‘Both the Conservatives and Labour are in thrall to member power’, FT, 25 May 2019.

“It’s a funny old world,” observed Margaret Thatcher as she was forced by her party to step down as Tory leader and UK prime minister back in 1990. She’d won the Conservatives three elections on the trot — two of them with three-figure majorities in the House of Commons — and yet here they were, unceremoniously dumping her and moving on.

Well, since then the world — or at least Toryworld — has got funnier still.

Notwithstanding the reputation for ruthlessness that Thatcher’s defenestration served to reinforce, it has taken the party two whole years to get shot of a leader who not only failed to increase its parliamentary majority but actually managed to blow it completely in a campaign whose wheels fell off as soon as it got going.

Moreover, the party now proposes to conduct a leadership contest that, unlike the one that followed the Iron Lady’s forced departure, will be decided not simply by its MPs, at least some of whom will have a pretty good idea of what the job entails and, therefore, the capacity of the contenders actually to do it, but by 100,000 or so grassroots members, who, with the best will in the world, maybe aren’t as well placed to judge.

Nor can those rank-and-file members be said to resemble anything approaching a microcosm of the country over which whoever they choose as their leader will soon be charged with running. They don’t look like it and they don’t think much like it either. This is particularly true when it comes to Brexit: indeed, they are three times as likely as voters to favour Britain leaving the EU without a deal.

And therein lies one of the most intriguing paradoxes of British politics — namely that the party that gives its members the least formal say on policy has found its policy most influenced by them, especially on the existential issue of Europe. And this in spite of the fact that their numbers have dwindled rather than burgeoned in recent years.

Without being able to discuss, let alone actually pass, a single policy resolution at conference (an occasion that, for the Conservatives, is little more than a corporate cash cow crossed with a beauty contest-cum-networking opportunity for the egregiously ambitious), the grass roots have helped turn what was once a heretical view held only by a few Eurosceptic ultras into what, for the majority of the party, is now an absolute given — namely that the UK is “better off out”.

Compare that to the influence (or rather the lack thereof) wielded by Labour’s much larger membership. For all their party’s much-vaunted internal democracy — albeit a democracy somewhat mitigated by the muscle of the trade unions — an overwhelmingly Remain rank and file has so far found it impossible to push its leadership off the fence on Brexit. And this in spite of the fact that said leadership was elected in no small part because it promised, in terms, and unlike Voldemort (sorry, I mean Tony Blair), to be guided by what they wanted.

Certainly, if Jeremy Corbyn changes his mind anytime soon it won’t be because he has finally decided to honour those promises, but because he (or rather his advisers) have been persuaded by the results of the European Parliament elections that his pro-Brexit prevarication is no longer the magical masterstroke it appeared to be the 2017 general election.

All of which suggests that member power does not, in the end, really lie in any formal involvement in a party’s policymaking — something that most leaders can navigate their way around anyway.

Rather it lies, first, in members’ dogged determination to pick as parliamentary candidates only those hopefuls who conform to their preferences on the one thing they decide really matters. And, second, in their perceived willingness to support the removal of their leader by someone else they can be persuaded to believe better reflects those preferences — something that MPs (actual and prospective) cannot help but pick up each and every time they get their ears bent at events back in their constituency.

Political parties, whether they call themselves leftwing or rightwing, mainstream or insurgent, are, like businesses, so much more than a bunch of organograms showing who’s in charge of who. They are living, breathing cultures — an ever-shifting balance of forces between the management, the workforce, the salesforce and the customer. Who runs the show is clearly important — but it’s by no means all that matters.

Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/65dd73f0-7e17-11e9-8b5c-33d0560f039c


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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