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25.11.15

Activist or MP, it’s time to take a stand

“Criminals were victims of the capitalist system. The police were agents of repression. Riots were popular uprisings against capitalist injustice.” These, according to Peter Mandelson’s autobiography, were commonplace views in the early 1980s vintage of London Labour.

“The three hate-ideas of the idiot savant left are capitalism, imperialism and America, or CIA for short,” Phil Collins wrote recently. The CIA are now as acceptable in Labour as they were in the 1980s.

Then Mandelson, “was part of Ted Knight’s increasingly Soviet-style Labour group on the (Lambeth) council”. He recalls making the case for moderation to the Labour group. “Ted would invariably open the next meeting by glaring in turn at me and other recalcitrants, and saying: ‘Certain comrades are misperceiving the situation…’ The atmosphere was very intimidating.”

Having experienced the Knight glower, I have some sense of the mood described. On a GC that was fiercely loyal to our MP, Tessa Jowell, Knight would sit at the back. The comrade who put the loony into Lambeth remained resolute, 30 years on. If you said something that he disagreed with, you knew about it. He was an imposing figure, even when much of the room was against him.

“The past isn’t dead,” as William Faulkner famously put it. “It isn’t even past.” The party still trawls through the bowels of the 1980s. We are re-infused with CIA thinking, as Knight, I am told (I moved away from the CLP earlier this year), has picked up his GC participation since Corbyn’s election.

“Such is their sectarianism that the Hard Left seem to be running full slates for every position in CLPs,” reports the latest Labour First email update, “including positions like fundraising officer that are utterly irrelevant to factional politics, and without any regard to the track record and hard work of incumbents.” News also reaches me of “one re-emerged dinosaur” making wild allegations of corruption at a GC against someone who has been known to me as diligent party servant.

The mood at CLP meetings appears confrontational and highly charged. As it was at last week’s meeting of the PLP. From meetings of Labour activists to those of Labour MPs, the “new politics” does not seem awash with peace, love and understanding, which is no way to have fun or to change the world.

Many have better things to do. “One senior MP,” observes George Eaton, “estimated that for every 75 members who joined (over recent months), around 25 left.” It is the left who are enlivened by the new politics and who are joining or rejoining the party. It is the right who are going in the other direction – rediscovering their families, careers, and the many ways to make a positive difference in the world without the headaches of Labour activism.

The right also seems keen to avoid confrontation in the PLP. “A whipped vote with regard to any potential British involvement in Syria,” Jamie Reed has written to Jeremy Corbyn, “looks like a deliberate and calculated attempt to engineer a damaging and avoidable conflict within the PLP.”

Those MPs who would defy a Corbyn whip on Syria are worried about the likes of Knight making their lives difficult at their next GC – and crucially, when they seek to be reselected as general election candidates. But will the presence or absence of a Corbyn whip really make much difference to this? CIA afflicted members will be angry with MPs who vote for intervention in Syria, irrespective of whether these votes are cast in a free vote.

We cannot be a government in waiting if we do not have a party position on matters, such as intervention in Syria, that a government would be expected to have a position on.

What moderate MPs are worried about is that a party led by Corbyn will come to a position with which they disagree, forcing them to not vote with this whip, and increasing the risk that they get a rough ride from their CLPs. But none of this absolves either the party of its responsibility to have a position on key national issues or MPs to vote as their interpretations of their consciences and loyalties to their constituents and country demands.

One of Liz Kendall’s best moments in the leadership election was when she insistedthat the interests of the country come before those of the party. Similarly, if Labour MPs conclude that the national interest requires them to not follow a Corbyn whip, they should do so.

Politics is about persuasion. If MPs cannot vote with a Corbyn whip, they should persuade members and the wider public that they were right to do so. Conflict is also a political inevitability. MPs shouldn’t seek to duck this by demanding free votes on issues upon which governmental parties – i.e. parties that either form or aspire to form governments – must have positions.

I never looked for Knight’s ire but it found me. The UK has shied from Syrian intervention but it looks for us. Moderate MPs wish to avoid “damaging and avoidable conflict within the PLP” but it may be unavoidable.

All of us – whether MPs or activists – must now decide where we stand and stand firmly with those who share our beliefs.