“CALL OFF THE DOGS,” was the contemptuous message of one former Labour frontbencher to the party’s leadership in September, but it’s advice that Chuka Umunna himself, and others, might do well to follow.
It’s three years since Jeremy Corbyn was elected in a landslide victory by a rejuvenated and hugely increased party membership in 2015. Sniping from within the parliamentary party began almost immediately and culminated in the 2016 leadership challenge from Owen Smith, which again Jeremy Corbyn saw off with an increased majority. Last year, Labour’s spectacular achievement in the general election - winning 40% of the vote, a 10% increase on Ed Miliband’s score two years earlier - appeared to mark a truce in the plotting and briefing unleashed by Labour’s ‘moderates’. But this summer, there has been a return to old habits, with some denouncing Corbyn in the most vituperative terms and others openly preparing a breakaway party.
Amid all this disloyalty, it’s hardly surprising if the patience of some local party members is growing thin. Many know that Labour could have done even better in 2017, were it not for the constant undermining of the leadership from some of the parliamentary wing. The odd motion of censure passed locally will do no harm in reminding whom these MPs were elected to serve and work for. In the longer run, the push for open selection of candidates - as widely practised in democratic socialist parties elsewhere - is bound to continue as long as some Labour MPs despise the activists who work to get them elected as “dogs”, “Trots”, “Stalinists” - all epithets that have been hurled in recent weeks. The membership and activists are the life-blood of our party and deserve better. They have shown considerable forbearance amid three years of suspensions, often for spurious reasons, and other obstacles, often pursued for factional reasons by sections of the party machine which is finally now beginning to get its priorities in line with the leadership.
Meanwhile, the idea of a breakaway formation appears to have collapsed before it even began. The old Blairites only have to look at events in Europe over the last year to note the fate of democratic socialist parties that implement austerity and continue to adhere to the discredited neo-liberal agenda once promoted by New Labour. The Swedish Social Democrats, getting their lowest share of the vote in over a century, are just the latest example of a democratic socialist party in existential crisis, following on the dire results of the Italian PD (19%) and the German SPD last year (26%). Centrism is dead - and the warning is all the more stark given it’s the far right that are making gains at the left’s expense.
So if Labour activists are growing weary of the antics of some of our parliamentary representatives, it’s because they understand just how high the stakes are. Day by day, the sheer meanness of this Tory government is underlined - towards the homeless, the low-waged and migrants, towards hospitals and schools. Local councils are in calamitous financial straits, unable to provide basic services in many areas. The government is in a terminal downward spiral, with key figures openly plotting the removal of Theresa May, whose Brexit plans now lie in tatters, torn apart by the chronic faction-fighting within her party. The most likely scenario now is that time will simply run out on the Brexit negotiations and Britain will crash out of the EU without a deal, causing the utmost disruption to the economy, dwarfing the scale of the economic crash ten years ago.
In these grave and uncharted circumstances, there is a responsibility on our party as never before to provide real leadership. We must demand an immediate general election if May’s government is unable to come to an agreement on the EU and we must be ready to win it. Interviewed recently, John McDonnell estimated the government would collapse within six months - “almost certainly”. There’s a real ferment of political ideas now, exemplified by the recent 338 page report from the Institute of Public Policy Research. But none of this will come to fruition without a Labour government. Why don’t all our parliamentary representatives use their considerable expertise to help develop our policies? Why don’t they use their oratorical and leadership abilities to galvanise members and voters to get a Labour government elected?
There’s a responsibility on the whole movement now - left and right, party and unions - to see the bigger picture and recognise that we have a once-in a-lifetime opportunity to bring down the curtain on 40 years of neo-liberal greed and turn a new page. It’s a chance not just to elect a Labour government - but to begin to build a better society, based on solidarity and co-operation. Let’s seize it!