This post will be fairly UK-centric. Apologies to non-Brits, or anyone who’s simply had enough of British politics for now.
Since Jeremy Corbyn re-established his control over the Labour Party on Saturday, it seems inevitable that he’ll try to assert more control over the party. This may involve a number of measures, such as lowering the threshold for getting on the leadership ballot (ensuring his successor will be an ideological ally), and allowing members more direct control over policy-making . But increasingly there is talk of mandatory deselection of MPs who refuse to get behind Corbyn’s leadership. Although Corbyn himself claimed on TV that “most MPs” had no reason to fear it (a reassurance or a threat, depending on where you stand), others have been much more vocal in their demands. The firebrand Unite union leader, Len McCluskey, recently repeated his demand that “despicable” and “disgraceful” MPs lose the right to represent Labour at the next general election. It also seems the policy is popular with the grassroots. At a recent leadership hustings I went to in Durham the prospect of deselecting rebellious MPs came up repeatedly, each time to thunderous applause from the audience.
This is a conflict between competing visions of politics and leadership within Labour, but it’s also about something more fundamental: what is the role and purpose of a political party? It pits those for whom its primary purpose is to achieve its political aims within a democratic system, against those for whom it is, first and foremost, a democratic organisation in and of itself.
In this post I’ll go through some arguments in favour of deselection of MPs, and against. Ultimately I’ll argue that deselection is problematic in all but extreme cases, as MPs are first and foremost accountable to their constituents rather than their members.
It’s always been a contentious issue what the role of the politician is, in our case the Member of Parliament. Is she a delegate, sent to convey the preferences of the people in her constituency and to act on them regardless of her own beliefs, or is she a trustee, with an obligation to pursue the course of action she sees most fit, even if it goes against the wishes of her electorate?
One the one hand some hold that they, as the voice of the people in Parliament, have a duty to put those people’s views above their own. For instance, John Redwood MP based his vote on the same sex marriage bill of 2013 on the number of letters he received advocating a yes or a no.* On the other, Edmund Burke firmly held that members of Parliament are trustees, as expressed here in a letter to his constituents in Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
But the current debate within Labour complicates the matter further. Now the question is not just whether MPs ought to be delegates or representatives of the people who put them in power, but rather who those people are: the general electorate, or the party members?
The argument in favour of party members goes roughly like this: first, in a First Past The Post electoral system many seats are safe seats,** where the vote is never in doubt. The Conservatives will always win Tunbridge Wells, Labour is guaranteed to take Manchester Central. This means many MPs are essentially in a job for life, with a comfortable enough margin of support to safely weather even the greatest swings in the vote. And second, the party leadership and members should be able to shape the direction they want the party to travel in. That means MPs elected by an iteration of the party with different policies and priorities shouldn’t be able to stand in the way of change.
But the problem is that MPs cannot simultaneously be accountable to the electorate and to party members; something’s got to give. To say that the party members have the right to pass judgment on a sitting representative’s performance in Parliament is, by logical extension, to say that the voters who put them there five years earlier do not. And in the UK, it being a parliamentary democracy, the system is ultimately set up to ensure that MPs are accountable to the electorate.
What’s more, the arguments in favour of deselection are not persuasive. Some MPs are in safe seats, yes, but they are collectively responsible for the fortunes of their party nonetheless. MPs are, on the whole, conscientious and hard-working people who care deeply about their work. They will know that failing to do their job will have consequences even if they don’t stand to personally lose their seats. The kinds of problems deselection is supposed to solve therefore rarely exists in practice. At any rate most parties will have provisions for deselecting MPs who cover themselves in serious scandal. In those cases it can usually be safely assumed that the voters would not have reelected them anyway.
Second, leaders and members already have enough opportunities to shape their representation. At the end of any electoral cycle enough MPs will retire that the party will still be able to elect new MPs that may be more in tune with the current membership. Over time some of these will, invariably, be in safe seats as well. It would also be risky, perhaps, to allow years of experience to be got rid of on a whim. It’s important to entertain a broad array of views within a party, and there may be good reasons why some of the older guard may be sceptical of new policies. Finally, returning to Labour specifically, perhaps supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott should be grateful that mandatory deselection was banned during the Blair and Kinnock years; or else they might not have been around to enjoy the resurgence of the hard left today.
* The Right Honourable gentleman completely missed that letter-writers are very unlikely to be representative of the population as a whole. But in a way, that’s the point I’m trying to make.
** This problem is not unique to FPTP. In representative systems, MPs’ job security comes not from safe seats but being high up on the party roll. The problem is the same, however.