The battle over the “McDonnell amendment” ends not with a bang, or a punch up at conference or talk of potential splits, but with a profound whimper. The political press have barely even commented on a change waved through the newly shifted further to the left National Executive Committee taking the need for 15% of the PLP (and Labour MEPs although that will soon be irrelevant) down to 10%. And it’s been done during the run in to Labour conference as well. Last year, we would have seen great drama around this issue; now, it is barely noticed by anyone.
I have gone on and on about this, so I will be brief in my explanation for why this rule change is so significant. The more you lower the threshold of MPs needed for a leadership nomination, the more you weaken the power of the PLP within the party. This is significant because, more than any other political party in Britain, the parliamentary Labour Party is the party in a very real sense. The party was set up to create a group of MPs who would represent the needs and desires of the wider movement, preferably in order to form a Labour government. Yes, they needed to not lose touch with that movement, but Labour MPs also have to respond to the wants of their whole constituency, keeping them rooted in the electorate.
Taking the PLP out of the equation destroys this and means the whole thing becomes about the membership alone. It means that over time the Labour Party drifts further and further away from the electorate. Yes, it didn’t happen in 2017, I grant you that. But that was mostly down to luck, i.e. the electorate just happened to be in a mood to listen to the Labour offer and reject the Tory one to a greater degree than was imagined. They will probably not be so lucky next time around, and as the party cuts its ties with the electorate outside of the membership by weakening the PLP, it is luck that will become more and more relied upon in this regard.
What I find so odd about all of this is I, who have never been a Labour Party member, seemingly feel so much more aggrieved about what is happening to the Labour Party than either the ones who are actively helping to destroy it or the ones watching it happen from within. I suppose that’s partly to do with the fact that I think having a viable opposition is important for democracy; partly because I think for all of its faults, the Labour Party has done some good in its time; partly because I fear what a revanchist socialism may yet do to our body politic. Yet I still find my concern next to the relative lack of worry within Labour circles to be one of the weirdest aspects of the current moment for me personally.