We must oppose the clampdown on Labour Party democracy
The country is in real difficulty. Sleaze, corruption, widespread poverty, the public services on a knife edge, inflation rampant.
People have fallen out with the Tories. Big time. Should we assume that Sunak will simply gift the next election to Labour? I don’t think so. You can never underestimate their determination to hold on to power.
With their multi-million pound donors and overwhelmingly right wing media, we can’t count them out. In any case no opposition should wish to win purely by default. We need to reassure the voters that we will repair the damage. And we need to inspire with a fresh vision for our country. So which way forward for Labour? The first thing is we need some honesty about our analysis as to how to avoid another election defeat. The narrative we are being told is that it was left wing policies which lost us the election, and that therefore the Left needs to be silenced.
But it is a lot more complicated than that. Think back to 2017. We made progress in building a platform for a subsequent election victory. Our policies were radically social democratic. But – and this is the central point – in 2017 we accepted the Brexit referendum result. What changed between 2017 and 2019? Quite a few things. We certainly made some mistakes, some of them were grievous but not necessarily fatal. Show me any group of people who never made a mistake. There aren’t any. But what had changed was our position on the EU. There were senior members of the shadow cabinet who swore they would never ever accept Brexit. Others of us argued for a different approach to the referendum. But the point is that 2019 was largely fought around this single issue and that the leadership had to attempt to develop a narrative in part dictated by our own Remainers. I produced a paper in September of that year showing there were 51 labour seats which were in danger if we didn't change our position. In the end we lost 60 seats in total but we lost 49 which were my list of imperiled Brexit seats. Now the very authors of that politics want to rewrite our history and blame the left for the defeat; they have built an intolerant practice on the basis of a faulty analysis. Whichever side of the argument you came down on in relation to the referendum, the facts of the 2019 election are there for all to see. You might wish to say that this is all ancient history. But it isn’t if the key decision makers in the party are acting under false premises up to this very day. And if the assault on democracy and pluralism in our party is being justified in this manner.
Leading right wingers say we need iron discipline around our new leadership. It is a shame that this point is being made now to justify the clampdown by the very same people who took part in the so-called chicken coup against Jeremy Corbyn. But sadly this is the case.
It is a tragic blunder to act on the basis that somehow the Left alone, or even largely, were culpable for 2019. And it is an even bigger mistake to imagine that the absence of discussion and debate is appropriate now. Maybe if we had listened more attentively in the years between 2017 and 2019 we might not have taken the incorrect decisions which we did on Brexit. Is the assault on our democratic and pluralist traditions going to help us in the medium to longer term? I think not.
There are at least 5 reasons to say that this is the wrong course of action:
No individual or group has a monopoly of wisdom. It’s better that arguments are tested in a wider debate. Take for example announcements made in the last few days about shifting some of our promises because of our fiscal positioning. Such promises, now abandoned, could have helped to cement our relationship with different groups of voters. For example the promise of universal childcare. Or the recent postponement of Green Renewal. In any event there’s been no serious debate about the fiscal envelope we’ve adopted.
We live in a complex society with lots of contested points of view. But it’s wrong to imagine that the whole population inhabits simply the right and centre right of political debate. A significant section of voters are liberal or left. Our policies appealed to them and the more the leadership abandons those policies, the more it places the party at great risk of losing what is a vital section of our coalition.
Tens of thousands of our members have felt unwanted or rejected. Some have been expelled. And a huge number have left. But in a pre-election period and during the election itself, the party needs an active membership which is inspired to make the Labour case, rather than cowed by threats of disciplinary action.
The decision to instruct the front bench not to attend picket lines was not explained, simply announced from on high. But we need active trade unionists to persuade their workmates to join the movement for change when the election comes. We also need the trade unions themselves to feel part of a Labour family which embraces their hopes and aspirations too.
Members need to be free to choose their elected representatives. Not to do so implies that a small group at the centre of power knows better than thousands of members. We need a heterogeneous PLP to represent the different demographic characteristics of the country as a whole. It’s unlikely that a person from my background would get into parliament now. A homogeneous PLP would simply not reflect the life and diversity of a great country like ours.
Tonight can be and ought to be the moment when we make a stand. The first phase of this is to tell the truth, defend our record, and in a non confrontational way insist on our principles. We can be confident, by the way, that our analysis of late stage capitalism is the correct one. That we need to make a break with neo-liberalism.
Tonight we have planted our flag. It’s a red one. There are many of us. We should be confident in our politics, our principles and our capacity to organise in the movement.
This is the text of Jon's speech delivered as part of the Arise Festival on 15 June 2023.