It feels like there are two Labour Parties – but not in the way you think

Luke Akehurst

labour rosette

There seem to be two Labour Parties at the moment.

There’s the rather pleasant one I am a member of locally. Fundamentally it is the same Labour Party as before May, but with a load more members. The picture elsewhere around the country isn’t consistent as new members have been concentrated in London and university towns, but in my patch membership has doubled. Turnout at constituency All Member Meetings has also doubled, from about 50 (for two CLPs that meet together) to over 100. The new members seem much like the old ones – friendly, idealistic, well-intentioned, good people. There is certainly none of the horribleness one sees on social media, just a lot of sincere debate about the kind of world and country people want to live in and a lot of hope invested in Jeremy Corbyn to bring change.

Beyond those All Member Meetings the influx of new members hasn’t translated into much yet – maybe a couple of extra canvassers at each session but the teams are largely the same as in May, one very welcome extra person to join the stalwart ten at our branch AGM last week. That’s to be expected as I remember it taking a couple of years of going to party meetings as a 16 and 17 year old before I had built up the courage to canvass – knocking on the doors of random strangers to ask their voting intentions is not an intuitive human activity.

But the fundamental rhythms of the local party roll on. Good natured debate. Fun social events featuring a bit too much wine and a lot of good company. The annual quest to find candidates to fight the local elections. A lot of canvassing, with some dry jokes about national events between canvassers, but nothing sharp enough to annoy the people you are enjoying your Sunday morning stroll with a Labour sticker on with.

And then there’s the national party. Which is a bit like watching a horrible car crash, in very slow motion. Of a really old, nice car you really like. With passengers you really like, but who are having a blazing row. And driven by someone who was quite a difficult passenger and definitely shouldn’t have a driving license and is joining in the row instead of looking at the road ahead.

It’s horrible. This is an institution I’ve given most of my spare time to for 27 years, as have 10s of 1000s of other volunteers. I grew up believing, and still believe, Labour is the last best hope of a better life for ordinary people, and in power is a lifeline for the poorest and most needy. Millions of people invest all their hopes for a better country and a fairer future in our party.

And right now it isn’t there for them.

Last week there was so much positive work that could have been done nationally. We launched a campaign about fare increases, with hundreds of activists up at dawn to leaflet commuters in the rain. We have a vision for public ownership of the railways. We were trying to expose the Tory attacks on trade unions, the Tory attacks on social housing, the Tory cuts to flood defences.

Instead we had an entire week of self-inflicted bad publicity where divisions were made worse, relationships were made sourer, and enmities were reinforced. Where the sacking of the Shadow Foreign Secretary was extensively briefed then humiliatingly dropped. Where two really able shadow ministers – two of the best guys we have for attacking the Tories – two of the people who had agreed to serve in September to try and help Jeremy’s leadership work – were sacked (apparently mainly for calling for there not to be any sackings) and then disparaged in a completely uncomradely way (usually it’s polite to write a nice letter about the service of people who you ask to step down, not tell the press they were “disloyal and incompetent”). Where the Shadow Defence Secretary was demoted for articulating the nuclear policy agreed by party conference.

Then we wasted days just looking like idiots who don’t understand what journalists’ jobs are, by berating the BBC for allowing someone to resign live on air.

And now we are wasting more days discussing how to circumvent all the Labour Party’s constitutional processes, alienate the trade unions that fund us and represent defence workers, cause a massive row with many of our MPs, all with the objective of securing a policy on Trident that recent opinion polling suggests would render us even more unelectable than we already are.

This isn’t leadership, it’s a travesty.

It isn’t politics to focus on the most internally divisive matters when these are of virtually no interest, or a turn-off, to voters (Trident, “revenge” reshuffles over Syria, building a grassroots group that appears designed to mobilise people to sack hard-working MPs, attempts to gerrymander the party’s rulebook so you can force through more policies that the electorate doesn’t want) and totally fail to land any punches on a destructive Tory government. It’s self indulgence. It’s a dereliction of duty.

It is not sustainable.

It definitely can’t go on like this now with major elections just months away. Sadiq Khan, Kezia Dugdale, Carwyn Jones, the candidates running with them, our Police Commissioner candidates, 1,200 Labour councillors up for re-election and the activists out working for them can’t be sacrificed to some project to smash and reconstruct the Labour Party, a project dug up like a rotting political corpse from the grave where Neil Kinnock thought he had buried it 30 years ago.

No mandate, however impressive, gives anyone the right to destroy the Labour Party’s chances of beating the Tories. No mandate carries with it the duty for us to be complicit in political suicide.

Either Jeremy Corbyn has to start acting like he is leader of the whole party, not just one faction with fewer than 20 MPs, and has to start actually taking steps to promote unity in practice, not just say the word “unity”, or if he wants to pursue a narrow factional agenda his leadership must come to an end before he can do irreparable damage to Labour’s unity and electability.

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