Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Muzzled mayors

Another dispatch from inside theWestminster village

The foolproof guide to spotting a Bennite power grab is when it is dressed up as ‘giving the members a bigger voice’.

Such a move is behind the news that Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are currently being denied speeches at this year’s party conference. The theory is that instead of hearing from Labour mayors leading cities of millions – both of whom rose to the challenges of office following terrorist attacks on their respective cities earlier this year – conference would much rather hear from ordinary members. The reality is that it means two fewer reminders that second place finishes in elections achieve nothing.

The mayor of London’s speech last year was far from subtle. It used the word ‘power’ 38 times and in the leader’s office it went down like a cup of cold sick. A boxing fan, Khan knows how to land an effective punch. At least he got a speech a year ago; Burnham will not get his moment despite a landslide victory.

The move stores up problems for the future. Although local government leaders are fiercely independent from national politics, the distance between Labour’s top team and Labour council leaders and mayors is already particularly profound. The more politically astute shadow local government secretary Andrew Gwynne often deploys himself to work with Labour leaders out in the cities and regions.

Equally challenging are elections next year in Birmingham, now with a Conservative West Midlands mayor, and smaller councils in former heartlands where Labour struggled in the general election. Gagging Labour’s two highest profile local government leaders months before local elections will be spectacularly counterproductive.

The characters those attending conference will be hearing from are the leader – obviously – alongside shadow chancellor John McDonnell, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry and shadow secretary for exiting the European Union Keir Starmer. This new zone one elite running Labour will fall on deaf ears outside the M25.

Labour’s leadership has had a problem with regional leaders for some time, but its problem with winners is even more damaging.

Lessons from Venezuela

The moral contortions of Labour’s left flank over Venezuela this summer have been excruciating to watch, but not in any way surprising. Jeremy Corbyn’s contorted condemnation of violence ‘by all sides’ in the country was almost precisely adopted by United States president Donald Trump, as he equivocated over a white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville that saw one anti-fascist protester killed.

The Labour leadership’s ‘solidarity’ with questionable regimes is well-documented. Sadly the problem does not stop with Venezuela. Karen Lee, who started work as McDonnell’s parliamentary private secretary straight after her arrival in parliament in June, recently tweeted out a happy birthday message to the former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Eagle-eyed staffers were quick to note Lee’s ‘political advisor’ is Corbynista columnist Liam Young, who might now want to revert to the standard ‘researcher’ job title to avoid embarrassment.

Coincidentally, the new system of appointing real political advisors centrally, rather than letting shadow cabinet members pick theirs, is not working perfectly. One shadow cabinet spokesperson laments that their Corbynista advisor caused them such despair they were considering preparing a report for the leader’s office on how idle their appointed staffer was. One can only assume advisors are being sent to act as a minder on behalf of the leader. Very Venezuela.

For the birds

Westminster has calmed down a bit, so here is a riddle. Both Corbynista and die-hard ‘Remainer’ are gripped by it. It produces passionate tweet storms from political-journalist-turned-activists. A handful of mischief making ‘Labour sources’ have said it will happen in an even bigger handful of columns. But it does not exist, and it does not have a name. What is it?

The idea of a new centrist party has been kicking around for months, but any suggestion that Labour members of parliament are considering it is for the birds. The truth is that the idea of it is far more useful to its proponents than were it to actually happen.

It is a typically Westminster phony war, from which all sides are able to benefit. For passionate Remainers it is a dream that a shortcut to overturning Brexit is within reach. The hard Brexiteers have been handed a fantasy threat that the will of the people is about to be frustrated. Corbynistas are able to use it to hit Labour moderates over the head.

Those same Labour moderates within the parliamentary Labour party know the logical outcome of such a game is a sort of mutually assured destruction, where everybody loses except the Tories.

The conference season may yet end up being a battle over Brexit, but the threat to the Labour leadership is coming from the left not the centre. A new pressure group aimed at taking the edge off Corbyn’s Euroscepticism will launch in Brighton this September.

The Labour Campaign for Free Movement is notable for who is involved: former Momentum treasurer Michael Chessum, the Trasport Salaried Staffs’ Association’s Manuel Cortes, Clive Lewis and Owen Jones.

The campaign, which is pushing a policy change at conference, aims to make Labour ‘the party of all workers’. It is not unreasonable to think that the Labour membership, rather than the PLP, could force Corbyn’s hand on Labour’s Brexit position. Conference is the Brexit battle the leadership is worried about – not an imaginary centrist party.

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1 comment

  • If you want a conference of the Great & The Good giving speeches, while policy is sneaked in by the leadership, there’s a tory party conference that offers all that. And more.
    Corbyn, like Benn, FWIW, is a democrat. He respects the membership, and genuinely wants to hear their voices.
    You don’t have to believe that (and you won’t), but that doesn’t matter – because the overwhelming number of Labour members DO believe that, and are welcoming the changes.
    Sad for you, I know. But good for the Labour Party.
    You should join! It’s an exciting time to be a member!

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