Who holds the power in Labour?

After the false start of the fortnight in September, Parliament has now properly returned to work. It will sit, with one minor break, until mid-December. Based on the very first day of its sitting, it may not be a particularly happy time for the Labour Party.

Monday’s meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) was, one participant said (and I edit slightly), “a shambles”. The argument was supposedly about the Labour leadership’s volte-face on whether they were going to sign up to the Parliamentary parlour game that is George Osborne’s fiscal charter. What the discussion was really about, however, is who rules – the leadership, the MPs, the Party or neither?

Many Labour members may well feel entitled to think that MPs should not create so many problems. Over two thirds of the Labour electorate, including a good majority of actual members, voted for Jeremy Corbyn to become leader. The PLP should therefore fall into line; it’s not about being loyal to the leadership, it’s about being loyal to the membership. It’s a simple and strong argument.

But many MPs (and it is MPs in particular that I am focusing on) will refuse for good reason. They are representatives, not delegates, bound to follow their conscience rather than the whims of their members. Anyway, they are answerable to their Constituency Labour Party (CLP) and, in the final analysis, to their voters, not to the wishes of Labour members who will likely never cast a vote for that individual in their life.

The challenge goes that if you want to harangue your MP for not backing Mr Corbyn then you can; you only need to turn up to your local CLP meeting to do so. If you are still dissatisfied then you can always try and deselect your MP, though this is very hard – deliberately so in the British political tradition.

The principle of who controls whom and who answers to whom is a perpetual difficulty in democratic politics with strong political parties. In such instances, a related challenge is one of party management; here Mr Corbyn faces huge problems He is not helped by the fact that there was never much support for him within the PLP in the first place; he needed just 35 votes out of over 200 MPs, and many of them were given reluctantly to “open up the debate”. Thanks again to Labour’s ludicrous internal electoral rules for that one.

But Mr Corbyn’s own record of constantly defying the party whip under the leaderships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown count hugely against him. Why, many MPs may reasonably ask, are we being told to step into line now because of Mr Corbyn’s mandate when Mr Corbyn himself, and his allies, could happily ignore the mandate of Tony Blair’s handy victory in the 1994 Labour leadership campaign and his even bigger general election victory?

Let’s be clear: whatever excitable political correspondents on Twitter say, most people will happily ignore most internal party ructions. This only lasts for so long, however, as the miserable example of the Conservative Party in the 1990s shows. After a while people do begin to notice when a party is divided against itself and very few political parties that form a circular firing squad ever get elected to office. Most MPs know this; but who’s going to stop them saying what they wish and acting as they feel?