Chris Williamson MP: Labour MPs shouldn't fear reselection - it'll keep us rooted in the real world
It's time so-called 'moderates' got behind plans to democratise the Labour party and stopped dismissing them as dangerous, says Derby North MP Chris Williamson.
Labour is well and truly under new management, yet its former proprietors have left more than a trace. Indeed New Labour’s most visible legacy might be that of spin.
Over the summer I have toured the country – from the Scottish borders, across to Wales and down to Cornwall – at the invitation of Labour Party activists to discuss two things. First the ongoing Democracy Review underway in Labour, and second to make the case for a rule change that is up for discussion at Party Conference this year. The rule change, dubbed mandatory reselection or open selection, calls for MPs to face their membership before being reselected to stand as Labour’s candidate for a general election. The current system allows Labour MPs sitting in safe seats a job for life.
To me, this endeavour feels humbling - benign even. How many MPs are willing to accept the polling that shows voters recognise the party and the policies on the ballot sheet rather than the individual candidate? As Labour MPs, we have to guard against the dazzling lights of London and the elitism at the core of Westminster. It’s the movement, not any one individual in it, that matters most.
But to the spin-doctors of yesteryear our Democracy Roadshow is portrayed as a feeding frenzy for Labour’s new and supposedly dangerous elements. Several party figures have called for Jeremy Corbyn to rescind his alleged support for the tour – yet he has given no such endorsement, nor have we sought it. The tour has been accused of visiting a laundry list of “moderate” seats – yet it hasn’t, as a quick visit to our website will demonstrate. We only go where we’ve been invited. On top of this, to my knowledge none of these critics have attended a single meeting - yet they feel free to fantasise about the goings on.
The truth can be a hard pill to swallow for those so out of touch. On the one hand, Labour has become the biggest political party in Europe with nearly 600,000 members and counting. These members, along with affiliates and supporters, are no fringe group. They are the eyes, ears and voices of our party – they’re the means by which Labour stays rooted in real communities beyond the Westminster think tanks. They deserve respect, but more than this, their energy and their ideas must be utilised.
Policies still opposed by fringe elements in the party are the new mainstream in this country. Whether it’s bringing rail back into public ownership or ending tax loopholes.
A party is always an unfinished thing. It’s constantly changing and evolving to suit the needs of those it serves. New Labour was no different of course, and its captains ran a tight ship that I’m sure would have impressed a Soviet general. But this is where I would expect to find the so-called moderates and the so-called Corbynistas on the same page; are we not both arguing for transparency, accountability and collective responsibility?
Indeed, insofar as the rule changes go, we’re arguing for what is the norm for most democratic institutions. I’m sure even the chair of Jeremy Corbyn’s allotment society has to face reselection now and then. It’s a practice that’s commonplace in trade unions. Primaries are a standard feature of democracy in the United States. But for some elitists, it’s dangerous and radical. The question to ask of these characters is: dangerous for who?
The modernisation project underway in this party is nothing to be scared of. In fact we should welcome it. Policies like public ownership, democratising the workplace and state-led investment combined with constitutional concern for democratic accountability and equal say are in the very best traditions of this party. Members, supporters and would-be supporters are excited by these changes, I just wish the noisy minority who are trying to derail them would accept the democratic will of this great party - the Labour Party.
Chris Williamson is the Labour MP for Derby North and a former shadow communities minister