The alternative to common sense and self-control is civil war

9th November, 2015 1:35 pm

Jeremy Corbyn TUC 3

Those Gods who famously wish to destroy by first making mad have certainly been working overtime within the Parliamentary Labour Party lately.

We have open defiance of the elected leader, talks of coups and now, after elections to hitherto obscure backbench policy groups, apparently the creation of a “shadow shadow cabinet” dedicated to opposing the policies of the leadership.

All this when the Tories are floundering over their attack on the working poor, yet are pressing through parliament legislation designed to break up the labour movement as an effective force in society for ever.

It is time for those MPs engaging in this plotting and manoeuvring to take a reality check: More than a quarter of a million Labour members and supporters voted for Jeremy Corbyn as leader. If they had wanted mainstream-politics-as-usual they could have voted for one of the three candidates occupying that space.

The fact is that the New Labour residue has proved short on credible leaders and on appealing policies. Their preoccupations too often appear to be those of the elite and not of ordinary people. MPs from the Tony Blair tradition should be grappling with those problems. And to be fair, many of them are.

However, a significant minority are playing a different game. Rather than recognising the scale of Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate they want to subvert it. They are ever-available to any media outlet that wants a carping or outright hostile quote. And every week yields a new plot, each as absurd as it is undemocratic.

It seems that they want to choose the Leader’s Office staff for him, since Jeremy has been disobliging enough to appoint to it people who share his – and the members – political agenda.

They are pressing, for example, to drive Andrew Fisher, a policy adviser in the Leader’s office, out of the party and his job over a few admittedly ill-judged tweets. Yet the main complainant against Fisher, Emily Benn, has herself indicated support for another party on Twitter and at least one Labour MP, Frank Field, has publicly urged backing for any “deselected” MP who may stand as an independent against the official Labour candidate.

And no-one could possibly argue that the Fisher tweets have been more damaging to Labour than the abusive running commentary, including the gross breach of personal confidences, being conducted by the “honourable member” for Rochdale in return for heaps of money from Tory newspapers.

The sensible thing would be to take all this for what it is – rhetoric that forms part of the rough-and-tumble of a democratic party. Maybe Labour’s rules should be modified to be less draconian on this point. But if sensible counsels do not prevail, then the gander should get as sauced as the goose.

Likewise on the matter of party policy. Jeremy’s opponents scoff at the idea of Labour permitting its MPs a “free vote” on Trident renewal, since they point out that the party has clear conference policy on the matter. Which is true.

However, often the very same MPs are proclaiming their willingness to support the government over bombing Syria, even though the Labour conference six weeks ago voted overwhelmingly to oppose such a proposal except under very tightly-drawn conditions.

So is conference sovereign or not? The dissidents cannot really have it both ways. Jeremy Corbyn has made clear his wish to restore the authority of conference over party policy, so Unite would urge everyone to have their arguments out in the proper policy-making structures – opened-up as they need to be – and then live with the democratic outcome.

Again, the formation of Momentum has caused apoplexy among some MPs who appear to take the view that forming such organisations should be the exclusive prerogative of the right-wing.

Unite clearly opposed the suggestions mooted a few years ago to proscribe Progress from the party on the grounds of its then-opaque structure and finances. But we never took the view that it should have the field to itself in terms of training candidates for parliamentary selection and pushing a distinct policy agenda within the party.

It is unclear why some MPs should be so intensely relaxed about Lord Sainsbury’s millions being used to advance a factional agenda, and so anxious about the activities of the thousands of ordinary people who signed up to support Jeremy Corbyn and have only a fraction of the funding.

The alternative to common sense and a degree of self-control is civil war. How much longer are the hundreds of thousands who supported a change in Labour’s politics expected to tolerate continual overt contempt for the elected Leader and sabotage of the new course they have voted for?

Of course, winning an election, even by a landslide, is not a mandate for a witch-hunt. Anyone, MP or not, has the right to their own views and to argue for them. Such democratic debate is the lifeblood of any party, and it should not be curbed by labels like “Tory” being flung around promiscuously.

Nor do we need a rule change to reintroduce mandatory reselection. Labour MPs should remain answerable to their constituency parties and ultimately their constituents as at present.

But it is clear that any Labour MP who prefers to disrupt our own side than take the fight to the Tories is neither use nor ornament. Presumably they can’t object to justifying themselves to those who work so hard to return them to parliament.

So let everyone take a deep breath. Let everyone on the losing side in the leadership race now act with the good grace already shown by the majority, advance their own views in a loyal way, and focus on challenging the Tories. Let’s all get out on the pavements of Oldham West to win for Labour. And let Jeremy Corbyn get on with the job he was elected to do, with the tolerance and decency which has always been a mark of the man.

Steve Turner is Assistant General Secretary of Unite

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