CCHQ Should Not Automatically Protect Tory MPs From Deselection

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A seat in the House of Commons is not a job for life. And just as the Parliamentary Labour Party should not be encumbered with MPs increasingly at odds with their local constituency parties, so Tory MPs should not be immune from deselection if they repeatedly ignore the priorities and concerns of grassroots Conservative Party members

Try as I might, I simply cannot get myself worked up about the government’s “shock” defeat over the amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. While the legislative drama seems to have Hard Brexiteers up in arms and Remainers parading their newfound (and one suspects rather less than genuine) love and respect for Parliamentary sovereignty, I don’t see that these machinations will have any real bearing on the eventual outcome.

So Parliament gets to have a “meaningful” vote on the terms of the UK-EU agreement? Fine, so be it – though I have always held that the people, not Parliament, should be sovereign, and that no government should be able to divest itself of fundamentally important powers or seek to repatriate such powers without an explicit and specific mandate from the people. Of course, if we had a written constitution then such things would likely be enshrined automatically rather than be up for furious debate as new issues and obstacles are encountered along the road. But then if we had a written constitution we likely would never have ceded so much sovereignty to the European Union in the first place and would not now be in this position, making it all a rather moot point.

Of far more interest to me is the fact that talk of deselection of MPs has bubbled up again. We saw this last year as Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters sought to cement their control of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and for democratic reasons I supported the idea of mandatory reselection in principle. And now there are new calls to deselect sitting MPs, this time from Conservative politicians and activists angry at what they see as the Tory rebels’ deliberate undermining of the prime minister and the country’s negotiating position with the EU:

On this occasion I do not share the Tory Brexiteer outrage, but their case is every bit as compelling as was that of the Corbynite leftists who wanted to rid their party of centrist MPs who do not reflect the values and priorities of their local associations. While I personally find it hard to work myself into a spittle-flecked fury at the antics of Dominic Grieve or Heidi Allen, if it is the case that these MPs represent Leave-voting constituencies and a majority of local party activists find their voting record objectionable then I see no reason why they should be protected and continually re-imposed on an unwilling local party organisation.

Of course, CCHQ and the Tory Party machinery vehemently disagrees. Reflexively opposed to any notion that grassroots activists or local constituency associations should have any input as to the direction, policies or running of the party, CCHQ sees individual conservatives as little more than indentured servants campaign material distributors at election time, to be put to work when necessary and then roundly ignored the rest of the cycle.

Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s intellectual bloodbank-in-exile, makes it perfectly clear that the present Conservative leadership remains determined to run the party (if not the entire country) as their personal private fiefdom, and that local constituency associations should shut up and do as they are told, whether they like the candidate or MP chosen for them or not. Timothy unapologetically and shamelessly spelled out as much on Twitter today:

This is an open admission that Theresa May, the prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, saw fit to interfere in local constituency business and keep an unwanted MP foisted on an unwilling local party.

But what the hell business should it be of the prime minister who gets to stand as a Conservative candidate in a local constituency? This is everything that is wrong with the current Tory party – overcentralised and overbearing, with CCHQ pig-headedly declaring that it knows best while confidently marching us all to ruin. Given the litany of gaffes, unforced errors, scandals and bad judgements which have emanated from Theresa May’s cabinet, I would sooner entrust a panel of ten individuals randomly selected from the phone book to choose good Tory candidates than I would have Theresa May make the judgement call.

Of course, there is a counter-argument to all this, as a reader pointed out on Twitter:

We certainly don’t want a situation where conscientious, independent-minded MPs are peremptorily driven from office or from their political party because they fail to toe the hardest of hard lines demanded by their activists. We have recently witnessed just such a phenomenon lead the Republican Party to ruin (at best Pyrrhic victory) in America, where a succession of primary challenges and forced retirements saw an influx of ideologically uncompromising Tea Party politicians into Congress, hard-liners who thwarted any attempt at sane governance in the second term of Barack Obama, rendered the Republican congressional caucus unmanageable and ineffective and set the stage for Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP.

In actual fact we need both of these opposing forces – greater responsiveness to grassroots opinion and a cool, dispassionate process to adjudicate in the event of rogue or underperforming MPs – to be in balance. We need a far greater measure of accountability of MPs to their local party associations, and a more meritocratic system of selection (preferably primaries) which draws more people into the political process and prevents the mediocre-but-well-connected from leveraging their connection to CCHQ to be shortlisted or ultimately foisted on a constituency.

But we also need to build safeguards into the system so that the bar for triggering deselection is high but achievable – the recourseshould only become available at the time of a general election or by-election, so that MPs are judged on the body of their work and their voting record throughout a Parliament and not on the basis of any one single contentious vote.

Ultimately, the resurgent argument about deselection of MPs reminds us that Brexit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for meaningful democratic renewal in Britain. Brexit was never going to be a cure-all no matter what some cynical Brexiteers may have implied, and we must all now recognise this fact. Achieving Brexit only to return power to the hands of the same MPs who negligently frittered it away in the first place, and who think so little of the people who campaign to put them in office that they seek to be made immune from their judgement, will not solve anything.

To this extent, the worries of Hard Brexiteers that the EFTA/EEA route may be used as cover by some Remainers in order to thwart Brexit entirely are quite valid. When there are so few penalties or recourses available to voters when politicians betray their own supporters, the trust required to sustain a well-functioning democracy is inevitably corroded.

But the real tragedy is that when we should be discussing how to respond to the period of disruption and discontinuity facing Britain, developing bold new mutually-reinforcing policies to tackle 21st century challenges, instead the Conservative Party is bickering about process and thwarting any attempts to clear out the intellectual deadwood and bring in some new ideas and personalities. Constitutional and electoral reform is important and eventually necessary, but there are pressing issues facing Britain which cannot be put on the back burner while we argue about the rules of play. Unfortunately, we seem less interested in these big debates and more interested in arguing about process stories.

When the Conservative Party fails to stand for anything – and Lord knows that under the rootless leadership of Theresa May, the Tories stand for little more than surviving the day at hand – it has plenty of time to devote to juvenile, internecine spats like the one playing out over the EU Withdrawal Bill rebels.

This is highly entertaining for the political media and a gift for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, but very bad indeed for everyone else.

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Julia Hartley-Brewer Is Wrong To Fear Mandatory Reselection Of MPs

Why are conservatives so concerned that the Labour Party is moving in a more socialist direction?

On last night’s Question Time, journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer – a journalist with whom this blog often agrees – held forth on the state of the Labour Party, and calls by some activists for the implementation of mandatory re-selection of MPs prior to a general election in order to make the Parliamentary Labour Party more representative of the membership.

Huffington Post reports:

Journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer said Britons would “never elect a Socialist Government” on Thursday’s edition of the programme, as Corbyn is expected to be re-elected Labour leader easily on Saturday.

She was speaking after Blairite Labour MP Liz Kendall was the target of an audience member who advocated the mandatory re-selection of MPs before they could defend their seats in a General Election, something Corbyn supporters could use to remove those critical of the Labour Party leader.

“What a depressing conversation, genuinely,” Hartley-Brewer said.

“I’m a great believer in democracy. The thing about democracy is you have a Government but you also have Her Majesty’s Opposition.

“The reality is the Labour Party needs to make a decision about whether it wants to be a serious alternative Government in waiting or a Friday night Marxist book club. It can’t be both.”

This, of course, is a common refrain from conservative types either hoping to have some fun at Labour’s expense or express genuine concern about what they see as an unbalancing of Britain’s political system.

Personally, I don’t understand why so many prominent movement Conservatives – people who would never vote Labour in a million years – are so upset that the Labour Party is once again expressing genuine socialist tendencies, and desperate for it to tack back to the centre and become an electoral threat to the Tories again. Even after the EU referendum have these people learned nothing about the dangers of a stultifying cross-party consensus in the middle of British politics which shuts out whole swathes of people who dare to hold staunchly conservative or socialist (or individualist/authoritarian) beliefs?

The Huffington Post continues:

Hartley Brewer then defended [Liz] Kendall, calling her a “very good, very sensible hard-working MP” who “talks about the real issues affecting real people”. She bemoaned the fate of Labour MPs who face either “deselection for speaking sense” or losing their seats at an election.

I can’t help but feel that Julia Hartley-Brewer is failing to consider the upside of mandatory reselection for conservatives. Finally, real small government conservatives would have a mechanism to get rid of statist, pro-European Tory-lite interlopers like the pointless Anna Soubry, and those numerous other MPs who pretended to be staunchly eurosceptic during their initial constituency selection procedures only to come running to the Remain campaign like loyal dogs the moment that David Cameron snapped his fingers. Don’t Conservative Party members deserve a parliamentary party – and a government – which more closely reflects their interests and priorities, too? And what better way to do this than through mandatory reselection?

Yet many people with whom this blog usually finds common cause seem to see this issue differently. They seem aghast at the idea that a party founded on socialist ideals should actually dare to be socialist, which is puzzling to me. Julia Hartley-Brewer will probably never vote Labour for the remainder of her lifetime – so why the concern that Labour avoid becoming a “Marxist book club”? At a time when the Conservative Party is so soul-sappingly centrist in outlook, would she really rather have a battle-ready, equally centrist Labour Party nipping at its heels?

As this blog recently commented:

It is as though it is no longer enough for the party we personally support to reflect our own views and priorities – we now expect opposing parties to reflect them too. This is a politically stultifying and increasingly ludicrous state of affairs. As a small-c conservative I believe strongly in maintaining our nuclear deterrent, a strong military, the NATO alliance, low taxes and small government. But I don’t for a moment expect the leader of the Labour Party to hold these exact positions, too. And while it would be calamitous were Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister by some dark miracle and actually enact all of his policies, I trust in the wisdom of the British people to see through his policies and reject Corbynism at the ballot box.

And that’s the difference, I suppose, between this blog and the political and media establishment. I trust the people to look at the political parties and refuse to vote for a party campaigning on a manifesto which is so clearly damaging to our economy and national interests. The establishment do not trust the people, because they do not respect the people. They have no faith that the British people will make rational decisions when presented with a range of political alternatives – therefore they see it as their job to artificially limit our choice beforehand, taking certain options off the table by declaring them “unacceptable” and suppressing their very discussion by mainstream politicians.

Besides, who should be the judge of whether an MP is “sensible” and “hardworking”? Come general election time, surely the best people to pass judgment are those from the local constituency party, who know best whether their MP is adequately representing their values. If they are dissatisfied with their candidate, why should their views be steamrollered by a cliquish Westminster conspiracy to protect the centrist Good Old Boys (and Girls)?

If Labour’s centrist MPs really do speak such “sense”, they will surely have no difficulty in winning the support of thousands of non-aligned voters who do not subscribe to the Jeremy Corbyn agenda. If they are so wise and pragmatic, surely they could not fail to succeed by striking out on their own and forming a new centrist party?

And yet the centrists are going nowhere, because they have no compelling vision of their own to offer the electorate, and many of them would struggle to even win back their deposits if they ran as independent candidates or under the banner of a new centrist party. Therefore their only hope, in the short term, is to cling on to their seats despite often being loathed by their own local parties, in the hope that one of them will come up with an alternative policy agenda which actually commands enthusiasm and respect. And frankly, few Labour centrist MPs have done anything to deserve such an unfair helping hand.

The cold, hard truth is that the Labour Party has shifted decisively to the Left. Julia Hartley-Brewer’s attitude seems to be “to hell with the party members who actually do all of the hard work and unglamorous campaigning – they should be lumbered with a centrist leader they despise, just so that British politics can continue to be fought over a vanishingly small sliver of real estate in the centre ground”. Personally, I find that idea repellent.

In a democracy, decisions are made and influence is wielded by the people who actually bother to show up. And right now, the Corbynite Left are showing up and making their voices heard, while the various centrists (despite their prestige) are able to conjure up all the excitement of a cold bucket of sick. The left-wing have earned the right to be heard, while the centrists have demonstrably not. Hearing what the Corbynites have to say and abiding by their wishes is therefore not only the fair thing for the Labour Party to do, it is the only remotely democratic thing for the Labour Party to do.

And the proper reaction from conservatives is not to brim over with sympathy for the poor Labour centrist MPs who have so grievously lost touch with their own party base – it is to demand a similar rebirth of radicalism on the Right.

Julia Hartley-Brewer is aghast at the idea of mandatory reselection for Labour MPs, but I say bring it on. Let the Tories have their own version of Momentum too, something to put a rocket up the government’s complacent and depressingly un-ideological posterior – and then give Conservative Party members the same opportunity to shape the future of their party, hopefully by dragging it away from the smoking ruins of Cameron-era centrism.

 

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