file) would set party policy but that the PLP had a freehand to decide, if, when and how, such policies should be enacted in the actual circumstances of government. This sounds reasonable enough but in effect it has meant that for many decades the PLP has simply ignored official Party policy as defined by Conference, and and has done whatever it likes, whenever it likes.

The professional, corporate, managerialism of Blairism exacerbated this tendency with the relationship between Conference and the PLP being turned on it’s head and Conference becoming increasingly simply a rubber-stamping process for policies written and conceived by the Prime Minister’s inner circle of ex PR and Advertising industry spin doctors. And make no mistake ALL sections of the party were expected to get behind these policies – PLP, Conference, NEC, CLP’s, branches and individuals.

I would argue that where you stand on this issue of the PLP v The Rank & File, to a large extent influences where you stand on Corbyn and Corbynism. I would also argue that your position on this indicates where you stand on the more fundamental philosophical issue of whether those in power are generally benign and trustworthy, (‘we should leave it to the professionals’), or whether you believe, like I do, that those in power are inevitably corrupted by that power and must always be viewed with suspicion and held to account.

In all institutions, not just the Labour Party, believe in democratic processes and prioritising the voice of the rank & file over the power elite, because I believe that fundamentally those in formal power are not to be trusted because power inevitably corrupts. Whether it be a manager at work, a CEO of a corporation, a leader of a political party or the Chair of a local party branch, unchecked power is corrupting… always!

And I include Corbyn in this. He will be corrupted by power, it is inevitable. But his saving grace to me is that his starting point is such that he has further to go before the corruption caused by the realities of staying in power, render him a hinderance rather than a tool of progressive political and economic change… But that will happen sooner or later, because it always does.

So, if, like me, you recognise that power always corrupts then you will understand that it is crucial that those in power are ultimately answerable to those not in power.  Indeed, this simple principle underpins all forms of democracy and as Tony Benn famously put it we always have to ask of those in power the following questions:

  1. WHAT POWER HAVE YOU GOT?
  2. WHERE DID YOU GET IT FROM?
  3. IN WHOSE INTERESTS DO YOU EXERCISE IT?
  4. TO WHOM ARE YOU ACCOUNTABLE?
  5. HOW CAN WE GET RID OF YOU?

In the case of the Labour Party, it is the rank & file membership who must ask these questions; who must hold those in power to account. (And I place even the trade unions below the rank & file in this democratic hierarchy because the trade unions are corporate institutions led by men and women who themselves have been corrupted by power).

Now it is true that relying on the rank & file to decide everything carries it’s own risks. People can be ignorant of all the details of complex situations, issues can be so complex it is difficult if not impossible to convey details to a non-expert audience, charisma and rhetoric can be used to mislead. Thus the democratic process is always dialogic with those in power being required to explain and justify themselves to those they are accountable to and in turn to be guided and influenced by popular mandate. If either side ignores the other then the balance of power becomes corrupted.

Applying Benn’s 5 questions to the current situation is quite revealing in this regard:

  1. WHAT POWER HAVE YOU GOT?
    Some members of the PLP are challenging the idea that the Party leader has any right to determine the policy or direction of the PLP, and are attempting to assert that instead the leader must acquiesce to the majority opinion within the PLP. This is a startling reversal of 20 years of New Labour practice, whereby policy was not even decided by the PLP but by a small group of advisers.
  2. WHERE DID YOU GET IT FROM?
    Corbyn got his power from the biggest electoral mandate of any party leader in British history but many in the PLP talk and act as if Corbyn has mounted some sort of illegitimate coup and thus must be resisted at all costs.
  3. IN WHOSE INTERESTS DO YOU EXERCISE IT?
    The PLP seem to be arguing that Corbyn should be exercising his power to get them reelected, rather than fulfilling the expectations of the rank & file as indicated by his extraordinary election victory.
  4. TO WHOM ARE YOU ACCOUNTABLE?
    Again some in the PLP are claiming that Corbyn is primarily accountable to them rather than the party at large. Some MP’s are also suddenly claiming that they themselves are accountable to their constituency electorate not the Labour Party or the Labour leader. Which again is an extraordinary reversal of New Labour practice.
  5. HOW CAN WE GET RID OF YOU?
    Recognising that in the short-term there are no legitimate constitutional means of ousting Corbyn as leader, some in the PLP nonetheless appear determined to do their utmost to make his position as leader untenable and to thus reassert the dominance of the PLP in party discourse and policy making.

For me Corbyn’s election is a timely rebalancing of power within the Labour Party and a long overdue calling to account of all the seats of power within the party by the rank & file. But especially a calling to account of the PLP who have over the last 20 years become used to operating effectively as an autonomous ‘party within a party’ and with no regard or respect for the rank & file party membership.

Corbyn may, or may not, be the best person to lead the party; he may, or may not, able to survive as leader until the next election; he may, or may not, be able to ‘win’ elections for Labour. Time will tell. But it is vitally important that the Party recognises that Corbyn’s election marked the end of the New Labour era, that the party’s internal power structure needed rebalancing and that it cannot, and must not, go into another General Election with a New Labour, Tory-lite, manifesto.

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2 responses to “The PLP v The People

  1. Another excellent narrative. I’ve seen this problem within my trade union and the disability charity that I have worked to support for the past 30 years. Sometimes a short-term solution has worked, but on many other occasions I have sat in meetings and despaired of ever finding a positive outcome. I would welcome your opinion apropos of the fallout from yesterday’s Labour ‘reshuffle’ and the way that the media is presenting this.

    I voted for Corbyn having attended a public meeting held at Essex University and being simply blown away by the reaction of the packed audience, who were mostly at least half my age! There must be hope for the future of UK society and if Corbyn has motivated some of our younger citizens, then we might just get there!

  2. Thanks Dude. Your engagement is much appreciated.

    Apart from the media hysterics the reshuffle was a non-event. Some people we’d never heard of were sacked from jobs we didn’t know existed. I’ll be interested to see how it pans out with Hilary Benn though. My instincts were he should have been sacked but who knows what was discussed behind closed doors

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