Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership, socialists have been arguing in favour of mandatory reselection. And in July earlier this year, Unite the union, the largest trade union in Britain and Labour’s largest affiliate, passed a motion supporting this policy.
Following the inevitable victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the ongoing leadership contest, reselection and the right to recall MPs will become vital tools in the battle to return Labour to a truly socialist party once again. These policies will also be subject to a barrage of misrepresentations by right wing MPs and the corporate media. So it is important to clarify what they are early on.
In short, mandatory reselection means that for each election that takes place, parliamentary candidates must be democratically decided by party members. The right of recall goes further than this, and means that elected representatives who break their electoral promises, or who vote or act in a way counter to the interest of their constituents, are subject to recall by the membership.
Without these policies, there is no effective way to ensure that the demands of Labour’s many new socialist members are reflected in the party’s elected representatives, who are at present mostly opposed to the idea of socialism. It is also a way of keeping the toes of our elected representatives to the fire. How else can we trust MPs and councillors to follow through on their promises if they cannot be recalled when they abuse their position?
Perhaps the clearest, and most well-known, formulation of why these issues are so important for socialists comes from the late Tony Benn:
In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person – Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin, or Bill Gates – ask them five questions: ‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?’ If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.
The complete contempt that Labour right wingers have for these policies (and party democracy in general) was evidenced in an interview earlier this year with the MP for Birkenhead Frank Fields. When asked about the views of his constituents, Field responded:
I have no idea what their views are. The idea that 70,000 people have got a view to instruct me… they are longing to have somebody that they can all boss around as if they have a view… there will be some, of course, that think that they can direct what MPs do, and if they want MPs like that, and have got MPs like that, they deserve them.
Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, echoed this sentiment when he described reselection as an “inherently intolerant mechanism”.
Given their support for war and austerity, it is understandable that Blairite MPs would fear a process which made them directly accountable to the party membership. However, these parliamentarians are hypocrites of the highest order. Many of the MPs who oppose reselection and recall supported the coup against a democratically elected leader, remained quiet about membership purges of socialists from their own party, and even supported (or did not question) reselection itself when it is used to further their own malign agenda.
On this latter issue, Liverpool West Derby MP Bob Wareing is a case in point. Following 24 years serving as a member of parliament and 60 years as a member of the party, Wareing was finally deselected in 2007 because of his continued opposition to Britain’s illegal war in Iraq. Wareing states:
My deselection…in a seriously flawed reselection process brings to an end a concerted effort to remove me by the New Labour Mafia. The Party leadership (under Blair and Brown) have regarded me as a thorn in their side as I rebelled against their betrayal of the basic principles of the Labour Party.
More recently, ten Redcar and Cleveland Labour councillors resigned in support of seven other councillors who were deselected from the Labour Party last year. Playing a central role in this process was local Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) and soon-to-be elected Anna Turley (Redcar). Explaining the reasons for the deselections, they were emphatic: “it was time for change. We are building a fresh, exciting and committed new team.” Blenkinsop and Turley are both are members of Labour’s Progress faction, which represents the business-class over the working class.
Because of the Tories’ proposed boundary changes, Labour MPs will face reselection before the next General Election anyway, but it will be essential to enshrine this principle in party policy as soon as possible.
It will also be essential to establish the right to recall MPs who act against the interests of their constituents. This is because the enormous pressures exerted by the capitalist class means that even the most principled politician in the world could easily become corrupted when they are no longer directly accountable to the party membership. It is also a way of weeding out opportunists, like Owen Smith, who would say one thing and do another.
With the ferocious battles between capital and labour that lay ahead, these policies will be essential tools for socialists.