MPs do not have a divine right to represent their constituencies forever once selected by their local party, Jeremy Corbyn is quite right to consider mandatory reselection for MPs and all political parties that profess to care about democracy should follow his lead
The Telegraph leads today with a breathless piece warning of Jeremy Corbyn’s intention to press for mandatory reselection of MPs whose constituencies are changed as a result of the coming boundary review, assuming he prevails in the Labour leadership contest.
Jeremy Corbyn’s allies are planning to end the parliamentary careers of dozens of critical Labour MPs by approving plans for mandatory reselection by the end of the year.
The Telegraph understands his supporters will use their increased majority on the party’s ruling body to clarify rules about which MPs can stand for election after the 2018 boundary review.
Rhea Wolfon, elected to the Labour’s National Executive Committee [NEC] this week, hinted at the move by saying the party must have a “conversation” about “mandatory reselection”.
However Andy Burnham, Labour’s new mayoral candidate for Greater Manchester, said it would “pull the rug from under our MPs” and fuel a “climate of distrust”.
While Politics Home reports that Steve Rotheram, Jeremy Corbyn’s PPS and now Labour’s candidate for the Liverpool city regional mayoralty, has also made approving noises about challenging the “divine right” of MPs to remain in their position come what may:
Steve Rotheram, who serves as Jeremy Corbyn’s parliamentary private secretary, said elected politicians should not think Westminster is the “repository of all the best ideas”.
It comes after Rhea Wolfson, a newly elected member of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee, said the party should have a “conversation” on the mandatory reselection of MPs.
When asked whether he was in favour of such a proposal, Mr Rotheram said he was “attracted” to Tory MP Zac Goldsmith’s 2014 plan that would see misbehaving MPs face a by-election if 5% of constituents signed a “notice of intent to recall” and 20% then sign a “recall petition”.
He said he did not support Mr Goldsmith’s defeated amendment to the Recall of MPs Bill amid concerns about the exact motion he was putting before the House of Commons.
The MP for Liverpool Walton added: “But yes, I think that MPs should reflect what the membership who select them are putting them into parliament to do. We shouldn’t believe that we’re down here and that we’re the repository of all the best ideas.
“We really should be looking at what our members are telling us to do and I think that’s part of the role as a Member of Parliament.”
Cue shock, horror and clutching of pearls from the political establishment – Andy Burnham, himself about to jettison a Westminster career cul-de-sac in the hope of municipal glory in Manchester, says that it would be “pulling the rug” out from underneath MPs. Well, perhaps MPs need to have the rug pulled out from underneath them. Perhaps they need the rug to be yanked hard enough so that they either become genuinely responsive to the party activists who work to get them elected or quit the field of play altogether.
The great thing about democracy at its best is that it rewards those who show up when the times comes to choose. Old people reliably vote in large numbers, therefore government policy when it comes to housing, welfare spending and any number of other policy areas is generously skewed in their favour. If only young people could put their Pokemon Go games down for long enough to make it to a polling station, government policy might begin reflecting their concerns too. But they don’t, so it isn’t.
Unfortunately, the way MPs are currently selected by Britain’s main political parties takes this important aspect of democratic responsiveness and throws it out the window. Once an MP has been chosen as their party’s nominee, they have very little use for their own party activists. These dedicated and principled people are hardly likely to ever support a candidate from another party, and therefore an unscrupulous MP can abuse and betray them to their heart’s content knowing that they automatically qualify as their party’s parliamentary candidate the next time a general election rolls around.
And inevitably this can lead to a growing gulf between the political stance of a constituency party and the views espoused (and votes taken) by that constituency’s Member of Parliament. This is what we now see happening to the Labour Party, where depending on your view either the parliamentary party has shifted to the right or the membership has shifted dramatically to the left (in reality a bit of both) and no longer stand for the same principles.
The brutal truth right now is that many Labour MPs, including some quite prominent ones like former leadership contender Angela Eagle, are now irreconcilably out of step with their own local parties. Why, therefore, should they have the automatic, divine right to continue to represent local parties who despise them and wish to put forward someone for parliament who more closely reflects their own priorities and positions?
When viewed this way, Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal seems quite tame. In fact, I would go further – MPs should not only face mandatory reselection in the case of constituency boundary review (the specific circumstance currently under discussion) but every five years ahead of a general election. This would bring Britain into line with other countries like the United States, where Representatives and Senators do not have “jobs for life” and must compete in party primaries if they wish to run for their seat at the next election. Such a move would put the wind up an often self-entitled political class, forcing MPs to justify their worthiness of a place on the ballot at regular intervals and forcing many of the older, less useful bench warmers off into retirement.
No constituency should be lumbered with a doddering old MP who doesn’t care any more, or a sharp-elbowed go-getter who ignores their constituency as they focus on climbing the greasy pole. Mandatory reselection goes a long way to solving those problems.
The current system, by contrast, is an abomination – incumbent MPs, often initially selected to stand for parliament in their constituencies through dubious, opaque or even downright corrupt means are then largely free from scrutiny by their own party for the rest of their career. As soon as they enter parliament they are enveloped in the Westminster self-protective cloak which serves to insulate parliamentarians from the consequences of their behaviour and political decisions.
If you know that nothing you can do will ever get you fired – if there is no political betrayal (like, say, pretending to be a eurosceptic during selection and then turning around and supporting the Remain campaign) for which you will ever be held to account – then there is every incentive to lie about your real political beliefs and motivations during selection, and then behave in as abominable and self-serving a way as you please as soon as your are elected to the Commons.
The status quo needs to change, and whatever else one may think of Jeremy Corbyn (and however self-serving his motivations may be), he should be applauded for taking a stand for democracy and accountability and against the entrenched privilege of the political class.
If political parties are to be accountable to their supporters then there needs to be an established process for the base to hold their candidates to account for decisions taken in office. Mandatory reselection – together with a proper right of recall, empowering constituents to recall a failing or unpopular MP subject to a certain percentage of the local electorate signing a petition – is an important aspect of that process.
Under a properly democratic system, MPs should fear the wrath of their local constituency party and be closely responsive to their priorities and concerns. At present, too many MPs take their local party for granted as soon as their selection is assured, shunning the activists who knock on doors and deliver leaflets on their behalf in order to cravenly pander to the centre.
This needs to change. This can change. And Jeremy Corbyn should be commended for trying to do something about it.