Driscoll case shows it’s time for democrats to take a stand
The blocking of Jamie Driscoll as North East Mayor shows that Labour is acting like a narrow clique with no respect for the party’s pluralist traditions.
Within the Labour Party, many have concluded that a small, central London-based group has launched an assault on our pluralistic character, democratic structures and our culture.
You may have thought that you were safe because they only took out Jeremy Corbyn and removed a number of us from the Shadow Cabinet. But the truth is they not only have MPs in their sights but local councillors and activists also. Too often, they have turned their back on the trade unions.
The apparent removal of Jamie Driscoll from the longlist as Labour candidate for North East Metro Mayor is the most recent of a string of such actions. They gloated over the fact that they removed the democratically elected leader of Scottish Labour. They took control from on high of the Birmingham Labour Group. Interference from above in members’ rights when it comes to candidate selection is now the rule, not the exception. They even changed the party rules so the norms of natural and legal justice no longer apply.
It was never like this. The party’s representative posts—MPs, councillors, even school governors—were determined locally. It was a movement for social justice, rooted in communities and profoundly democratic. Our representatives were meant to give expression to the wishes of the movement, not vice versa. This was how Jamie Driscoll was first selected and then elected. He was a product of the North East. He was accountable to his electors and to the wider Labour movement there.
A Blackfriars-based clique determining who can or cannot stand for the party in the North is a profound mistake. In order to win the general election, Labour must win back communities in the North of England. This will simply not happen unless it listens to voices in the North. The same applies to other parts of the country.
The tendency to impose top-down candidates with a purely professional background is also an error. We need representatives from every region, class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity. The small number of manual workers now in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is lamentable and creates an unnecessary gap between our representatives and the people we seek to serve.
Our unique link to the working class comes through our affiliated trade unions. The PLP always had a strain of people who had fought for working people on the shop floor. The PLP is a better place for having them as MPs. The unions normally have the right to get their candidates onto constituency longlists. And yet it is frequently reported that a number of trade union candidates have been blocked. An appeal system has now been announced—but it’s too late, since many candidates have already been chosen.
Let’s return to the case of Jamie Driscoll for a moment. He has been removed for spurious reasons. For one thing, there is no prescribed list of individuals with whom Labour Party representatives are forbidden to associate. If I am wrong about that, we should immediately be told who is on it.
Secondly, and in any event, no suggestion has been made that anyone said anything remotely antisemitic at the event in question. It is hard to avoid the conclusion, then, that the decision to exclude Jamie smacks of McCarthyite guilt-by-association. And if it were to be applied uniformly, wouldn’t it mean that the leader of the party might have questions to answer? After all, he too appeared at public events alongside Ken Loach, long after the latter’s views were a matter of public record. Equally, he was proud to serve in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, as was I.
I hope that Jamie gets the right to appeal. If not, we must face the stark reality that no elected Labour official is safe. No longer would the party’s representatives be answerable to voters or party members. Rather their position would depend on arbitrary and capricious decisions made in London. The impression has already been given that there is a contemptuous attitude to party members—especially those on the Left.
The PLP always had a heterogeneous character—socially, ethnically and regionally. But it also tolerated and embraced the different wings of the party’s ideological heritage. Socialists, social democrats, trade unionists, Christian socialists, and so on. The leader’s job was to secure unity in the voting lobbies but not to enforce a dreary ideological uniformity. But some Labour MPs have told me that the threat of a purge is suppressing free speech.
I worked closely with Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. I worked in No 10. I attended every Cabinet meeting of the last Labour government for its last two years. The PM was the boss. But there were often disagreements about tactics and strategy. That is normal. Tolerance and pluralism were a part of the very essence of what it was to be Labour. How could it be otherwise?
I met Keir Starmer with Len McCluskey to seek a way for Jeremy Corbyn to re-enter the PLP. It was clear that we came from different traditions. But I raised the possibility of opening a dialogue with the Left. Keir agreed that it would be a good thing. He even texted me later to say so. It was the last I heard from him.
There is a danger that an authoritarian culture will imperil an incoming Labour government. I believe it is incumbent on all democrats in the party, including the Labour left, but also beyond it, to make a stand. This should embrace every level of the party, including members of the shadow cabinet, the PLP, leaders in local government, the affiliated unions, local parties and activists.
This is not internal navel-gazing; it’s about the party’s commitment to wider democratic reform. How can we expect a Labour government to devolve power in the country when the leadership has centralised power in the party?
And there is another point. If we give the impression we don’t trust our own party members, how can we expect the wider electorate to vote for us?
This article was first published in Tribune