‘Deselection alienates voters and members. What about the broad church?’

Jon Lansman

The treatment of Diane Abbot has gnawed at the very soul of the Labour Party which is or should be a “broad movement on behalf of the underdog” as Fabian theorist G.D.H.Cole put it.

We share a collective understanding of structural injustice and inequality around us and of the need to empower people through inclusive democracy, especially those with least power who are disproportionately black and female.

Voters notice if we practise what we preach

In doing politics, we need to practice what we preach and not only for consistency. The voters notice these things, they see beneath the messaging.

When I joined this party 50 years ago, party members also looked and sounded like our voters, –they were mostly working class, even in the outer London suburb in which I grew up. And so did were Labour MPs (except in their gender balance). In that respect, the party was more representative of its voters than it is now. It was, of course, far less representative in other ways, such as gender and ethnicity.

READ MORE: ‘Poll leads mean Starmer thinks he can afford to ruthlessly reshape Labour’

The only ex-miner in Parliament now is in Reform UK. Most newly elected Labour MPs on 5 July will have been paid to do politics in some fashion before they got there, as a councillor perhaps, a researcher or lobbyist.

We are lucky to have the working-class woman we have as our deputy leader, as well as to still have the first Black woman MP in Parliament.

Sounding like voters isn’t enough – we need a range of views

Looking and sounding more like our voters helps, but it is not enough. We know from Labour Together’s review of the 2019 election that the drift of working class communities away from Labour in the 2000s was “driven by a perception that there was little difference between the major parties” and “the view that Labour no longer represents them, and are not listening to them”.

“Red Wall” voters are maybe not so different from Neil Kinnock, who, in spite of being Labour’s first “moderniser” under the tutelage of Peter Mandelson, was pleased to get his party back in 2010.

We therefore need to accommodate a range of views within the party – especially whilst we still have first-past-the-post elections and have yet to fully devolve the state to nations, regions and cities. Labour voters want to see politicians they identify with in the party for which they vote.

And most  would see the trade union link as an asset not an embarrassment. If Joe Biden can appear on picket lines, why can’t Labour MPs? Labour’s return to pluralism would do more than just broaden Labour’s appeal, it would improve its decision-making.

Past Labour governments were pluralist until Blair’s

There have unfortunately only been three periods of majority Labour government so far at Westminster and the Atlee government is the one that gets near universal approval from Labour Party members. Clement Atlee quietly managed big characters like Ernest Bevin (the Keynesian and archetype trade union baron), Stafford Cripps (the former popular fronter), Hugh Dalton (a Radical & the Chancellor), former communist Ellen Wilkinson and NHS founder Nye Bevan.

It was unquestionably pluralist, ranging from Bevan who once described himself as his “own worst enemy”, to Bevin, who responded: Not while I’m alive he ain’t”! And though it inherited a country in ruins and only lasted 6 years, it was transformative and its achievements were long-lasting.

Wilson’s government was similarly a broad church, best evidenced by those of its members who stood to succeed him in 1976 – Jim Callaghan, Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Denis Healey, Tony Crosland, all of whom had argued about policy around his cabinet table. His successor, Jim Callaghan was even more inclusive in decision-making, adopting a first-among-equals approach not only in cabinet but in the party structures in which parallel discussions about policy took place.

The Blair government – “New Labour” – brought the radical departure. Open debate and collective decision-making was replaced by “sofa government” – informal decision making which, according to Anthony Seldon shifted power into No 10 and then into the “Den” as Tony Blair’s office was known.

It was “a simple rubber stamp for decisions made by the prime minister and his advisers” according to the Institute for Government, and concerns were expressed about the transparency and accountability of government..

The party is being punished for electing Corbyn and the wrong Miliband

I too joined in the singing of “Things Can Only Get Better” at the tremendous victory of 1997, but as the lid was closed on the Labour Left’s “sealed tomb” (a term reportedly coined by Peter Mandelson), internal democracy and debate were quietly swept away, and the unions were hidden away out of sight, we stopped singing.

Growing disenchantment with now not so new Labour and the disaster that was the Iraq War lead to defeat. It was quicker and more devastating in Scotland where the SNP offered a seemingly progressive alternative.

The election of “the wrong Miliband” and then Corbyn were additional consequences, for which the party is being punished with the curtailment of all internal democracy and, now, the purging of Left candidates. Questions are being asked about possible improprieties in the conduct of candidate selections and use of “Anonyvoter”.

Diane and Faiza made mistakes, but so did a white man re-selected

Most of the Labour politicians I named above were white men. The blocking of two women of colour, Diane Abbott and Faiza Shaheen, as Labour candidates would greatly inflame divisions within the party and alienate voters.

Diane as the first Black woman MP in Britain has suffered four decades of racism and misogyny. Diane’s disciplinary process is reported to have concluded months ago with a formal warning, and she is said to have undertaken training, but only just had the whip restored. That should be the end of the matter.

Faiza has been an outstanding candidate. She was born and  grew up locally, and in 2019 lost by only 1262 votes a seat which had never been won by Labour before. And she has since been campaigning continuously through her recent pregnancy.

They have both made mistakes in what they said, but their treatment should reflect their remorse and be proportionate. It is notable that a white, male Labour MP, Neil Coyle, was suspended from the whip for just over a year for racially abusing a journalist but is being allowed to stand for Labour in July.

But maybe consistency isn’t necessary in a sealed tomb?

Read more of our 2024 general election coverage here.

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