'UNPRINCIPLED' is the epithet most widely used to describe the handful of defectors from the Parliamentary Labour Party and it’s not hard to see why. Chuka Umunna was selected for a safe London seat as a supporter of the left-ish group Compass before moving rapidly to the right. His attitude to party democracy was demonstrated in 2013 when, as shadow business secretary, he publicly rejected the renationalisation of Royal Mail within minutes of Labour’s conference voting for it.
Chris Leslie, a keen advocate of austerity, was recently no-confidenced by his constituency party, as were Angela Smith and Gavin Shuker, an opponent of gay marriage. Mike Gapes, an enthusiast for the war in Iraq who has consistently voted against any investigation into it, is now backing Trump’s attempt to overthrow Venezuela’s government. Ann Coffey has not attended a CLP meeting in nearly four years – so much for her “great sadness” at leaving.
Antisemitism was claimed by some to be a motive for quitting. Clearly every instance of this vile practice must be investigated quickly and dealt with effectively, on the basis of evidence and due process. But many of the alleged incidents under scrutiny have nothing to do with Labour members – Margaret Hodge’s own dossier of 200 cases overwhelmingly involved non-members. And Chuka Umunna said in 2016 that he had “not seen one incident of antisemitism in almost 20 years of activism.”
The same Umunna also said not long ago that another EU referendum was unthinkable. This is why the description “unprincipled” keeps surfacing. What is this split really about?
The pursuit of power? History shows these breakaways are usually career-ending for those involved. When the SDP split from Labour in 1981, it was led by four former Cabinet members rather than today’s nonentities. None of them ever held office again and by the end of the decade their leader David Owen was calling for a Tory vote.
The conditions for a new centrist formation today are incomparably worse. The Liberal Democrats discredited themselves by joining a coalition that propped up a Tory government in all but name. The social crisis generated by the failure of the neo-liberal economics which the splitters all support is too vast to be solved by their timid ideas. The centrism that took over many western European democratic socialist parties has thrown most of them into existential crisis, their voters fed up with austerity and warmongering that has only fuelled Islamic extremism. It’s a political dead end.
Umunna claims to be fed up with the Corbyn-induced culture of the Labour Party. Deputy Leader Tom Watson echoed this, describing the party as “unrecognisable”. That may be no bad thing if it means that CLPs that were suspended for years in special measures are now functioning again, if annual conference is once more making policy, if the membership – which has trebled under Corbyn – is now valued and listened to, rather than being derided as campaign fodder.
Perhaps Watson and others forget – or are nostalgic for – the culture of top-down control, when the New Labour apparatus ruthlessly marginalised, witch-hunted and monstered in the media anyone who was critical of its line. Yes, there was quite a ‘culture’ in those years, when local selections were overturned, placemen installed and non-Blairite candidates demoted to unwinnable places on the party’s European list. All of which was borne by ordinary members with a great deal more loyalty to the party than today’s quitters.
Each of them was content to run and win on Corbyn’s 2017 general election manifesto. If their politics have now changed, the honourable thing would be to run again in local by-elections – a people’s vote that none of them seems keen to hold.
Whatever today’s pretexts, these MPs – and many others – have never been reconciled to Corbyn’s two leadership victories. Ann Coffey even submitted a motion of no confidence in Corbyn to the PLP in 2016. They have been in a dilemma since 2017, when the general election revealed Corbyn’s leadership to be a massive asset to the party. That silenced a lot of his critics in the PLP but for many the antagonism remains. This split may further embolden those MPs hostile to Corbyn.
The real danger is not their discredited politics but the media build-up and the danger of a split vote in marginal constituencies: a spoiler effect. With the current Brexit crisis reaching its climax, the quitters are paving the way for more splits – some Tories have already joined – and for a potential future government of national unity.
John McDonnell MP has called for a “mammoth listening exercise”. Let’s start by listening to the new mass membership, the social movements and wider support base that responded to us at the last election. The challenge we face is to reach beyond the straitjacket of the PLP and intensify the campaign across the country for a Corbyn-led socialist government.