The first embryonic political parties in the UK were born inside the House of Commons itself as the members of that institution formed themselves into groups around different opinions or personalities. For generations, the bodies which formed outside parliament in support of the parties were known as ‘associations’ rather than parties; each constituency would have its own ‘Conservative and Unionist Association’ or ‘Liberal Association’. These bodies existed to support the parties, but were not formally part of them; the parties only existed inside parliament itself. The idea that anyone outside parliament could join the Conservative Party is a novel one, which has existed for a few decades at most.
In this view of the world, MPs are elected to express their own opinions freely, not to represent the views of any outside group or party; and they are answerable to the electorate as a whole not to any party or other sub-section of the electorate. That view of the world is, effectively, what the unwritten constitution decrees. And from this perspective, it is indeed outrageous, as Owen Smith seems to be saying, that members of a political party outside parliament should ever dare to think that they can hold their elected members to account, let alone replace them with people closer to their own views.
However, what this man claiming to be steeped in Labour traditions and values seems to be forgetting is that the Labour Party did not originate in the same way, but had a very different origin. The Labour Party was started outside parliament, as a movement to give expression to interests and opinions which were not represented inside the legislature. It was a movement which sought to change the world, not merely run it better, and it was a movement owned and controlled by its members at large, not by the tiny minority of them who would ever become members of the legislature.
From that perspective, the anger of many ordinary members at the outrageous behaviour of a tiny minority of members – who just happen to be the party’s voice in the legislature – who are unwilling to accept the decisions of the membership, let alone attempt to represent them, is entirely understandable. Why wouldn’t people who feel that way seek to replace people who they see as being out of touch with their views and concerns? And why should they not have every right to do so?
One of the things which Labour’s current row is highlighting is the extent to which that party’s elected members have signed up to the idea that they are answerable only to the electorate at large, not to their party. This blind acceptance of the constitutional status quo is nothing new, of course. (And it isn’t only true in relation to matters constitutional either.) It’s been true for most of the party’s history, even if it hasn’t always been as obvious as it has been over the past few decades.It would be a brave person who would predict the outcome at this stage, but it is at least a possibility that two parties will emerge from the wreckage. One of them will be a party belonging to the membership, run largely outside parliament but with a phalanx of perhaps 30 – 40 MPs as its parliamentary wing – a bit like the original Labour Party. The other will be a party with perhaps 170 or so MPs, but with virtually no organisation outside the legislature itself. Like the Tories of old, this will be a party born inside the legislature rather than a result of political activity outside, seeking to form support groups to do their bidding at election time. And looking at the policy positions of most of them, that won’t be the only similarity with the Tories.