Saturday, 26 March 2016

Labour's experiment in expanding party affiliation

Jessica Garland

Few if any in the UK Labour Party anticipated the consequences of the decision back in July 2014 to change how the party selects its leader. The decision to move away from an electoral college and open up rights to supporters as well as members and affiliated trade unionists has led to the election of a party leader who has stood outside the mainstream of his party for decades. A leader who stood because it was his turn and was nominated by his colleagues merely to ‘widen the debate’, finds himself unexpectedly leading his party.

This procedural change has had profound consequences for the party. The party’s leader now has a mandate from the majority of members, trade union affiliates and overwhelming support amongst registered supporters (many of whom have since become full members), but he does not command the support of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The party at the grassroots has seen huge increases in membership and party meetings have burgeoned with new attendees but there is fear of entryism and suggestion of moves to deselect existing representatives. Yet whilst these outcomes are specific to Labour at this point in time, the move to expanding affiliation and opening political rights to leader selection is not.

In an era of individualised political participation and apparent decline in formal memberships (in older parties at least), political parties across Europe are experimenting with opening up selection and policy influence and offering a wider range of ways to affiliate. It is a shift described by Susan Scarrow as ‘multi-speed’ membership - retaining traditional formal membership whilst expanding looser affiliation options - and it has the potential to create tensions within parties, particularly when new affiliation options are layered on top of existing membership structures.

Even before the results of the leadership contest were announced, the party was struggling with the realities of a ‘multi-speed’ way of organising. During the summer of Labour’s leadership contest under the new rules, the party found itself engaged in a vetting operation involving a large number of party staff in reviewing supporter sign-ups. Newly registered supporters were checked for past behaviour such as supporting other candidates or online activity that would appear against the party’s values. The vetting process may have primarily been driven by concerns over a potential legal challenge but it also suggests that the party was struggling with something new. After all, Labour is a party that has always engaged non-members in its internal processes and the vetting of voters was not considered necessary in elections previously when up to 2.7 million ballots were sent to union affiliates regardless of the degree of their support. The discomfort the party experienced as a result of widening that constituency suggests a deeper problem.

In my article for Political Quarterly I argue that Scarrow’s theory of the relationship between multi-speed organising and organisational ideology helps to explain this tension. The change in rights and privileges within the party can be seen as a challenge to the party’s ‘narrative of representation’. Parties, like Labour, which have traditionally represented group interests and cemented their links to these groups through membership, have a particular concept of political legitimacy, with membership (and affiliation) at its core. Though Labour has moved a long way from a group representation model, the move to a partially open primary represents a further shift in who the party represents, in who it is accountable to, in where authority resides. It explains why opening up to a wider group of supporters was difficult for the party and it is a tension that continues to make itself felt as members of groups supporting the new leader debate whether or not non-members and members of other parties should be allowed in.

As Labour struggles with the dramatic changes a switch in procedural rules has occasioned, it is important to look beyond the factional debates at the broader shift in representation and legitimacy; a shift that raises fundamental questions of where power resides and who owns the party.

You can read Jessica’s full article 'A Wider Range of Friends: Multi-speed Organising during the 2015 Labour Leadership Contest' here.

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