Fiona Twycross: The cost of by-elections is more than financial – they are a drain on the party even when you win


Tristram Hunt labourdoorstep

This is less of an article than a plea. A plea to any other MP who may be considering his or her options this week. Maybe because people have been a bit too polite, a bit too complimentary about those of your colleagues on the Labour benches who have chosen to step down and cause a by-election. This is not a piece directed at them. This is a plea to those feeling left behind.

In in its coverage of Tristram Hunt’s resignation the New Statesman suggested that “only a masochist would have turned down the chance to become director of the V&A”. This is to misunderstand the genuine masochism politics requires; the sacrifices made by activists at every level of the party – from MPs themselves to my mum in her seventies leafleting her street in the rain and the students who sleep on floors to knock on doors in far-flung housing estates miles from the nearest train station to help Labour candidates they may not even meet. The article suggests that, in the circumstances, with the current poll ratings, anyone with any intelligence would bail.

Nonsense. In the current circumstances we need – my mum, those students and I all need – our parliamentarians to dig in for the long haul. Leadership isn’t easy – both Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn probably both agree on that – nor is leadership just the role of the actual party leader. How do we persuade worn-out and worn-down volunteers to keep the masochistic determination we need to win through if it looks so easy to walk away? When things are difficult, and things look like they can only get worse before they get better, we still need activists to turn up and turn out on the doorstep and at local party meetings. At times like these we need our MPs to step up, not to step away.

Beyond the party members who need encouragement, cups of tea after a cold canvass and the occasional pep talk over curry, we also need MPs to stand up for their communities and for the individuals who are being left behind after almost seven years of Tory and coalition government. Last week I had a meeting with a charity that was both inspiring and depressing. Depressing because of the stories and statistics they told me about those who continue to be battered by sanction regimes, debt and destitution as they struggle to navigate the system. Inspiring because of the drive the chief executive had to lift people up, to give them hope and better life chances – to address their immediate needs of housing and hunger but also to give them long term aspirations and provide them with opportunities to succeed. The main cause of much of the hardship she described was political choices made by both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over the past seven years.

Those who aren’t managing to get by, as well as those who are just about managing, need a Labour government. However, while we are fighting our way back through opposition they also need Labour MPs who can battle for them individually through case work and in the chamber. Through the tedious work of bill committees and bobbing up and down trying to get called. It is possible to change things in opposition, it is just harder. At a local and regional level, Labour in power is doing what it can to make a difference but we need to win through at a national level too. We cannot afford in the meantime to be handing seats to our opponents.

The cost of by-elections is more than financial – they are a drain on the party organisation and a distraction even when you win but particularly when you don’t. Being a MP, being elected, is a public service. It is not like other jobs. It brings privileges but it also involves responsibilities and sacrifices. Without wanting to minimise the cost of some of these sacrifices to individuals and their families, the main one implied by accepting the role of MP is giving up the right to walk away when things get tough. It would be hugely damaging for the long term chances of our Labour Party for any one else to get the impression that somehow this implicit contract no longer applies, or no longer applies to them.

It is tough – particularly at the moment. Being an opposition MP isn’t glamorous. It is often a thankless task. But for the sake of us all, and for the sake of the party and the people the Labour Party exists to represent ,we need collective masochism to prevail – including on behalf of MPs. Otherwise we will not retain the hope and bloody mindedness to keep us going over coming months and years.

Fiona Twycross is a Labour Londonwide assembly member.

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