One day, parliamentary democrats will win the battle for Labour, writes Jamie Reed
It has been an exceptional year for the Labour party. Only 12 months ago, faced with a Conservative majority government for the first time in a generation, the party sought to chart a new path as it struggled to learn the lessons of its second successive electoral defeat. Almost inexplicably, faced with a Conservative party led by braying scions of privilege – precise emblems of Britain’s still-existing, still-rotten class system – Labour’s electoral defeats became progressively worse.
Before the 2015 general election a largely supine parliamentary Labour party had indulged five years of fabulism from the weak and incoherent leadership of Ed Miliband. The fratricidal leadership contest of 2010 obscured the looming crisis facing Labour. The intellectual challenges posed by the economic crash of 2008 were not fully answered, Britain’s new role in a world spinning at terminal velocity was never properly explored or articulated and the intellectual heavy-lifting that the party still needs to do in order to govern again was neglected.
In the end, the contest was decided by a repudiation of the unprecedented achievements of the last Labour government. To win the Labour crown in 2010, it was not enough for a successful candidate to stand on his or her own merits, to articulate a vision of the future for our country and our party or to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the challenges facing the lives of those people whom we were founded to serve. To win in 2010, you had to trash the record. To win in 2010, even if you had spent your adult life working to support it, then representing it in parliament, then serving as a secretary of state as part of it, you had to define yourself against the Labour government that ensured the greatest progressive achievements of any party in office since the postwar creation of the welfare state.
This is how Miliband became leader of the Labour party. In defining himself against three successive Labour election victories, this is how Miliband gave life to the movement that today has installed Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell at the helm of the Labour party. An accidental leader, without the ability or interest to lead, who never wanted to lead, with an unparallelled record of disloyalty to those leaders he has served under. What has happened to the Labour party in the intervening period, and what will happen next, should be attributed to Miliband’s leadership.
A catastrophic first year for Corbyn resulted in the PLP (having regained its sense of purpose and responsibility) returning a no confidence vote in Corbyn’s leadership. This followed a year of extraordinary events, unprecedented in the history of the Labour party. To catalogue every disaster would require more space than allowed, but we can briefly recap some of the episodes of self-harm.
The refusal to sing the national anthem, the ‘solidarity’ with France which never appeared, the inexplicable declaration of ‘no place to hide’ for Labour members of parliament in the run-up to the Syria vote, the dissembling over a ‘shoot to kill’ rule of engagement for security personnel dealing with terrorists engaged in attacks, the extraordinary failure to appoint women to the shadow cabinet, the relentless and public pursuit of Hilary Benn, the leaked enemies list incorporating ‘core group hostile’, the refusal to support established party policy with regard to Trident (the first Labour leader to ever speak against party policy from the dispatch box in the House of Commons), the antisemitism scandal, and perhaps worst of all, the catastrophic mendacity of the strategy deployed by the leader and his team during the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.
This catalogue of shame is not definitive, nor does it include equally determined efforts by McDonnell: Mao’s red book, describing Progress as the ‘hard right’ and indicating to Labour MPs that he would be prepared to split Labour ‘if that’s what it takes’.
Denial of the truth, even in the face of the facts, has become a trademarked feature of the Labour leadership. This was highlighted beyond doubt by the events surrounding the meeting of the PLP after the Brexit vote.
At the meeting, Corbyn repeatedly heard colleagues express their concerns with regard to his continued sponsorship of agitation against them. He heard MPs express fears for the safety of themselves and their staff. As he spoke in committee room 14 of the House of Commons, Ian Murray explained that, at that moment, the staff of his constituency office were subject to a demonstration by Momentum, the organisation that exists with the sole purpose of maintaining Corbyn’s leadership. Jess Phillips and other female colleagues expressed their anguish, frustration and fear at the political culture that Corbyn has ushered into the party, and the frequently misogynistic intimidation which often accompanies it and that is directed towards female Labour colleagues.
The events that followed provide the definitive illustration of the leadership culture now running our party.
Corbyn sought to distance himself from the culture of his supporters (by no means a characteristic of every Corbyn supporter) and explained that he did not sponsor or tolerate the targeting or abuse of Labour MPs by those who support him. He then left the meeting to address an agitated crowd that had been assembled on Parliament Square with a view to further inciting precisely the kind of discontent that he had disowned only minutes earlier.
At that meeting, conveniently recorded and shared on social media, the Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack told the crowd that Labour members were fed up of the ‘betrayal of Westminster politicians’. Taking his turn, McDonnell told those assembled that: ‘We will not allow the democracy of our movement to be subverted by a handful of MPs who refuse to accept Jeremy’s mandate.’
The ever-reliable Richard Burgon, someone who had remained silent during the meeting of the PLP only minutes earlier, found his voice and his courage to tell the assembled faithful that, ‘There’s shouting going on in the parliamentary Labour party meeting … So if they ever lecture you about bullying people for their political beliefs, I tell you, there’s people in there tonight behaving like bullies too … To all Labour MPs touring the TV studios with hankies in hands, crying into those hankies, I say this: consider this, at this crucial moment, what do you want to be remembered as?’
In short, the Labour leadership and its supporters sought to convince an excitable crowd that its enemy was the PLP.
In the hours after the EU referendum result, David Cameron recognised that he could no longer lead our country, his party or his MPs. Consequently the then prime minister demonstrated the only sensible and credible course of action of anyone in such a situation and resigned his position. Having presided over a collapse in support for the Labour party in the polls, having gone backwards in the 2016 local elections, and having lost the support of 81 per cent of the PLP, Corbyn refused to do the same.
In the final days before the Labour leadership campaign finished, Corbyn posted his most effective performance to date at prime minister’s questions. A poor Theresa May, repeating the kind of performance with which she became synonymous as home secretary, was easily beaten over her bewildering desire to reintroduce grammar schools. That same evening, immediately prior to taking part in a televised leadership hustings, Corbyn’s office released a new enemies list of 13 Labour MPs. The leader’s office described the release of the list as an accident; incredulous observers asked why a list even existed in the first place. That the list should be released in the same week the Boundary Commission published its proposals for new parliamentary boundaries in England and Wales – necessitating the need for new constituency Labour parties and for those parties to choose parliamentary candidates – is not a mystery.
Richard Nixon’s infamous legacy was sealed in part by his desire to draw up lists of his enemies as his presidency entered a pit of paranoid despair and criminality. Damned by his own words on Watergate (‘I’m saying that when the President does it, it’s not illegal …’) Nixon wrote the book on political mendacity and the decrepit political culture it spawns by necessity in order to survive. It remains his political epitaph and will always serve as the final footnote on any political leader who chooses to fixate upon the imaginary ‘enemy within’.
The Labour party is the greatest vehicle for economic and social progress that Britain has ever seen or is ever likely to see. It is worth saving, and it will be saved. When this period passes, never again will the party succumb to those who refuse to acknowledge our unique achievements, our importance to our country and our fundamental political purpose: to sustain a parliamentary Labour party capable of winning a general election so that we can improve the lives of every person in every community, by redistributing power, wealth and opportunity. In the meantime, it is the responsibility of all of us to embrace those new members of our party who wish for a better society, but who do not yet realise that the most effective and purposeful route towards this goal is through parliamentary democracy. In time, they will.
Jamie Reed is member of parliament for Copeland
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