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Internal party democracy - post includes A Level sample essay

Mike McCartney

20th July 2021

A story from this week's paper on Starmer's battle with left-wingers is a reminder that party policy is shaped by internal battles within UK political parties

This week it has been reported that the Labour Party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, plans to expel a number of factions that can be considered as far-left. The plan is, that this would give him more control over shaping policy in the coming months and years, with rumours of a snap election being held before the scheduled end of Boris Johnson's five year term.

As the paper reports:

"Keir Starmer is preparing to support a purge of far-left factions that were vocal supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

After 15 months of being party leader, Starmer is expected to support a proposal before the party’s governing body on Tuesday to proscribe four named groups.

The proposal, first reported in the Daily Mirror, has angered leftwing members who believe this may be part of a wider purge of the party.

Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee will be asked to proscribe Resist and Labour Against the Witchhunt, which claims antisemitism allegations were politically motivated, and Labour In Exile Network, which expressly welcomes expelled or suspended members.

Socialist Appeal, a group that describes itself as a Marxist voice of Labour and youth, would also become a banned group. Anyone found to be a member of any of these groups could be automatically expelled from the Labour party."

The full story is here: Keir Starmer expected to back purge of far-left Labour factions | Labour | The Guardian

So this raises the wider question of whether the rank-and-file make party policy, or is the party leaders? Well, the answer, is it often is in life, is that it depends.

As you'll see below, this is a sample essay I wrote earlier in the year. Though, as ever, I would express caution as seeing this as some sort of model answer, because as soon as I finish typing these things, they almost instantly go out of date. So view it as a template for how to structure an answer. The broad themes will remain true for the foreseeable, but examples will have to be updated as any new exam approaches. Such is the nature of continuity and change in British Politics as a subject.

‘Party leaders rather than ordinary party members determine party policy.’ Discuss. (25 marks)

In the post war period the UK’s party system can be regarded somewhat oligopolistic, with electoral competition being dominated by the Conservative (occupying Number 10 for 46 years) and Labour parties (in office for 30 years), and occasionally being challenged by the Liberal Democrats (in coalition for 5 years). Notwithstanding some evidence of a move to multi-partyism, it is important for the healthy functioning of the democratic process in the UK that this dominance is balanced by a system of internal party democracy whereby party members can significantly shape the direction of their party in terms of selecting their leader, election of candidates, and policy making. With regards to the latter, political scientists, such as those at the Democratic Audit, have said that the influence of ordinary party members is fairly minimal. Closer investigation should reveal whether this is a universal truth.

Ordinary party members are regarded as the “rank and file”. They are registered, pay a fee and don’t hold senior positions. Currently, Labour has more members (at over half a million) than the other parties combined (under just around half a million).

Although the Conservative Party is now outnumbered by the SNP in terms of membership, it makes sense to start with them first since they have been in power the most since 1945, and are in government as we speak. Prior to 1998 very little was known about the internal structure of the Conservative Party since it had no official constitution, and only existed historically in Parliament. After the landslide defeat of 1997, William Hague sought to change all that, promising no less than a “cultural revolution” within the party. Hague’s plans to reorganise the party were approved by 96% of party members (though only one third voted). Constituency Associations were to remain the key organisation at local level, but a quad new bodies were set up: The Board, The National Convention, The National Convention Executive, and The Policy Forum, all intended to allow ordinary members to play a part in devising policy by making proposals to conference. It may seem on the surface that these were democratising moves, but in reality the Tories have historically been and would remain a very top down party. The first signs of this plus ca change came very quickly with Hague’s initiative of internal ballots on policy. On the one hand they appear to give ordinary members more sway on policy making, but ballots are only triggered by the Party Leader (such as the overwhelming vote in favour of ruling out Britain’s membership of the Euro)! Special consideration must be given to the role of national party conferences here, since they are the annual focus of media attention and often serve as a springboard for policy announcements. As far as the Tories are concerned, they are rather unique in giving theirs no formal role in policy making. At most, leaders have been known to “test the waters” by “deciding the mood” of the conference during a major speech. This is far less important now, of course, as the use of internal polling has increased, and strategy has become far more professionalised via hiring external policy advisers like Lynton Crosby. As Richard Kelly points out, though, local and regional conferences have played a more significant role in policy making, so the influence of party members cannot be completely dismissed. But the fact remains that the Conservative Party is consistently ranked bottom by academic experts in audits of ordinary member influence on policy compared to other parties, with leaders exercising more personal influence than is the case with the others. Witness the volte face on grammar schools: Cameron was lukewarm, and therefore party policy was against, but May is in pro-grammar, and so it became official policy. Under Boris Johnson, policy on the biggest issue of the day, the response to covid, seems to be dictated by the PM on an almost hourly basis. Therefore to a large extent party leaders determine policy rather than leaders when it comes to the Tories.

Labour underwent significant reform in the 1980s and 1990s in an attempt to resolve tensions between members and the leadership. Indeed a much more radical series of changes than the Tories would undergo later in the century. But this was not a battle between ordinary members and party leaders, but between a hard core of activists and the leadership. Indeed it should be noted that Blair sought to widen the influence of grassroots members as an antidote to the hard left, in order to make the party more appealing to the wider electorate. The most obvious example is Blair’s abandonment of the old Clause IV of the party’s constitution, which shed the party of its commitment to the nationalisation of the means of production, supported in a vote by 90% of constituency members. The use of this internal ballot by Blair was, he said, evidence of his wish to democratise the party. He also argued that new policy making processes like the National Policy Forum and Joint Policy Committee opened up a more continuous and deliberative policy making process to the benefit of members. Opponents of these reforms would argue that changes to policy making put more power in the hands of the leader (e.g. he chairs the JPC) and the National Executive Committee, since they shape what is discussed at Conference. Furthermore, the internal ballots (the second was on the 1997 manifesto promises) were presented as “back me or sack me” issues and gave no real choice to members – and the process has not been repeated in over 20 years. In terms of the National Party Conference its role has been downgraded significantly, and it is no longer the site of running battles between rival party factions. To some extent these developments are understandable. Party leaders are keen to avoid what they see as highly damaging media coverage of disunity or adoption of policies which risk being a “difficult sell” to voters. Yet, the changing nature of party conferences has clearly become a source of frustration for some party members, as Tony Benn expressed in his reflections on Labour’s 2000 annual conference: “Once we had regular and proper argument […] now we just let off balloons, sing pop songs, greet showbiz celebrities and, if we’re lucky, have the odd debate”. And in power, when policy is theoretically decided by Cabinet, Blair repeatedly went against the wishes of his party: foundation hospitals, tuition fees, anti-terror legislation, and last but not least, the Iraq War in 2003. With regards to the previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, he promised to listen more to his party, and “empower party members” but so far policy changes that chime with his members have come into effect simply because he has always favoured them, like railway renationalisation. But in 2015 conference blocked a vote on Trident renewal, which Corbyn was against, because it wasn’t high on their agenda. And then there was a significant schism between his and his wider party’s outlook on Britain’s relationship with the EU, with members leaving over the issue. So the picture is mixed, and with Corbyn in charge, the picture continued to be kaleidoscopic. Under Starmer's leadership, we can see that his switch to accepting Brexit more-or less fits with the mood of voters Labour is trying to get back, but not the organ that is the mas membership of the party. Ultimately, however, there’s no doubt that the balance of power lies with the leader.

The Liberal Democrats are the most democratically structured of the UK’s “main” parties, and pride themselves on their democratic structures. The locus of power is much closer to the mass membership than the party leader than is the case for the Tories and Labour. The Lib Dems are highly decentralised, organised on a federal basis, and provide considerable autonomy to national parties (E, W &S), regional parties and local parties, and various specified associations (e.g. Ethnic Minority LDs). All of these organisations sub-units can submit motions to the federal conference, which is the sovereign policy-making body. However, it is generally recognised that most substantive policy is developed by the Federal Policy Committee, which is chaired by the party leader. It has also been argued that the reality of policy-making within the Liberal Democrats is that MPs play a far more significant role than is generally recognised and the influence has clearly grown as the size of the parliamentary party has expanded – in part because of the staffing and other resources which MPs, in particular, have access to. This tendency for Liberal Democrat parliamentarians to exercise power far beyond that ascribed to them in the party’s constitution has almost certainly been strengthened since the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with the Conservatives in May 2010. Even the party’s ‘triple-lock mechanism’, designed to provide members with the power of veto over significant changes of strategic direction, is perhaps best understood as a case of party members following the lead of the parliamentary party. Therefore the Lib Dems are more internally democratic, but the respective influence of party leaders and ordinary members can best be described as evenly balanced.

In terms of minor parties, the Greens are the most democratic of any UK party currently. The central role of their membership is a key part of their identity and practice, and this is reflected in their policy making processes. It takes as few as four members to propose a conference motion, other members can then propose amendments, it then goes to a workshop for discussion, and conference votes to adopt or reject the motion en masse, i.e. without amendments added at conference. But there has been some tightening of control as electoral success has increased, e.g. in Brighton council. The SNP have also exhibited centralising tendencies in recent years. Originally a decentralised body, with decision making in the hands of delegates at annual conference, post-devolution it has become professionalised and more power is now in the hands of the elected politicians.

Ultimately therefore, the premise of the question is broadly true in nature. It is also true, however, that where the balance of power is located varies between parties (Tories the least, the Greens the most), and within parties (with the rank and file tending to be happy to cede some control when in office). In both cases it seems, therefore, that ordinary members are satisfied with having less influence if their party is in office.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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