The parliamentary position of small ‘o’ opposition parties
In the post-referendum turmoil facing the Labour Party, there are increasing questions about whether the party might split. Despite shadow cabinet resignations and a Parliamentary Labour Party vote of no confidence, Jeremy Corbyn seems determined to hang on, and to force a contest if necessary. If that proceeds, a split looks very likely. But what would this mean in organisational terms: both inside parliament and beyond? Meg Russell investigates.
Events in the Labour Party over the last week have been extraordinary. Accused of a lacklustre performance in the Brexit referendum, party leader Jeremy Corbyn has lost the majority of his frontbench through resignations – sparked by his dramatic sacking of Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn. Labour MPs have now agreed a motion ‘That this PLP has no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party’, by 172 votes to 40. Yet still Corbyn seems determined to hang on, and to force a contest in the wider party, hoping to retain the support of his activist base. As noted in a previous post this follows rule changes turning the Labour leadership contest into a fully ‘one member one vote’ process, and giving voting rights to ‘supporters’ who signed up for just £3. Left-wing activists flooded into Labour to vote for Corbyn, with the unprecedented consequence in British politics that a parliamentary party was left with a leader which it did not support. The problem in the referendum was not only that Corbyn campaigned half-heartedly, and was even accused of actively undermining the Labour Remain campaign, but that his presence from the very outset meant that the media and public had ceased taking Labour seriously.
The prospect of a contest raises the very serious possibility of a Labour Party split. If there were a contest and Corbyn won, the majority of his MPs might well feel forced to abandon the party. If he lost, he and his supporters might be forced out. Indeed a split might even be seen by some in the party as preferable to a contest – which would run all summer and could only have a messy end. But how would a Labour Party split work in practice? What, in particular, would be the immediate parliamentary consequences? What are the wider organisational repercussions? This post focuses particularly on the former, but touches on the latter – concluding that they are far more difficult.
Since the 2015 general election the government has introduced two measures –proposals relating to trade union political funds and cuts to Short money – that have the potential to affect the funding of at least some political parties. Justin Fisher argues that reforms such as these that have an asymmetric impact on parties could have longer-term consequences by causing a future government to exact ‘revenge’. That would do little for the prospects of reaching consensus on the vexed question of party finance reform.
The phrase ‘stop-go’ has become a useful means by which one can characterise Britain’s approach to party finance reform since 2000, when the wide ranging Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) was passed. Despite PPERA, the ‘problem’ of British party finance has refused to go away and, in the relatively short period since its introduction in 2001, there have been two subsequent government sponsored inquiries, both of which have recommended significant further reform but have failed to see their proposals implemented. The result is that Britain has developed a stop-go approach to reform, whereby reviews are entered into with reforming zeal, only for the ensuing proposals to be shelved by a failure of the main political parties to reach agreement. However, since the 2015 election two measures have been introduced which have the potential to affect the funding of at least some parties. In both cases the final proposals are likely to be somewhat less radical than was originally envisaged but could nonetheless have significant short- and longer-term consequences.
The Trade Union Bill
The election of the Conservative majority government in May 2015 very quickly signalled that reforms related to party funding would be attempted, not as a comprehensive attempt at reform, but with possibly far reaching consequences for some parties. In July 2015, a Trade Union Bill was presented, which included a clause requiring trade unions with a political fund to operate a ‘contracting-in’ system rather than a ‘contracting-out’ system. This had been a Conservative Party manifesto commitment, but went to the heart of the Labour Party’s relationship with the trade unions, following the Trade Union Act 1913. This established that for trade unions to engage in political activity, they must create a separate political fund. This covered all political activity – not just that with the Labour Party – and trade union members were required to actively ‘contract-out’ if they wanted to avoid paying this modest additional fee. The 1913 Act laid the ground rules for an important aspect of Labour funding for much of the next 100 years. Political activity through the Labour Party would be expressed collectively through a union’s decision to affiliate to the party.