Democratisation of the internal workings of the Labour party was a key plank of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for party leader during the summer of 2015. He positioned himself as the members’ champion, pledging to give them more say over the direction of party policy. In one exchange in a debate with the other leadership contenders, Corbyn explicitly framed this as a zero-sum game between MPs and members:
“I don’t think we can go on having policy made by the leader, shadow cabinet, or parliamentary Labour party. It’s got to go much wider. Party members need to be more enfranchised…we’re living in a society where people communicate with each other very quickly and very easily…I think we’ve got to catch up as a party…and that means a big change in the way the Labour party does things.”
With Corbyn securing the support of a large majority of the Labour electorate, measures to enfranchise members have helped his wing of the party to gain control of party structures. For example, it has secured control of the ruling National Executive Committee in part by expanding the number of representatives elected by ordinary members to that key body.
On the other hand, despite hinting at using digital tools to give members more of a direct say over policy, the Corbyn wing has instead focused on delegate structures, winning control of as many internal decision-making positions as possible, and expanding the number and powers of elected positions his supporters could win. A rare exception took the form of an email sent out to members canvassing views before a vote in parliament on potential military action in Syria, but this wasn’t a formal ballot. There was no campaign, no vote, nor was the response to be binding: the leader’s message in the email made clear that he opposed action.
Corbyn’s caution on direct democracy stems from the inherent risks: what happens when the leader disagrees with its members? This has now reared its head over perhaps the most important issue of the day: Brexit. The divergence of opinion between Labour’s historically Eurosceptic leader and ordinary members, including many younger, recent joiners who were attracted to the party by Corbyn in the first place, has led to calls for him to listen to their concerns. 87% of members think Britain should stay in the single market, while 78% favour holding a second Brexit referendum, neither of which are currently Labour policy.
Labour’s position matters not just because they could find themselves in government, but because there are important Brexit bills in parliament coming up in the next year. If Labour were to come out unequivocally in favour of single market membership, they could rely on the support of most other opposition parties and quite possibly a few pro-European Conservative MPs. Given the Government – even with the support of the Democratic Unionist party from Northern Ireland – has a razor-thin majority, Labour could potentially win some of these key votes. Even if derailing Brexit entirely is out of reach, this could at least turn the final outcome away from the hard exit some on the Tory right are pushing for.
Seeing the opportunity for a change of direction, Andrew Adonis – a veteran of the last Labour government and arch-remainer – has called on Jeremy Corbyn to hold a referendum to determine the party’s Brexit policy. Adonis is no Corbynite, and the role reversal is noteworthy: it was not long ago that Labour moderates were telling Corbyn that he needed to be in step with the country as a whole, and to accept that MPs had a mandate from their constituents to respect as well as listening to the views of local members. Now it is the Labour leadership that finds itself at odds with members on a key issue of the day, arguing that Labour cannot be seen to be subverting the wider democratic will.
However, it is also worth noting that support for Adonis’ idea appears to be building across the party. Laura Pidcock, a rising star on the Labour left, admitted that the leadership had not had a direct conversation with members about Brexit, and said that if members adopted an anti-Brexit stance in an internal referendum she would accept the outcome.
Any current or former party leader would tell you that there are times when members’ preferences have to be overridden, especially when they are at odds with wider public opinion. Leaders have to lead, and sometimes that means taking their followers on a journey towards compromise. Whether Corbyn, who positioned himself as the champion of the membership and of internal democracy, can pull this off remains uncertain.
Can Labour members stop Brexit in its tracks? Probably not. Will they assert their will and force the leadership into a clear, soft Brexit position such as permanent EEA membership? Could such a move have a long-term impact on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union? That remains to be seen.