Labour Leadership Contest and Electoral Reform

There have been accusations of “entryism” into the Labour leadership election in recent weeks, as many supposedly infiltrate the party to vote for the left-wing contender Jeremy Corbyn. The infiltration that has been discussed does exist, but currently it appears to have been exaggerated. Andy Burnham’s team recently claimed in a letter to the party’s general secretary that the “121,000 registered supporters could include several thousand Tory infiltrators”. Currently, approximately 3000 applications have been rejected. Of these 3000, it is believed that around 400 were Tories. Thus, the estimates of the Burnham team are an accentuation to say the least. In contrast, 1900 were members of supporters of the Green Party.

Many of these other left-wing groups, such as the Greens, are not trusted to remain with Labour, and are drawing accusations of not sharing Labour aims and values. However, many such groups do share many of the aims and values of Labour. The party was created by the trade unions and Keir Hardie to represent working class people. The Green party certainly shares many of the socialist values on which Labour was founded: the Greens propose public ownership of rail (public ownership having been enshrined in Labour’s constitution until the 1990s), a stronger welfare state, and an entirely publically owned NHS, which is how Aneurin Bevan conceived of it at its foundation. Other groups, such as Left Unity, have similar aims, and include previous Labour members, such as Ken Loach.

The problem of “left-wing infiltration”- and the mistrust it has bred- has been created by our electoral system. To understand this hypothesis, we need to explore why it is that so many socialist groups are not part of the Labour party, despite the fact it was founded upon socialist ideals. Quite simply, the Labour party has drifted from its core values, and it has done so in the belief that it will allow them to win elections. Tony Benn once remarked that the tragedy of the Labour party was that since about 1974 it had not stood for anything. Such a change was slow, but it eventually culminated in the creation of New Labour, which encompassed many Thatcherite principles. In the 1980s, following the party’s 1983 defeat, Neil Kinnock was elected leader, and began to alter the party’s position. Peter Mandelson, one of the architects of New Labour, was introduced to help with the party’s image, a commitment to unilateral disarmament ceased, and even the term “socialism” was ironed out of the manifesto. The shift in the party was complete in the 1990s, when Tony Blair renounced the party’s commitment to public ownership, by rewriting Clause IV.

A combination of these decisions, and/or some of the decisions made by New Labour in government, such as the involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, led many of the left (at least those who had not already been expelled) to move to other parties. In other words, Labour lost, or in some cases, forced out, its traditional left wing supporters because it believed that if it moved to the “centre ground” and made itself similar to the Conservatives, it would be rewarded with electoral success.

Our First Past the Post electoral system creates two main parties, currently Labour and the Conservatives, with significant disadvantages for the smaller parties to which many ex-Labour left-wingers had moved. Thus, some left-wingers remained with Labour, having an uncomfortable relationship with a leadership they disagreed with, but feeling as though moving away would result in a lack of representation. Such a relationship does not create loyalty amongst members and supporters, and the party now finds itself struggling to decide which members to eject, with even some long term supporters being rejected.

However, there is another important element to our electoral system which has caused the current chaos. As Will Self suggested recently on Channel 4 news, our main parties are, in fact, two broad coalitions. Labour is a party which accommodates both Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall.  The result is that the party can shift very easily and rapidly from something closer to the “centre ground” or neoliberalism, to something akin to Keynesianism. It is not an environment which encourages loyalty. The party can go through radical changes with the advent of a new leader, meaning that members and supporters who have supported a previous leader may leave when they feel their ideological differences with the leadership are too great.

In order to avoid the confusion and backbiting we are witnessing in the current leadership contest, the party needs to split. If the two elements of Labour’s coalition were to separate, they would each be able to offer something distinctive and consistent, rather than something which would change dramatically with the advent of a new leader, or because of a leader posturing in the centre group in order to hold the two sections of the party together. Unfortunately, a split is not an option in the current climate. In the 1980s, Labour learned the hard way that FPTP punishes party splits harshly, as a number of Labour MPs defected from Michael Foot’s party to form the SDP.

It is no wonder that left wingers are flocking back to Labour when it looks as though Corbyn may take the leadership; if he succeeds, he will be the most left wing leader of Labour since Foot. However, the resurgence of the left in the party has resulted in chaos and hysteria. The disaster of the leadership contest highlights the desperate need for electoral reform in the UK- a system is required which gives smaller parties and splits the space and voice they need.

Electoral reform will not eliminate coalitions, but I am not opposed to groups co-operating; in fact, I welcome it. However, in a democratic society, people should feel that they can join a party which represents them, and continues to do so, instead of having to vote for an unwieldy alliance because they are “slightly better than the other option”. In government, parties may have to work together, but in elections they should be able to offer something distinctive and consistent. Hopefully, instead of fighting against themselves, parties will debate against each other, giving the electorate a clearer and more informed picture.

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