The PLP is not unique in this respect. The same process of dumbing down has smothered party conference which once was the heaving soul of the Labour Movement, but now has shrunken to become merely a showpiece for the Leader’s speech.
There are three main reasons for this. One is that Tony Blair wanted the PLP to be a stage-managed army to secure his political base in Parliament and to that end the Left was squeezed out of parliamentary selections and the PLP was systematically colonised by those of Blairite/Progress persuasion. The culture changed too. Loyalty and compliance were rated over integrity and participation, and such habits, though they have somewhat ebbed since his time, die hard and still inform much of the mindset of the PLP.
Second, not unrelated, is the decline in ideology. The Labour party, or at least certain lead elements within it, have all too readily accepted the Thatcherite dictates of deregulated finance, market fundamentalism, ever more privatisation, and keeping the unions on a short leash. With those objectives it’s difficult to see how a radical vision of a very different economy and society can gain traction.
Third, where ideology is downplayed, careerism and image and presentation gain the upper hand. Ed Miliband’s brave speech denouncing this tendency and asserting that what matters is what politicians do, not what they look like, needs to be taken to heart by every single member of the PLP.
Clearly a transformation of the PLP is needed, at several different levels. It needs to be far more representative of the electorate it purports to serve. That means far less drawn from the Progress route of middle class, university, student union, PA, special adviser to an MP, and thence eased access to a seat from the inside (just like the Tories). Instead it means far more with real experience of the working class who still represent some 40% of the population at large, but only about 5% even of Labour MPs.
There has to be more debate about controversial issues in the PLP, more expression of genuine views, more consultation of Labour MPs before difficult decisions are reached. In a real democratic party the policy discussion should flow both ways between the leadership and the led, yet at present it is invariably top-down. Above all the PLP needs to get out of the constricting distortions of the Westminster bubble. Regular weekly campaigning on the big political issues of the day, which was the life and soul of the Labour Party decades ago and without which political education will never flourish against the relentless propaganda of the Tory tabloids, needs to be urgently re-introduced.