Left-wing parties must learn how to play by rules

Conformity and party unity necessary for passage of essential legislation

One-time rebel Jeremy Corbyn is beginning to recognise that conformity may not be a bad thing in politics.

The leader of the British Labour Party has had to accept the suspension from the party of his principal policy adviser, Andrew Fisher. While remaining on the leader's payroll Fisher could face further disciplinary action following a tweet he posted backing a Class War general election candidate over Labour's official candidate, Emily Benn.

Party rules state that supporting a non-Labour candidate will lead to automatic suspension. Such disloyalty is frowned upon by all political parties.

I remember covering the 1965 general election for this newspaper. I was having a drink with a Labour candidate, Frank Cluskey, in the old Pearl Bar. Another young Labour candidate, Michael O'Leary joined us.


At the time – and long before his defection to Fine Gael – Michael was extremely left-wing. "I just met Michael O'Riordan outside on the street," he enthused. "I gave the poor f***** a fiver towards his campaign." (O'Riordan was the solitary standard bearer in the campaign for the Irish Communist Party). "You did what," roared Cluskey. "That f***** is standing against me in my constituency and I haven't seen any fivers coming from you in my direction. This will be up before the national executive committee in the morning."

Punitive action

And so it was but it was too close to polling day for any punitive action to be taken against O’Leary. However, it marked the start of a tetchy relationship between Cluskey and O’Leary, both of whom went on to become leaders of the Labour Party. Overenthusiasm in a party’s interest can also have unintended and unexpected results.

Aneurin Bevan

, the fiery Welsh coal miner who was health secretary in the British Labour Party’s post-war government and principal architect of the National Health Service, allowed his tongue to conquer his mind at a meeting in Manchester in 1948.

‘Vermin clubs’

Tories,” he roared, “are lower than vermin.” With typical English aplomb the Conservatives reacted to Bevan’s insult by promptly forming “vermin clubs” all over the country. The party gained recruits, was re-energised and went on to defeat Labour in 1951.

Like Corbyn, Bevan often irritated the party establishment with his left-wing views. He was unapologetic to the end. “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road,” he said. “They get run down.”

The hapless party whips often have little choice but to stand in the middle of the road, shepherding their recalcitrant flocks into the division lobbies. Whips have an essential role in democratic parliaments.

Voting according to personal conscience or, more usually because of fear of local electoral reaction, may attract favourable media and public comment, but it does not aid the passage of essential legislation. When a candidate campaigns under the banner of a political party the public have a right to expect that they are committed to the rules and policies of that party.

Once inside parliament the whips are right to insist that all members adhere to the party line. Left-wing parties here, in Britain and other countries, are the most likely to crumble under pressure. Witness the growing number of Labour public representatives who have parted company with the party since it entered government in 2011.

Sinn Féin is a case apart; it is the last Stalinist party in Europe and dissent is a word missing from its lexicon. There has been a flurry of loose alliances among the forces of the left as the general election approaches but it is difficult to see what cement will hold them together in the next parliament.