The story so far. The Labour right wing’s answer to Eddie the Eagle (Campaign slogan: Britain loves a loser) has finally announced what she has repeatedly announced she was about to announce. Unfortunately the one enduring image of this much-anticipated media event will be of Eagle desperately begging assembled not-journalists to ask her a question; and she came across as the tacky game show host she will possibly become when her career as a politician ends. She subsequently appeared on Channel 4 News and failed to make much of an impression. On Sunday she had sneered at a journalist who dared ask a (you might suppose) reasonable question about her voting record. All in all, then, a disaster. You would think that people who put marketing ahead of substance would be able to do better than this, so we can only ask why her candidature has been so inept. It has been said that Eagle is a ‘stalking horse’. If Corbyn is on the ballot she will probably lose and no one else has had to take any flak. If Corbyn is kept off the ballot other candidates will appear out of the woodwork to announce their intention to save the party they love by destroying it. Either way it is difficult to see how anyone expects Eagle to be Labour’s next leader.
Eagle was sidelined, of course, by news that Theresa May was about to become Conservative leader and therefore prime minister. Cue arguments about the ‘unelected prime minister’ – as though any are ever elected – and even a sense of unfairness that party members had been denied a voice, as though it did matter who the Conservative leader-becoming-prime-minister might be. However, on this occasion it is worth going back to July 2005, when May wrote in The Spectator of ‘the view of the majority of Conservative MPs that they know best’, going on to despair that ‘they would deny everyone but MPs any substantive say whatsoever in the election of our next leader’. Having promoted the ‘powerful principle – one member one vote’ she continued:
What message does that send to voters? If we aren’t willing to listen to and trust our own membership in the election of our leader, then how can voters believe that we will listen to them when it comes to understanding their problems and finding the right solutions?
Later in this article she is critical of those MPs who ‘too often deride the views of party members on the basis that they are elderly, right-wing and out of touch’, a view that mirrors, of course, the perennial right-wing PLP dismissal of ‘young Trots’ who don’t understand proper politics as practised by the grown-ups at Westminster.
Reading this article one might accuse May of hypocrisy; or one might note the irony of its relevance to Labour’s current dispute. One might, I suppose, cite Angela Eagle’s capacity for making statements that will subsequently embarrass her. And one might think a little more carefully of the extent to which the Conservative and Labour parties do (and don’t) resemble each other. Perhaps the hatchet-job just done on Andrea Leadsom was inspired by a perceived need to avoid any risk of the membership electing her as Labour’s members had so foolishly elected Corbyn. More to the point is the way in which, historically, the Conservatives were forced to follow Labour party democracy in the election of party leader; and then moved to OMOV before Labour. In the 1960s elections were a form of modernisation as Conservatives had to finally start pretending they did believe in democracy; and then, in the 1990s, OMOV might have been seen as a sop to the party following the post-Thatcher decline. It might also have offered an opportunity to mock Labour, given Kinnock’s promotion of OMOV from the early-1980s, a move resisted by trade unions. Within each party MPs have jealously guarded privilege and a suspicion of members who might refuse to follow the script (the possibility that Leadsom might have become leader led to comparisons with the earlier election of Iain Duncan‑Smith). In 2005 May was practising populism because it seemed a good idea; in 2016 neither party’s parliamentary group seems inclined to patronise members by pretending to respect their views. In the final analysis the party must always be seen as hierarchical in nature with MPs enjoying a lofty superiority: note the media reports of a Labour crisis ‘at the top of the party’, emphasising the relationship between PLP and party leader at Westminster while downgrading the (supposedly democratic) relationship between MPs and party. Angela Eagle, for example, seems not to have the support of her CLP (people she has dismissed as extremists); but this in no way seems as important as the PLP’s refusal to support Corbyn.
The Conservative party has never been as dependent as Labour on members who will fund the party or provide ‘foot-soldiers’ – it has always enjoyed criticising Labour’s dependence on unions as special (sectional) interests while being able to gloss over its own dependence on the wealthy, not to mention businesses that are never regarded as sectional as unions. The Conservative party is better at being a cadre party, one that is not rooted in a permanent membership; while Labour has always been representative of the left‑wing mass parties that emerged in the late‑nineteenth century. It is this tradition of the party as a social movement that Corbyn’s leadership has tried to revive at a time when the received wisdom is that people – certainly young people – have no interest in party politics. In 2005 May briefly alluded to this kind of party, even if she didn’t intend to; and she highlighted the game politicians play, hoping to achieve a balance between patronising members and dismissing them as irrelevant and/or incompetent.