Last night Respect leader Salma Yaqoob left George Galloway’s party. This followed in the wake of another high profile respect member – Manchester Central candidate Kate Hudson – distancing herself from the Bradford West MP only last week when she stood down as Respect’s candidate for the Manchester Central by-election.
The Galloway bandwagon is missing more than a few wheels this morning.
Perhaps predictably, news of Yaqoob’s decision was amplified in the excitable echo chamber of Twitter by Labour supporters – both those urging her to join and those decrying the possibility of such a defection.
Now might be one of those occasions where it might be time to stop, reflect, and take a deep breath.
First of all, the idea that Yaqoob is likely to join the Labour Party straight out Respect seems an odd one. Yaqoob may have argued in the past that she personally is “a friend of Labour”, but her former party certainly aren’t. Anyone who has come face to face with Respect know that much of their politics is defined by their certainty that the Labour Party is “A Very Bad Thing”. Words like betrayal are often tossed about by their members, and with a venom rarely seen in British politics. She has stuck with them for a decade.
Secondly, whilst Yaqoob may have grown tired of Galloway and his behaviour, until recently – despite everything that the we all know about George Galloway – she was happy to be seen with him, support him, praise him and campaign for him – and to head up a party that attacked Labour at every opportunity.
Only six months ago, Yaqoob was Galloway’s biggest cheerleader, saluting the “Bradford Spring”. Even just hearing that phoney and frankly offensive phrase makes me shudder. The Labour Party is an imperfect beast, but to compare it to North African dictators is risible. And yet that’s what happened that night and in the days afterwards. It was a blow to the solar plexus of the Labour Party, and Yaqoob was one of those thumping Labour hardest.
Just six months ago.
And yet there are many in the party I respect, and who are more familiar with Yaqoob, her work and her time as a Birmingham councillor than I am, who would welcome her into the party. Are they right? I question the judgment of some of the things she has said and done in the past, but the same goes for many current Labour MPs too.
This is a broad church, and if Tories and Lib Dems who repent can be welcomed into the fold, why not Yaqoob and others who started life far to the left of Labour? What it is that makes some former opponents beyond the pale and not others.
Where do our red lines lie?
Some of our more successful recent ministers also dabbled, for a time, on the far left too – but are now more than accepted by the party establishment, indeed they are the party establishment.
Personally, I welcome anyone into the party who genuinely embraces Labour values and believes in the party.
My scepticism comes from the fact that Yaqoob helped found a party that was explicitly intended to supplant Labour and take votes from it, and cheered for it on one of Labour’s grimmest nights just months ago. The Bradford West wound is still a little open and raw…
I’m sceptical that Yaqoob could go from cheering on George Galloway in Bradford in March, to knocking on doors for Labour in Bradford in September…
I’m sceptical that Yaqoob embraces the values of the Labour Party (unless you believe the values of Respect and the Labour Party are similar, which I certainly don’t) if she could help a man who loathes the Labour Party become an MP…twice…
I don’t think she’ll try to join – I think she’ll still consider herself incompatible with Labour – and unless she’s willing to admit she was wrong in backing Respect and Galloway, I don’t think she should.
No doubt I’ll be attacked as employing double standards, but this isn’t the defection of a local councillor we’re talking about here – this is the potential defection of a party leader. As such it would likely be the most high profile defection into the party since Shaun Woodward joined from the Tories. It would need to be handled with care, caution and no little time. If it were to happen, relationships would need to be forged, wounds allowed to heal and mea culpas made. Yaqoob would need to go further than most defectors in disowning her previous support for her old party because she is far more prominent and far better known than most defectors. Ten years of attacks on Labour couldn’t be undone overnight.
Most likely, if Yaqoob were to defect to Labour it would cause an almighty row within the party. Maybe one day, when Bradford West (hopefully) looks like a quirk of history, she could join, though it’s more likely that she never will – because Yaqoob and Labour are probably not a right fit. For both sides that’s probably inevitable and almost certainly for the best.
Salma Yaqoob will likely continue to agitate against Labour from outside the Party, and the Labour Party will survive – as it has done so far – without Salma Yaqoob.
But what if my scepticism is proved wrong? What if she genuinely changes her mind, admits where she went wrong, embraces Labour values, wants to see a Labour government and is willing to campaign for it?
I guess we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it, but in principle – like any other would be member – why not…? Otherwise we just say anyone who wasn’t born into this great old party of ours has no place in it if they were misguided enough to end up somewhere else first – and where’s the sense in that?