Ahead of Tuesday’s NEC judgement, Keiran Pedley argues that the Labour leadership system is broken and leaders that lose a no confidence motion in parliament should be required to seek nominations from MPs to stand again.
After something of a phony war, it appears that Labour finally faces a formal challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. A series of talks, led by deputy leader Tom Watson, aimed at achieving a negotiated settlement have come to nought. Angela Eagle has stepped forward and indicated that she will challenge Corbyn. Attention now turns to the mechanics of such a race and whether as leader Jeremy Corbyn should automatically make the ballot without having to be nominated. The rules here are ambiguous to say the least and the NEC is expected to decide what happens next on Tuesday.
It is my opinion that Corbyn should not automatically make the ballot and that he should need to seek nominations from Labour MPs / MEPs* to stand again.
In this debate, there is a basic point that needs to be made about how our country is governed. Namely that MPs have a privileged position in our democracy. They are, constitutionally speaking, more important than party members in how our laws are made. This is true regardless of whether we are talking about Labour, the Conservatives, the SNP or others. The Prime Minister is the person that commands the support of the House of Commons, of MPs. Once this support is lost then they go. If a hypothetical Prime Minister Corbyn lost the support of parliament the Queen would not consult Labour Party members on what happens next. She would invite the Leader of the Opposition to form a government or we would have a General Election.
This might seem like a pedantic point but it shouldn’t. Our laws are made by MPs. If a party leader cannot command the support of the MPs that they lead then their position – rightly or wrongly – is untenable.
Labour’s broken system
Part of the problem for Labour is that the party’s system for choosing (and getting rid of) its leader is broken. In its wisdom Labour has decided to have a system where a no confidence motion from MPs is not binding and can ultimately be ignored. This is different from the Conservatives where a leader defeated by a no confidence motion must go. Therefore, there is no easy mechanism for Labour MPs to jettison a leader they don’t want, leaving open the possibility that the party membership can keep a leader in post that does not command the support of MPs. Even if this current malaise is ultimately resolved, this is an issue that needs to be fixed somewhere along the line.
A workaround to the current flawed system should be that any leader that has lost a no confidence motion in parliament should be expected to seek the required number of nominations to stand again. In doing so, the candidate would essentially be proving that they command a sufficient level of parliamentary support to be a viable leader of the party in the future. If they are unable to achieve said support then they clearly are not a viable leader (or Prime Minister) anyway. This process would serve as the practical, de facto activation of the (currently non-binding) no confidence motion. In the event that a leader won a no confidence motion then they could still be challenged but they would automatically make the ballot (a moot point perhaps given that such a candidate would surely command enough support to get on anyway).
A logical response to my suggestion is ‘what do members do when MPs do not represent their views’? ‘How can party members make their voices heard’? It is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. I am not arguing for MPs to ignore the will of party members but simply making a practical point about how we are governed as a country and why that means MPs must ultimately have the final say. However, it is perfectly reasonable for party members to be able to ‘no confidence’ their local MPs and choose a candidate that best represents their views. Whether the exact detail of how this process currently works at present is appropriate (see here for more details) is up for debate. Should Corbyn be deposed, expect this to become a major issue in the Labour Party moving forward.
However, returning to the present day, it seems clear that Labour’s current system for choosing and removing leaders is not fit for purpose. Any future Labour Prime Minister will need to command the support of the PLP to govern effectively or indeed govern at all. If that confidence is lost, then either that Prime Minister gets replaced or a General Election is called. Given the importance of MPs here then surely a future no confidence motion in a Labour leader ought to be binding e.g. it being passed forces the leader’s resignation. Failing that, such a motion being passed should necessitate the defeated leader being required to seek the appropriate nominations to stand again. In essence, their initial leadership victory is nullified and they stand again if they wish.
It is for these reasons that I think that Jeremy Corbyn ought not to automatically make the ballot in the upcoming Labour leadership contest. However, I am not a lawyer, the rules are ambiguous and it is less than clear what the NEC will decide. Indeed, even if Corbyn does not automatically get on the ballot there is no reason to assume with any certainty that he will not get the nominations he needs. I fully accept that Corbyn not making the ballot could lead to a split in the party but so too could him being re-elected. The fundamental point here is that you cannot govern without the support of MPs and Labour’s process for choosing (and removing leaders) ought to reflect that irrefutable fact.
*In this article I have focused on MPs. In fact MEPs have a role in nominating candidates for leader too. However, when considering the future the role of MEPs becomes moot post Brexit.