What has happened to our Parliamentary democracy?

What has happened to our Parliamentary democracy?

James Barge

Former adviser to Ed Miliband, James Barge reflects on the fateful decision of Labour’s NEC and laments the present state of our democracy.



Yesterday the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) met. It had a decision to make and it’s one we should all care about, regardless of our politics.

The NEC’s central decision was one of interpretation of the Labour Party rules; whether to grant Jeremy Corbyn an automatic place on the ballot paper or to level the playing field for all candidates and ask him to seek the nomination of 51 MPs and MEPs as any challenger will have to do. They ruled in favour of Corbyn.

That the rules were so ambiguous in the first place will perplex many in the private sector; organisations in the main with clear governance rules and procedures. The debate would simply not have been required.

While it’s easy to dismiss this as being a Labour Party issue, it isn’t. We all have a stake in the decision they came to yesterday. A decision arrived at largely on factional grounds and not in the interests of the country.

We have no effective opposition. The fundamental principle of parliamentary democracy is fatally undermined. By voting to allow Corbyn a free run at the leadership again, the current stasis within the party continues. By the time a leader is confirmed in September, we will have been without an effective opposition for months – some would say we have been without one since Corbyn was elected.

Set aside for a moment the fact that Corbyn has lost the confidence of those he seeks to lead in Parliament and the fact that in any other organisation a leader’s position would be untenable. He stands a man with a job title only, and a selfless tenacity to survive. Not only is he willing to sacrifice the Labour Party, he’s willing to sacrifice the scrutiny that government requires. That’s the element we should all be interested in.

A shadow cabinet and frontbench that can’t be filled. The business of urgent questions and ministerial oversight a secondary consideration. Thankfully Labour Members in the House of Lords have stepped up to the plate. Delivering many, if not all, of the legislative scrutiny that Corbyn has sought the credit for. But even they have taken the unprecedented step of working independently of the Leader and his office.

It should not be this way. You cannot have a Leader of the Opposition who does not command the support of his parliamentary party. You cannot have an Opposition without positions, discipline or agenda.

At this stage I should put my cards on the table – although my CV betrays me. I am Labour. Not Blairite, Brownite, Corbynite – Labour. I joined the party at 16 and worked for it for seven years, including two years with a party leader.

I want to say that Labour is not made up of people who threaten elected representatives, current staff, former staff and anyone who dares criticise Corbyn with bricks, words of hatred and much much worse. But it is that currently. The memory of Jo Cox so sadly appears to be a distant memory for these people.

Yes, fourteen members of the NEC yesterday voted for the future of the Labour Party, but in doing so they were voting for a functioning opposition in the interests of the principle of parliamentary democracy. They did so without fear or favour. But they lost because eighteen voted for their own self-interest.

The task now for Labour, in the interests of the country, is to resolve this issue and unite. But should Corbyn win again, that will simply not be possible. His position is untenable. So as we begin Brexit and move into a new Government under a new Prime Minister the current situation could continue.

Regardless of the possible consequences of that for the future of the Labour Party, we should all be asking the question; what has happened to our parliamentary democracy?