Where the Socialist Campaign Group should go next for a unified left

For two years, I’ve co-chaired the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs after re-forming it with Richard Burgon in May 2018. This week I stand down as co-chair, but I’m proud of the group that we rebuilt together.

When Tony Blair resigned in 2007, I supported John McDonnell for leader and helped organise a rally for him with my local trades council. Hundreds turned out to see John and Tony Benn but we failed to get the MP nominations required to get him on the ballot. All those years ago, I could see the potential for a radical Labour Party within our grassroots membership. When I first stood for parliament in 2015, my literature read: “Elect a Labour and Co-operative MP and I pledge to join the Socialist Campaign Group.”

When I did get elected to parliament in 2017, there was no Socialist Campaign Group to join. The organisation had become defunct due to a rule that excluded frontbench members from joining. In 2017, the Campaign Group had effectively become the shadow cabinet.

I became Richard’s parliamentary private secretary, and a few months later was invited to join what was called the Core Group – a group of MPs that had remained loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. Meetings were convened from time to time to coordinate how to support the then leader of our party.

Determined to keep a strong socialist voice in parliament, Richard and I would regularly talk about re-forming the Campaign Group to allow a public voice for socialist MPs. We both agreed we needed to support Jeremy, but we also needed to support wider trade union and class struggles from parliament. We agreed that we needed a group that was linked to Momentum, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) and trade unions, but that was was independent of them. That group was the re-formed Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs.

With a rule change to allow frontbenchers to join and become officers, Richard became the secretary, Laura Pidcock became my co-chair, and Laura Smith the treasurer. The group grew to 23 members by the end of the 2017-19 parliament.

The general election in December saw us lose Laura Smith, Laura Pidcock, Danielle Rowley, Karen Lee, Emma Dent Coad, David Drew and the legendary Dennis Skinner. A silver lining, however, was that with so many socialists selected in the lead up to the 2019 election the size of the Campaign Group has now grown to 34 members. Our membership is now 16% of the Parliamentary Labour Party but the last leader/deputy election showed that Campaign Group candidates got between 21% and 28% of the vote share respectively. We should aim to have at least those numbers in the PLP.

Before Jeremy’s leadership, the Campaign Group meetings were advertised to the whole Parliamentary Labour Party. Those who turned up and paid their subs were members. Under Blair and Brown, membership was a career ender, not starter, so there was little problem with people joining for ulterior motives.

After the 2016 leadership coup, and Jeremy’s 2017 general election gains, there was some nervousness about having membership continue to be open to the entire PLP, so invites were offered to new MPs and frontbenchers who had not taken part in the failed coup.

Now the situation has changed again. Jeremy is no longer leader and being a member of the Socialist Campaign Group doesn’t confer career advantage. That doesn’t mean, however, that membership should be for everyone.

I don’t support inviting soft left, Open Labour MPs into the Campaign Group. I do, however, think it’s vital that we work with them inside and outside of parliament to achieve our shared aims, particularly with the upcoming national executive committee (NEC) elections.

Not having Jeremy as leader has, for some, removed our common cause. We are seeing a splintering on the left: Momentum, Forward Momentum, Momentum Internationalists, CLPD, LRC, Red Labour, Don’t Leave Organise, as well as the union factions, and allied groups like the People’s Assembly. It feels more and more like a Monty Python sketch. Some claim it’s a split with the orthodox left and the radical left; others that it’s participatory left vs the disciplined left. Sometimes it just seems to be personality-based, schoolyard politics.

What the Campaign Group must not become is a group that represents only one of these strands – or worse, is controlled by only one of them. We must be bigger, stronger and show leadership that frankly the left is currently collectively lacking.

That’s why I’m supporting the call that membership should be based on a set of principles that would be agreed at the AGM this week. This is the right criteria going forward, and I hope that it means we continue to expand our membership in parliament.

In Richard’s deputy leadership campaign, he held the torch for a part of the left and I believe he must be one of the leaders in rebuilding it. I had indicated to him that I would stand down as co-chair this year and that he should think about the more public facing role of chair. I expressed a desire to support him behind the scenes in the role of secretary, however Richard understandably wanted to remain as secretary, and it’s right that he is able to do so. I know Richard as secretary, Bell Ribeiro-Addy and Ian Mearns as co-chairs and John McDonnell as treasurer will continue to strengthen and grow the group Tony Benn and other left-wing MPs first founded in 1982.

I now have a frontbench role as shadow minister for natural environment and air quality, and it seems right to me that the convention is restored that only backbenchers take the officer roles, but remain full members. In my standing down as an officer, it remains important that the officer team (which I hope will be expanded to include others) represents new members, members from different regions, as well as members from different historic backgrounds, trade unions and campaigns.

The Campaign Group must not try to replicate one of our existing grassroots organisations but remain a coordination of Labour Left MPs in parliament. It should not be based on who you supported in the last leadership election – members have always supported different candidates – nor any single policy position. It should be based on an overarching set of principles.

In parliament, I will remain active in the Socialist Campaign Group. And when I go back to the electorate in 2024, I hope to be able to modify that 2015 pledge to say nine years later: “In re-electing me, you are not only voting for a Labour and Co-operative MP but a proud member of the Socialist Campaign Group.”

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