Asking what the Labour Party is for? Just look at the impact of my colleagues

Barry Gardiner
© Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

Time was when it would have seemed strange – heretical even – for The Guardian to run an opinion piece with a headline asking: “What is the Labour Party for?”. But that was indeed their question recently, posed in response to the party’s ‘constructive engagement’ offensive with government policy over issues as wide-ranging as the pandemic and Ukraine. So, as a card-carrying member for the past 43 years, I decided to take a look. What I found filled me with pride in my colleagues, hope for the future and reassurance that the values that brought me into the labour movement still form the beating heart of Labour.

I looked first at the Right To Food campaign that Ian Byrne has been leading to tackle the scourge of hunger. With 11 million people in food insecurity and two million people now relying on food banks, Ian’s campaign has created a practical response, with football fans supporting food banks all across the UK. But the Labour Party is not just about helping those suffering. It is about changing the law to stop the suffering from happening. His key demands for government include universal free school meals and community kitchens as part of a Right to Food legislation. Beveridge spoke of the five great evils of our society. Ian is tackling ‘Want’. And with a cost-of-living crisis creating fear and uncertainty across our country, his campaign could not be more timely.

Justice is at the heart of all politics. And one of the greatest miscarriages of justice over the past 25 years has been the Horizon scandal. My colleague Kate Osborne made it her mission from the moment she entered parliament to get justice for the sub-postmasters who had been its victims. Straight away, she asked Boris Johnson to launch a public inquiry and demanded compensation for them. She also lobbied for the forgotten 555 postmasters who had won a civil court settlement in 2020 but had seen their settlement swallowed up in court fees. After the Court of Appeal quashed the criminal convictions in 2021, it was announced just last month that more than 700 wrongly accused workers will finally get the full compensation they deserve for one of the longest-running miscarriages of justice in legal history. Of course, if you thought Kate would leave it there, you don’t know her. She is now demanding that the government cease using the contractor whose system caused the original problem and named Fujitsu in the House of Commons!

What is the party for? It is tempting to say that the clue is in the name – we are the Labour Party after all. And there could be no better example of fighting for the employment rights of working people than the response of three of my colleagues to the sacking of 800 P&O workers. They were forensic and magnificent. It cannot be often that the chair of a select committee has welcomed a witness with the words: “Are you in this mess because you don’t know what you are doing, or are you just a shameless criminal?” But that is how Darren Jones greeted P&O’s chief executive. He was followed by a former employment lawyer, Andy MacDonald, who elicited the unprecedented admission from the hapless Peter Hebblethwaite that his company had chosen to break the law and would do so again.

Enter Karl Turner: the no-nonsense MP for Kingston upon Hull who has led calls in the Commons for the reinstatement of the sacked workers and action from the government to amend the law. Dignity in work is what my colleagues all demanded and our nation and our party was the richer for it.

Disease was another of Beveridge’s five giant evils, and the NHS is one of our proudest achievements as a party. Two of my colleagues have epitomised our battle against disease perhaps more than any other. Rosena Allin-Khan is not just a medical doctor as well as an MP. She does weekend shifts in her local accident and emergency department. Few people who talk about MPs and second jobs have her in their sights when they criticise moonlighting MPs. She is an inspiration and has visited conflict hotspots around the world from Myanmar to Ukraine as a medic with MedGlobal. Some MPs were scolded by the whips for going to Ukraine – she deserves a medal. Not only does she bring the suffering of war vividly alive through her humanitarian work, but she gives practical medical aid in situ to those in need.

Working quietly away on the policy side is another NHS heroine, Margaret Greenwood. Few MPs have been responsible for so many amendments to the vicious health and care bill, which was back in the Commons last week. Her detailed, forensic dissection of the clauses in a bill that is set to undermine the very integrity of our NHS as a public service has been magnificent.

And speaking of integrity, it is only right to look at the courage of Dan Carden and his work to tackle alcohol abuse. Dan has won the admiration of everyone in the Commons as he has talked about his own personal battles, struggling to find his identity as a young man. But he has also been fearless in holding the government to account for their failure to implement the alcohol strategy that David Cameron launched a decade ago.

So, to all those who were tempted to give a cynical reply to the question The Guardian posed, I say the Labour Party is full of brilliant, passionate, articulate people focused on the future – on bringing hope to a generation who are being forced by this government to live with insecurity in every aspect of their lives. The point of the Labour Party has never been clearer.

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