What is a modern political party for?

By Frances Powrie August 25, 2016 2:51 pm

With ballots in the Labour Party leadership contest going out this week, the accusations have begun of a purge of members to try and influence the outcome of the race – even gaining its own hashtag, #labourpurge2. This is a repeat of last summer when many of the people who had paid £3 for a vote in the Labour leadership contest were disqualified from taking part. The main cause of this was standing for or vocally supporting a rival political party in recent elections – with Green Party members making up a particularly large proportion of those rejected.

Forty thousand of those who paid £25 this time around were quickly rejected (although some of these because they were duplicates or not on the electoral register), with another 10,000 sent to the National Executive Committee for investigation. Many people, Jeremy Corbyn supporters in particular, are worried that this represents a deliberate effort to try and undermine Corbyn’s re-election effort – although it’s worth noting that similar claims about a deliberate purge were made before his landslide victory last year.

In some respects, the row represents a clash of viewpoints as to what a modern political party is for. To many, particularly long-term Labour members, it is accepted without question that Labour members should always be publicly loyal to the party. They see no problem with rejecting members or supporters who, for example, advocated voting Green at the London mayoral elections. By contrast, many of the newer members and registered supporters are not so tribal in their views. A good number of them identify more with Corbyn’s leadership than the Labour Party as a whole, and they do not see why recent support for a rival party, particularly one of the left, should preclude them from a vote.

There’s a similar divide over the importance of the Labour Party winning elections. Clause One of the Labour Party rule book states that “its purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party” and that the party will “promote the election of Labour Party representatives at all levels of the democratic process.” To many, again particularly those who are long-term members and who are voting for Owen Smith, it is self-evident that that the purpose of the Labour Party is to seek to form a government – indeed Smith has made this a key plank of his campaign. Many of the newer members don’t take this point of view – they question whether winning elections is worth it if this means compromising on key principles; some would certainly rather shape the debate from opposition, believing that the party’s move to the left under Corbyn is worthwhile in itself. They see Labour more as a “social movement” than an election winning machine.

Of course these are generalisations, but they highlight a clash of approaches to party politics which will be hard to resolve. If Smith wins the leadership election, if may be that many of those who joined primarily because of Corbyn will gradually drift away. However, in the more likely scenario that Corbyn wins again, don’t expect the rest of the party to give up just yet. The sheer tribalism of many of the Labour “moderates” means that they are likely to stick around even if the party descends into civil war. As moderate stalwart Luke Akehurst wrote recently, “If we lose, if every last moderate is deselected and not so much as allowed to be branch minutes secretary, at least we will have died with our boots on trying to save Labour, not faded away with a whimper pretending publicly that everything was OK”. Don’t expect peace and quiet in the Labour Party anytime soon.

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