Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party, tonight launched his ‘Future Britain Group’ in parliament. The group for ‘Social Democrats’ forms part of the effort to stem further resignations of Labour MPs from the party and defections to the centrist, anti-Brexit Independent Group established last month.
Although Watson’s office had asked for RSVPs, many did not give notice and double the number expected turned up to the 5pm meeting. It was held in a small committee room that could not accommodate the 130 parliamentarians who attended. One source suggested that it attracted more MPs and peers than the weekly Parliamentary Labour Party meeting that followed at 6pm.
LabourList understands that a number of MPs were worried about appearing disloyal to Jeremy Corbyn by going to the launch of what has already been branded a ‘party within a party’, and feared repercussions from their local parties. But more than a dozen of frontbenchers were in attendance, including shadow cabinet member Andy McDonald – though many assumed he was there to report back to the leadership.
Speeches were delivered by Lord Mandelson, Lord Kinnock, Dame Margaret Hodge and Hilary Benn, with ‘stay and fight’ running through contributions as the theme of the night. The FBG was welcomed by those most enthusiastic as a vehicle to unite the party, and there were mentions of solidarity, tolerance and fraternity. Hodge described it as a “sanctuary” for those facing intolerance, and Benn called for “a little bit of respect”.
As well as discussion of party unity, there was talk of policy-making. Backbench MP Darren Jones is set to organise policy strands, and it is expected that the FBG will produce policy papers. It is intended for the work, some of it undertaken alongside backbench committees, to feed into Labour’s national policy forum (NPF) and shadow cabinet.
Watson also mentioned that thanks to media coverage of the launch, there had been interest expressed by ordinary party members and local councillors. Once the group’s structure is more formalised, it is hoped that the FBG could reach beyond the parliamentary party.
Opening the meeting, Tom Watson said: “I know that the last thing the party needs is another faction and this group is certainly not one. This meeting is intended to pull the PLP together at a time when our country needs a united Labour Party with all shades of red represented. The last few weeks have been very difficult and upsetting. The departure of good people, in particular friends like Luciana and Ian Austin, was for me a personal wake up call to step up and do more.
“I really fear that unless we restore pluralism and tolerance to this party, it will be irreparably damaged and we will see a schism bigger than any we have experienced in our long history. This party is made of many elements and we’ve only ever worked and been elected to government when the pluralism of our different traditions has been respected.
“Jeremy, to his credit, kept the voice of his tradition alive through the Campaign Group during the New Labour years. So he understands the need for those from the social democratic and democratic socialist traditions to give ourselves the strongest voice we can.
“I feel, and I suspect that many colleagues in this room feel, that the voice of the social democratic and democratic socialist traditions hasn’t been strong enough in recent times. It is to defend those traditions that I’ve invited you here. Not just because it’s critical for the future of the Labour party. But because these traditions are critical to the future of the nation.”
Watson went on to explain how the group would focus on long-term policy challenges, from social care (currently a “disgrace to a wealthy nation”) to “the place Britain occupies in the world”. He also touched on automation and the future of the labour market, quoting clause IV.
“If we don’t act this is only going to get worse as more and more sectors of the economy are subject to automation,” the deputy leader said. “The boost will go to capital and not to labour. This is the big battle of our political lifetimes. To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible.”