Whips, Marriage and the irrelevance of consensuality?

The news that the Labour party will allowing members of the parliamentary Labour party a free vote on the question of whether religious groups will be allowed to hold marriage ceremonies, has been met with reactions as varied as astonishment, disagreement, and dismay. The news has even had the rare effect of uniting Progress1 with Owen Jones.

I’m less convinced.

Don’t get me wrong. I would have whipped that vote like a good ‘un, and let the devil take the hindmost.

But whipping the PLP isn’t merely a simple scenario of telling MPs how they should vote because the Leadership says so, even if they have briefed the press beforehand.

I might like it to be as simple as that, because I’m a proud Democratic Centralist in such matters. Some have even said my ‘follow the Leader’ model of party discipline displays an over-zealousness to obey the commands of the centre and a dissappointing readiness to crush dissent and purge opponents.

But that’s not how Ed Miliband says he wants to run the party. He has said, repeatedly, that he wants policy made more consensually, more through conventional processes and party structures than briefings and cosy deals.

So, when some of his shadow ministers point out that there’s never been a policy decision in the party about religious services for gay marriage, that the Policy review hasn’t committed the party either way, and that if a free vote is being given to the Government, the same should be extended to opposition front benchers, I’m sure there’s a strong instinct not to ignore their views and tell them they’re for the chop despite all that.

Nor is the ‘process’ point of the Equality opponents ludicrous, on its face. Many previous divisions on gay rights issues have been free votes. There hasn’t been, as far as I’m aware, a party policy decision on this issue, only ever an anonymous briefing from sources. Shadow Ministers might reasonably ask why they should be bound, on an issue of some personal conscience, by a process that has not sought their consent. Should they really be forced from being representatives of the party on such a basis?

Those who oppose marriage equality are absolutely wrong on the substance, but I do at least understand their case on the process.

Of course, such “process” objections rely on a belief that the desire to run the Labour party’s policy process in as consensual way as possible is an important one.

I don’t particularly share that belief,2 so I’m happy to whip away. As Stephen Bush says in Progress ‘Labour’s Neanderthal tendency is, thankfully, an endangered species, but they don’t deserve special protection from Ed Miliband or anyone else.’ Too right. This matters, so the Leader should be able to tell people it’s his way or the highway.

But for those in the party who have regularly called for a party policy process that based on something more than the whim of the Leadership or commitments made in off the record press briefings, it seems a little odd to be so unhappy when that promise is followed through,  even when those who don’t really seem to deserve it are treated tenderly.

In other words, want the Leadership to be able to force through a  policy on the PLP in any policy area they like? Good.

Welcome to the club, friends!

  1. of which I am a member of the strategy board []
  2. for example, I think such processology underestimates the need for a Leader to react to events, to set agendas, and force issues that are important to them as leader []

4 Responses to “Whips, Marriage and the irrelevance of consensuality?”

  1. Emma Burnell

    I’m afraid your premise is wrong on this occasion.

    If this had been a matter of just briefing the press and then going back on that briefing, that would be foolish.

    But in fact the promise to whip was first solicited by and promised to the National Policy Forum in June. As this is our elected policy making body, it is decisions made in this forum that should count – a much broader & more representative body than the Shadow Cabinet.

  2. Emma Burnell

    It’s a reasonable defence.

    In mine, it was a moment out of time. I didn’t mention it in my report, but then there was plenty I didn’t report on from a very long and for once rather productive weekend.

    It also, didn’t seem that remarkable at the time. The commitment was made and went unchallenged as I recall (we are talking about June and I have trouble remembering as far back as last week so forgive my opacity).

    As to whether this should be the way things are done. No, they should be decided over a longer term with more input from the public, other party members, experts and interested parties. But I would rather a decision that felt made at and by a June policy forum cannot then be overturned by a December Shadow Cabinet without further consultation.

    • hopisen

      No problem – though as Ann Black seems to report that there wasn’t a firm commitment, we might have to file this in the “different interpretations of the same comment” section!

      Personally, I feel the “process” error lies mostly in the briefing beforehand. I don’t mind a ‘consensual’ leadership style when it comes to such issues, though I’m generally a fan of the ‘strong leader’ model of party management, but it really doesn’t work well with aggressive briefing of forward positions.

      Of course, one weakness of the consensual style is that it encourages various ‘close to’ sources to ‘signal’ various things to try and move things in their direction, even if they may not be entirely decided.


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