Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised heavily for failing to lead the party. But could Labour's failure arise from far deeper issues within the party?
Under former Labour Leader (2010-2015) Ed Miliband, the Refounding Labour project was established to expand the party by strengthening local supporter representation in the party. After the Collins Report, the leadership vote was reformed meaning votes cast by Labour MPs, Party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters were counted equally under the new ‘one member, one vote’ (OMOV) system. As such, any Labour candidate may be nominated provided he/she receives at least 15% support in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
This new system successfully gives equal voice to each member. However, the OMOV system has shown to foster division in the PLP.
Indeed, in the leadership election last September, after securing only 15.5% of PLP nominations, left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn was elected Party leader with 59.5% of the vote, over 40.5 percentage points above that of the runner up, Andy Burnham MP. Consequently, Corbyn has faced a 172 to 40 motion of no confidence from the PLP, following 25 Shadow Cabinet resignations/dismissals, including those of long-standing senior Labour figures, such as Chris Bryant MP and Hilary Benn MP. The result of the subsequent leadership election was an increase of Corbyn’s share of the vote from 59.5% to 61.8%, against opponent Owen Smith (38.2%).
On policy, this division within the PLP was demonstrated most clearly in the Trident Nuclear Programme. Trident is an operational system of four Vanguard-class submarines armed with ballistic missiles (Trident II D-5) containing thermonuclear warheads. When a motion was presented (moved) to extend the programme’s life until the 2060s in parliament last July, Labour was split in two. While 147 to 47 Labour MPs supported the Trident renewal (76%), Corbyn, with majority of the Shadow Cabinet, opposed the motion.
But it was not Refounding Labour that was responsible for this inter-party division. Instead, the new system of representation only helped to show in Westminster pre-existing latent ideological divisions within Labour.
Division within the PLP must be seen in the context of a wider division between the PLP and the general Labour selectorate: voters, members, and affiliated/registered supporters.
This division is crystallised in the Trident motion. While 76% of the Westminster PLP supported the Trident renewal, causing parliamentary division, over 68% of Labour voters opposed.
This same division is present in other key policy areas. For example, 74% of Labour voters support Corbyn’s renationalisation agenda of railways, water companies and other utilities; whereas, the PLP did not support nationalisation. While, this new system of representation within Labour has fostered division within the Opposition, it has also allowed the front bench to be more representative of the wider Labour selectorate, exactly those who voted the MPs into parliament in the first place.
The Trident vote showed that the limitations with Labour Party’s system of representation has severe repercussions on Parliament as a whole. Corbyn’s front bench were of course defeated by parliament and the rest of the party on Trident. But in a Labour government, Corbyn would still hold de facto veto over the use of nuclear weapons. By saying he would never ‘press the nuclear button’, Corbyn may render Trident useless as a deterrent, thus single-handedly overriding power of parliament.
As such, the political system means that power of whether or not to exercise the deterrent is concentrated within party leadership. Given that under OMOV the leader is essentially chosen by the selectorate, Labour voters would indirectly have a de factoveto over the efficacy of Trident in a Labour government.
The OMOV system thus undermines parliamentary sovereignty on a key defence issue. Furthermore, it means Parliament could not reflect accurately the will of the electorate, thus failing to represent voters. 51% of UK voters support Trident renewal; this is corroborated by a YouGov poll which found 44% of voters backed Trident renewal, with only 32% against. If it were the case that, under a Labour government Trident renewal continued to be supported by the public, OMOV would mean that parliamentary sovereignty be compromised on national security.
We need new parties. Labour’s OMOV system of representation allowed these hitherto latent ideological divisions to be reflected within Parliament. Trident vote showed when this inter-party division is brought to Westminster, it has severe repercussions on those of Parliament as a whole. In the Trident motion, the wider Labour selectorate would have indirect de facto veto over the use of nuclear weapons in a Labour government, as they may elect a leader who would not use a nuclear weapon, thus rendering Trident impotent as a deterrent. The conservatives face a similar ideological split, theirs between social conservatism and liberalism. Failure by parties to coherently represent key factors of the population can be disastrous.