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Labour members electing the shadow cabinet would make things worse, not better

ByImogen Wilson

Sep 27, 2016

The latest attempt by MPs to soothe Labour’s factional battleground has seen them demand the right to elect members to the shadow cabinet. This would mean re-instating the process from before 2011, when Ed Miliband introduced the system we have now – the front bench being selected by the leader. Jeremy Corbyn then responded to this demand from Deputy Leader Tom Watson by suggesting that the membership should have a say, as part of his attempts to ‘democratise the Labour Party’.

There are two glaring issues with having a shadow cabinet that is elected by the membership. Firstly, elections to specific roles would create conflicting mandates. To whom would these ministers be primarily accountable? Would it be the leader, their constituents or the members who voted them in? If they were voted in with opposing views to the leader, would they use their role to challenge the leadership? Innovating new policy ideas and challenging their conservative cabinet counterpart are crucial parts of the shadow cabinet jobs, but this should be balanced with delivering the priorities of the leadership, not denouncing them. If Labour changes how the shadow cabinet is formed, it should be with the aim of making it less fractured, not more.

Secondly, Corbyn and his supporters often say that they want to make Labour more democratic, but seriously, what does that mean? If Labour members could vote for the shadow cabinet, the turnout would likely be incredibly low. This would leave the voting to be almost entirely controlled by factions, such as Momentum, and would not be a representative result of what the membership thinks. Is that more democratic, just because more people had the opportunity to take part? Surely not.

That’s also of course not to mention the quarter of a million pounds it costs to have a one-member-one-vote ballot, as pointed out by deputy leader Tom Watson on BBC4’s the Today Programme. It does seem that to give a vote to MPs, who have all been voted in by the general public, would be fairer and simpler than more membership ballots. On the same programme, Watson said he would be open to Corbyn’s suggestion that the shadow cabinet could be split into three sections: One selected by the leader, one by the membership and one by parliamentary MPs – an even more bureaucratic and confusing solution.

Now you could see cynically see Watson’s proposal for the parliamentary MPs to vote for the shadow cabinet as purely a way to undermine Corbyn’s power, but you could also see it as an olive branch. If the Labour Party is to exist as a broad church of ideas from the radical left to the centre of British politics, we need to move away from the far-left stronghold and see a range of ideas represented in the Party’s top jobs.

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