By Mary Glindon, Member of Parliament for North Tyneside
Labour’s deep crisis requires straight talking by those seeking an alternative to the Tories and other parties. Labour has been committed for over a century to winning popular support through Parliament to reform capitalism as part of a wider social movement which encourages and uses laws to protect people.
We are ethical socialists seeking to humanise capitalism with our values of social justice, which have made the NHS and the minimum wage a permanent part of British identity.
Winning elections and espousing principles are not opposites. Party members are more radical than voters but should be an integral part of society and compromise with the electors. Aneurin Bevan once said that the language of socialism is priorities.
We cannot achieve our aims in one go but over time. When we get knocked back we should reassess our temporal priorities on the basis of our permanent principles.
The election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979 was one such moment. She and her successor won four elections on the trot and transformed the balance between state and market. We opposed many changes but we couldn’t keep asking voters to support policies they had rejected. We had to make the best of a bad job and painfully revised our policies but had to wait 18 long years before the voters accepted us.
When we were elected in 1997, it was because we proved we could combine compassion with competence. We redistributed wealth through the landmark minimum wage, rebuilt schools and hospitals, expanded universities, and secured peace in Northern Ireland and devolution in Wales and Scotland.
We were elected on promises not to be spendthrift, impose heavy taxes, and see the state as the main solution to our problems but managed to push the consensus to the left in, for instance, finding extra funds for the NHS.
Our restraint was deemed necessary – maybe less so in hindsight – and uncomfortable as we were inevitably working in the framework set by Mrs Thatcher. Tories had similar qualms when they had to accept the new definition of public power and priorities after our victory in 1945 when we established the NHS, the modern welfare state, an economy that valued the contribution of the unions and gave rising incomes and education to all.
People will then mention Iraq and let’s be straightforward about that too. Debate about tackling the genocidal regime of Saddam Hussein began with his invading Kuwait in 1990 and fears he would again menace Iraqis and the wider region. UN sanctions were harming ordinary Iraqis rather than his regime and were corroding. The Iraqi and Kurdish opposition wanted to see the back of him.
Decision-makers behaved honourably but clearly got things wrong. We can recognise this without accepting all interventions are either unnecessary or will go wrong, and by setting impossible barriers that abandon those who need our diplomatic, economic and military heft as one of the great liberal powers.
But deep divisions on Iraq were compounded by disaffection with the economic model pioneered by Thatcher which collapsed in 2007/8 as Northern Rock and so many other institutions went under. The Conservative-LibDem coalition successfully spun this as Labour’s fault and imposed aggressive austerity which caused havoc in many working class communities and among young people, many of whom were also saddled with a trebling of their university fees. That sense of alienation was further exacerbated by two successive Labour defeats.
In these circumstances, an unlikely outsider was elected as our leader. Corbyn should not have been on the ballot paper because he had an insufficient base in the parliamentary party – just 14 parliamentary supporters or 6 per cent of the PLP – and was only a contender because some MPs foolishly lent him their votes and broke the back of this historic partnership.
This is not an arcane point. Labour is an alliance between elected MPs and the wider party, with MPs being gatekeepers. It is amazing that Corbyn refused to resign when over 80 per cent of MPs withdrew confidence in him.
This stalemate addles us even as the pendulum is swinging from over-deference to the market to taming it as even Conservatives slam the unacceptable faces of capitalism such as Sports Direct treating its workers like slaves and the asset stripping of BHS pension funds.
Corbyn and his supporters are kidding themselves that popular opinion accepts his empty slogans. They can capture the party but lose its voters, many of whom are attracted by Ukip and also need to be won back from the Conservatives.
Sadly, debate, and not least on Iraq often assumes treacherous and venal motivations which suits social media outlets but obstructs open discussion. A recent Guardian leader notes ‘the emergence of a puritan ideology that casts many long-standing Labour members and MPs beyond the pale – as if any disagreement with Mr Corbyn is a betrayal of the true path.’
One local party official put it pithily: “Those who joined in the past year think [Corbyn] walks on water. There’s an almost religious following and if you criticise him, you’re a blasphemer.” Those who cannot see the value of different viewpoints are often tempted by the old ends and means equation whereby opponents can be dismissed vitriolically or even violently.
Furthermore, Corbyn’s hard-left positions, such as giving a platform to the IRA’s political wing before the paramilitary group was defeated, are albatrosses around Labour’s neck. Corbyn’s defence is that he doesn’t do personal abuse or comment on historical matters. Poor political judgement is a legitimate issue in assessing a leader. If his ideology permitted them, and he has not changed his spots, what prevents further such errors?.
Corbyn is also seen by many from different wings of the party who tried to work closely with him as an incompetent leader who persistently fails to hold the government to account and whose standing in the polls is historically dreadful, which explains why Labour failed to do better in actual elections and lags in the polls. Of the many who accepted his mandate last year and joined his frontbench for the sake of the party, Lillian Greenwood’s verdict is damning: [Corbyn]… “is not a team player, let alone a team leader.”
I understand why Corbyn was elected in a backlash against austerity and as a cipher for many deep-rooted discontents but, after a year, where is the policy beef – not implausible platitudes but specific and costed policies that can convince voters who are becoming accustomed to not voting Labour.
The immediate causes of Labour MPs withdrawing their confidence in Corbyn were fear of electoral wipe-out and his lacklustre contribution to the campaign to remain in the EU.
Many Labour voters did not know the official party position was for remaining and, while Corbyn cannot be blamed for a third of Labour voters embracing Brexit, a better effort by him could have swayed more than the relatively slim majority for Brexit.
That we will never know but his joining Nigel Farage in urging the immediate invoking of Article 50 – the formal process for departure from the EU – was a major misjudgement.
Theresa May is currently enjoying her honeymoon but she is sitting on a powder keg of thwarted ambition and distrust in her own party. With a credible, coherent and convincing leadership we might just eject the party whose selfishness helped create the Brexit crisis.
Owen Smith is proposing policies to boost the economy and social justice which reflect authentic Labour values, not least halting the public sector freeze which has for many years battered the lowest paid workers who often provide vital services to the most deprived and vulnerable.
Labour faces an existential choice between irrelevance and incompetence or a leader who can get us off the floor in a possibly early election and, much more importantly, begin solving the problems faced by millions of people.