Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Why I’m not leaving Labour

The Labour party is the only vehicle for radical transformation in this country – that’s why I won’t leave, writes Davide Sands

Towards the end of 2015, Observer columnist and former Labour member Barbara Ellen, argued for progressives to leave Labour in the wake of Corbyn’s victory. Her frustrations centred on the demonisation of those referred to as ‘red-Tories’ (i.e. the non-Corbynista wing of the party), Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and Labour’s departure from reality. Her words have been ringing in my ears ever since.

Ellen’s argument that ‘by voting with your feet you’ll finally quietly reasonably (moderately!) make your voice heard’ however, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Leaving Labour would only further dilute the collective say that progressives can have in setting the direction in National Executive Committee elections, at conference and in future leadership elections. Labour’s conference motion in support of a public vote passed by members last year demonstrates that Labour hasn’t quite descended into the communist cabal that some may have you believe.

The Bennite wing in the ’80s caused Labour a lasting headache, necessitating a long and painful recovery exacerbated by the rise of the Social Democratic party. In this period the divided-left were at their weakest, with Conservatives having prolonged free-rein to impose their misguided ideology on our economy and decimate our communities. Our electoral system necessitates a strong, focused and united Labour party to defeat the Conservatives.

Whilst it’s true that Labour has experienced an influx of members – inspired by Corbyn’s message – it’s easy to disregard them all as ‘hard-left’. Whether you think it’s pie-in-the-sky or not, he offered members a vision.

We have to also remember the context in which Corbyn was elected. Milibandism was characterised by ‘One Nation Labour’ and subsequent re-brands, a failure to defend Labour’s economic record in Government (which the Tories exploited) and a muddled middle-ground message which failed to convince the country. Whilst the 2015 leadership candidates that stood against Corbyn were all extremely talented, the whole contest felt like more of the same and unsurprisingly failed to win the enthusiasm of members.

The impression I get from friends in constituency Labour parties across the country, is that the Momentum movement has organised well and whilst they are in control of local party machines, the potential is still there for inactive, quiet progressive Labour members to tilt the balance back in their favour. They too need to organise.

If progressives really believe that there are elements of the Corbyn project that are bringing our party into disrepute, then they have a duty to stand their ground and continue to make their case in a passionate but constructive manner: putting pressure on him and hopefully convincing other members. After all, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell didn’t become leader of the opposition and shadow Chancellor overnight.

Gloria De Piero, member of parliament for Ashfield, used an excellent turn of phrase recently on the radio. She said that ‘the Labour Party is the only vehicle in town for changing people’s lives’. Ultimately, the choice for voters is between having either a Labour or a Conservative prime minister. You can’t change people’s lives from within a small independent grouping, however well-intentioned you are.

Progressives must instead assert a set of principles to win back the soul of the party. As many Labour friends will know, in 1988, Neil Kinnock asked then deputy leader Roy Hattersley to draft the Statement of Aims and Values for the Labour Party, based on his book Choose Freedom. What Kinnock sought to do is to redefine the idea of ‘democratic socialism’ which had become a taboo, portrayed by the Tories as a constraint on individual choice, through what they saw as excessive taxation and state intervention.

Inspired by Tony Crosland, Hattersley defined the objective of democratic socialism as being freedom. Not freedom or liberty in the sense of laissez-faire economics or a small state. Not just freedom from fear, hunger, homelessness, destitution, insecurity, but freedom to express, create, organise and participate. What it meant was designing policy based around the notion of affording people a greater equality of opportunity and outcome – a positive idea of liberty.

Whilst we never were able to implement that transformative Labour manifesto of 1992, the success that followed shows that it set Labour on the road to recovery. Labour’s progressives should choose freedom and recommence that journey.

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Davide Sands is a contributor for Progress

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Davide Sands

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