Labour needs to take itself seriously
Chris Creegan says the new politics inside Labour is actually old politics that he remembers well from the 1980s, and he sees no place for it in the future.
I left the Labour Party in January 2015. I thought I had left for good.
I left without any intention of becoming a member of another political party. My job as a third sector chief executive makes it easier not to be. But in any case I had voted Yes in September 2014 and no longer felt welcome. My leaving was not a declaration that I would never vote Labour again, but a recognition that for the foreseeable future I saw no possibility of being actively involved.
In the summer of 2015 I watched with alarm as the party hurtled towards a cliff. To the chagrin of some of my friends on the left both inside and outside the party, I felt no enthusiasm for the supposedly “new” politics on offer from the Corbyn campaign. Many of its supporters were new for sure. I don’t deny his campaign tapped into a new generation who felt alienated by the political mainstream and were looking for hope. But as someone who had been a member of the Labour Party in London during the 1980s and 1990s, I couldn’t see anything new in what was on offer. In fact what I saw was an old, sectarian, stale politics having its moment in the sun because a huge vacuum had emerged.
My disagreement wasn’t even so much about all aspects of the alternative policy offer. I had, for example, marched against the Iraq war, and have always been a unilateralist. Rather, it was about an outmoded style of politics which prefers ideology to practicality and which invariably seems to interpret campaigns as ends in themselves. During the 1980s as a lay trade union official I frequently had to contend with that kind of politics, which all too often sought to lever the concerns of ordinary members to its own ends.
I should make a declaration here. I had actually left the Labour Party once before. For a brief period in the 1980s, I was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Some of the most innovative thinking on the left was happening around the CPGB and Marxism Today at the time. It was an interesting place to be and frankly, the Labour Party in Hackney North and Stoke Newington wasn’t.
When the CPGB ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall I rejoined the Labour Party. I saw no value in being part of what one ‘comrade’ called at the time politics small enough to fit inside a telephone box. Of course, telephone boxes have also since become largely obsolete. With very few exceptions (which make me squirm with hindsight) I never took ‘communist’ positions or sentiments into discussions within the union.
As a Tanky I was known as something of a Stalinist, despite Eurocommunist leanings. But in fact, I was just an arch pragmatist. I had no interest in subverting union or party structures to the ends of another party or faction. Unions were about members and politics was about electors. End of. My involvement in particular campaigns was born out of personal experience (lesbian and gay rights) or necessity (challenging privatisation in Lady Porter’s Westminster). It was never driven by a sectarian agenda.
And so 25 years on I watched with dismay as a campaign led by champions of that old style of politics seemed to be coming perilously close to taking control of the Labour Party. I contemplated paying the £3 fee to get a vote. But I had left, and it seemed dishonourable to do so. Besides which, apart from a late surge by Yvette Cooper, I was largely unstirred by the alternatives.
In any case, I thought the whole scheme was a nonsense. Why finally come close to securing one member one vote and then give votes away for a packet of crisps and bottle of pop? Even more importantly, why go through all the pain of tackling entryism only to licence it? (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that all those who paid £3 were entryists. That’s not the case but I’m afraid it’s not the point either.)
Neither did I think that the kind gesture by some non-supporting MPs to get Corbyn onto the ballot paper in 2015 was credible (I do think he has to be on it now). If he or someone else couldn’t muster the actual support of colleagues in the PLP, that was their problem. I understand the inevitability of people breaking the party whip on occasions, but if that’s your modus operandi you might want to question why on earth you are there in the first place. Having spent decades going out on a limb, why should they expect anyone to sponsor their candidature?
Of course, we know he did secure that sponsorship, just as Diane Abbott had done before him in 2010. But by 2015 it was different. A party whose ‘moderate’ wing had been hollowed out by years of infighting between so-called Blairites and Brownites had left itself far too vulnerable to take over. And even if the idea of such a scheme was to breathe new life into the party, I feared it would be more likely to choke it in the process. In the end, of course, it’s done just that, arguably finishing off the job that had been started when the trade union vote trumped that of members in 2010 resulting in the election of Ed Miliband. I voted for Ed back then. We all make mistakes.
I rejoined the Labour Party after Brexit. To coin the SNP’s phrase there had been a ‘material change’ in circumstances and my (emboldened) support for independence no longer felt like an impediment to membership. But just as importantly I could no longer bear to watch from the sidelines as the party imploded. It would in one way be easier to do so; I have many friends on the other side of the argument.
Indeed I cannot remember I time when I have felt some personal friendships were so at odds with politics, so much so that I have gone out of my to reach out to people. I’m a pluralist at heart and I’m not keen on conflict. But loving people doesn’t always mean agreeing with them. And in any case I don’t think there has been a period in my lifetime when I have felt so viscerally affected by political events. Unless you are old enough to have experienced the immediate pre- and post-war periods, you will probably feel the same.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been an unmitigated disaster. He and his supporters will argue that he has been undermined by others in the party. Maybe, but after serial rebellion for decades what on earth did he expect? In any case, if they really hadn’t noticed up until then, politics can be a dirty business. But the real reason it’s been a disaster is that he just wasn’t up to the job. And the only surprise about that is that anybody has really been surprised.
An employee who has hitherto shown no interest in even going on a line management course is unlikely to be up to the task of leading it. Sorry, but the same principle applies in a political party. And whatever the base of support you have from elsewhere, if you’ve consistently shown no regard, let alone respect, for the opinions of your colleagues they are hardly likely to rush to your side. Some might reluctantly conclude that they have to, but if you offer them nothing in return there’s only going to be one ending.
The very least he could have done would have been to surround himself with advisers who recognised the scale of the task he faced in building relationships with those whose support he was going to need whether he liked it or not. Of course, we know the reverse has been the case. And if you want proof of just how absurd the resulting situation is, look no further than today’s debate on Trident. Even as a long-term opponent of renewal I am aghast at the farce that will be on display on the Labour benches. Just compare that with the outstanding political leadership shown by Nicola Sturgeon post-Brexit, and weep.
In truth, I am not sure what the future holds for the Labour Party in Scotland. I am hardly alone in that respect, and I tried in a friendly way to ask some searching questions about that after the recent parliamentary elections. But for the time being Scotland remains part of the UK and democratic politics at Westminster needs robust and credible opposition which represents English and Welsh seats too. The Tories know that too because it’s the basis of our parliamentary democracy. That has to be an opposition which seeks to engage with the entire electorate, not merely a movement within it. I’m all in favour of movements, but they are not political parties and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Both end up being the poorer for it if we do.
So having rejoined, later today I will pay £25 and become a registered supporter. Although it’s very messy I have no qualms about doing so. I am not buying a vote without being a member which those who paid £3 did. I am, in effect, paying the equivalent of six months arrears. I will vote in the forthcoming election as a registered supporter AND a member.
But I’m not doing any of this to save Labour for the sake of it. The sloganising around that leaves me a little cold, because at a time when the Labour Party desperately needs to be talking to the electorate it makes it look like the selectorate is all that really matters. That’s also why a split opposition to Jeremy Corbyn will look so ridiculous and irrelevant if it goes ahead. This election will inevitably look absurdly internally focused. The very least it deserves is a single challenger who is capable of ensuring that she or he has a chance to start to speak to those beyond the confines of the party itself.
Like Richard Angell, I hope by the end of today there will be just one. If there is, the Labour Party might just survive. And if it does, there is a chance that we will see it re-emerge as strong alternative parliamentary voice. If it doesn’t, that opportunity will be lost for at least a generation. Labour needs to take itself seriously. If it doesn’t no-one else will.