Leaving Labour is a mistake. Hodge, Streeting and Phillips have it right

Luke Akehurst

Yet another opinion piece was published this week – Clare Foges in The Times – calling for Labour moderates to quit the party. But if we didn’t know before the demise of Change UK that this was wrong-headed in the extreme, we do now.

The net impact of Change UK has been to marginally strengthen Momentum and the forces to which Labour MPs who defected are primarily opposed. All the local parties in their seats now face selections that could see the defected MPs replaced by hard left parliamentary candidates. A Constituency Labour Party like Streatham, a moderate stronghold from 2015 to 2019, has fallen to the hard left because the MP abandoned the activists who had been defending him.

There are now fewer moderate MPs able to trigger a leadership ballot or nominate a moderate leadership candidate. The grassroots activists who went from Labour to Change UK have been left politically homeless, their votes and energy lost to the moderate cause in internal battles.

I don’t doubt the moral credentials or courage of the people who left. They are all people I like, respect and was proud to be allied with inside the Labour Party. I share their disgust towards the antisemitism and extremism afflicting the party. I recognise that some were driven out by bullying and antisemitism, or wanted to show solidarity with those who had.

Morally, there is an equal case to be made for trying to turn Labour around internally and for trying to do so from the outside. Politically though, leaving was a tragic mistake. It wasted money, energy, time, people and political capital that could have been spent recapturing Labour on a political project that is already dead after three months.

What is the objective in choosing to leave? Is it achievable or a fantasy? Destroy Labour? The Labour Party isn’t going to disappear in a puff of smoke. Institutions that have been built over 120 years, have a track record of successes including the NHS and welfare state, parties with 250 MPs and over 6,000 councillors don’t crumble in an instant.

Even if every single moderate left, Labour would still be the largest party on the left of British politics. It might not be in power, but it would still exist and be an important institution in British political life. If we hate what it has become, why would we want to leave it like that? I’m not content to look upon it from the outside, unable to change it back into the mainstream centre-left force that it should be.

Clare Foges is a former speechwriter for David Cameron, so I forgive her for not understanding how Labour works or how to change it. She berates MPs like Margaret Hodge, Wes Streeting and Jess Phillips for “cowardice” because she thinks they should quit Labour rather than speak out from within about antisemitism and their wider concerns about Jeremy Corbyn.

If she thinks all that those three MPs, and dozens and dozens more, do is issue statements, she hasn’t got a clue. They organise; they mobilise; they provide a rallying point for others. Even if all they did was speak out, it requires significantly more guts to do so if your job depends on the whim of activists in your CLP, who may take exception to your views and try to deselect you, than if you are a journalist. MPs who stay in Labour and speak out are putting their jobs on the line just as much as MPs who left.

And those three MPs she named have all faced a constant barrage of abuse for having the courage to speak out. It’s particularly inappropriate to criticise Margaret Hodge, a Jewish woman MP, for choosing to stay in Labour and speak out. She’s one of the victims of Labour antisemitism. She gets to choose how she wants to fight it. I wouldn’t berate Luciana Berger for leaving. Foges shouldn’t berate Margaret for staying.

Foges jumps straight from issuing statements, ignores everything else Labour MPs and members can do and are doing inside the party, and offers only one other course of action: leaving. She advises moderates to “defect to the Lib Dems; join other independents in parliament; try to revitalise the Co-Operative Party that several Labour MPs are already joint members of”.

But most Labour MPs won’t fit into the Liberal Democrats. They spent years fighting them at a local level and watching them mess up local councils. Years opposing the cuts they were making in the coalition government to vital public services. If Labour MPs wanted to be Lib Dems, they would have joined the Lib Dems in the first place. They are not ideologically liberals. And becoming an independent means acting as a parliamentary lone operator, with a fraction of the influence granted by being in a major party. Both are forms of political self-destruction.

Even if the Lib Dems surge in the next general election, it will mainly be in constituencies that have never elected and will never elect a Labour MP. The net impact of people going in either direction is most likely to be to give their seats to a new Labour MP, who may well have politics a lot nearer to Jeremy Corbyn’s. The suggestion about the Co-op Party shows Foges’ complete ignorance of Labour’s internal structures: the Co-op Party is constitutionally bound into an alliance with Labour.

Every time there is a dreadful revelation about antisemitism, bullying or extremism in the Labour Party, good people leave. This is understandable, but politically the wrong reaction on multiple levels.

It strengthens the grip of the antisemites, bullies and extremists and reduces the chances of them being defeated in internal elections. It fails to spot that often these revelations are symptoms of the moral and political decay of the forces we are fighting, not their strength. It is the perpetrators who should be expelled, not the victims or their allies who should have to leave.

With the possibility of Pete Willsman having to resign from Labour’s national executive committee, there could be a by-election by one-member-one-vote. It would be a good time for people who hate extremism and antisemitism to start joining and stop leaving the Labour Party. Otherwise Momentum will get off scot-free from originally including Willsman on its NEC slate last year, and be able to hand-pick his successor.

There is no solution to ridding Labour of extremism and antisemitism that doesn’t involve getting a new majority of Labour members – consisting of existing moderates, plus previous Corbyn voters angry about Brexit, plus new members and registered supporters – to vote for better leaders.

This is about the cold, hard realities of political maths and political organising. We will only get better decisions made by the NEC when we vote the hard left off the NEC. We will only get better disciplinary decisions by the national constitutional committee when we vote the hard left off the NCC.

We will only get better rules and policies when we vote for better delegates to party conference. We will only keep good MPs and councillors and get good new candidates when we win selection votes. We will only get better leadership when we vote for a better leader.

All of the above requires good people to be in the Labour Party so that they have votes, and turning up to party meetings to out vote and out-argue the hard left, and organising other people to do the same.

This fight is happening now. Conference delegates are being elected at CLPs before June 28th. NCC candidates, who rule on antisemitism cases, are nominated on the same timeline. The constitutional arrangements committee (CAC) ballot by OMOV is this summer.

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is clearly in its final stages. Whether he is asked to retire by his own disillusioned allies or challenged by a pro-European like Emily Thornberry, people will need to be inside the Labour Party to influence who succeeds him. The struggle for Labour is not over, and Labour is not disappearing. We can either organise to give the party a better future or watch others determine the future of Labour.

More from LabourList


We provide our content free, but providing daily Labour news, comment and analysis costs money. Small monthly donations from readers like you keep us going. To those already donating: thank you.

If you can afford it, can you join our supporters giving £10 a month?

And if you’re not already reading the best daily round-up of Labour news, analysis and comment…