41 sitting Labour MPs are standing down at the next election. No big deal. 14 of the 41 have made the announcements too late for their constituency Labour parties to carry out their own selection procedures — with the result that the national party gets to pick the shortlist. The implication is that most of the 14 have delayed their announcement deliberately to move this power from local parties to the national party.
I can’t see how this would not be resented by Labour party branch members. For the Labour Party to repeatedly pull this stunt on them, either they must put up with it, or the national Party doesn’t care whether they put up with it or not. Either way, the situation indicates a great decrease in the significance of the Labour Party’s rank and file membership.
There is an inevitable, and universal, tension between party leadership and part grass-roots. The leadership want to get elected, and are willing to compromise their platform in order to gain power. The activists are also in favour of winning elections, but are likely to be much less willing to move to the political centre. A strong grass-roots organisation forcing the party away from the centre is an electoral liability.
Historically, the importance of the party membership has been in campaigning and fundraising. These tasks have been diminished by the rise of television and corporatism — if the party leadership can talk directly to the electorate, with money taken from industry (or, one day, state funds), the grass roots lose their traditional role.
The mass party is still essential in another role — one that used to be done so well that it wasn’t noticed, but is becoming difficult for modern diminished parties to fulfill. The party leadership is drawn from the rank and file. The Labour Party is still just about able to lay hands on sufficient high-calibre individuals to fill the front bench, and this is now proving one of its key advantages over the Opposition. Blair, Brown, Straw, Blunkett — whatever their faults, these are intelligent people, capable of managing underlings and gaining respect.
That generation, however, joined the Labour Party in the 1970s, when selecting candidates and electing the NEC made the party membership more important, and presumably made membership of the party more fulfilling.
It may be that the old route — party member to councillor (or trade union official) to MP to senior figure — might be replaced by a career path that winds through the party headquarters: researcher, media advisor, policy advisor, whatever. It seems unlikely that this could provide as large a pool of potential candidates to draw on as did the constituency committees of old. What is the Labour leader of 2020 doing today?