Never forget it’s the public that are in charge

First published on Progressonline

John Woodcock yesterday rightly identified the ‘politburo politics’ that threatens to soon be at the top of the Labour. Jeremy Corbyn, as the chair of Progress highlights, has thrown the gauntlet down to his parliamentary colleagues. In the would-be leader’s comment lies a real insight into what is to come.

Calls for unity, from a man who has never shown any, soon become threats. While the leader is busy ‘encourag[ing] the parliamentary Labour party to be part of that process and not to stand in the way of democratising the party’ what is really envisaged is a political operation that will use the mandate of 600,000 people to try and bulldoze the will of those elected by 9.3 million people. Forget the views of the Labour-voting public, let alone the potential supporters in the marginal seats, the party comes first, apparently.

When Jim Hacker, the fictional cabinet minister in the hit 1980s television series ‘Yes, Minister’, is asked about the choices between party or the country, he is clear: ‘The voters have to wait five years, the party can vote against me tonight.’ Short-term party tactics, however, only store up long-term electoral problems; just ask the eight Labour MPs who lost their seats in May to David Cameron’s Conservative party. The ‘real democracy’ that Corbyn speaks of could have the members issued plebiscite ballots of key issues, bloc votes at conference reimpose dictates on the parliamentary party, and the shadow cabinet reduced to a mere subcommittee with the chief whip as a messenger. All of these totally forget that it is the public that will decide our fate.

I welcome the swelled membership ranks and wish to involve them more. It is right and proper that party members select our leader, but not to dictate the agenda of all 232 MPs and what is best for their constituents. Worse still is the threat – explicit or implicit – from the leadership frontrunner that those who do not comply will be entered into a re-education programme or deselected.

While the ‘Gang of Four’ and the creation of the Social Democratic party clearly played its party in Labour’s 1983 drumming, those who point the finger ignore the role the far-left played in bringing about a split. It should not be forgotten how Militant and the supporters of Tony Benn hounded Labour MPs in their seats. The way in which the atmosphere in the party has changed in a matter of weeks is a small window into what hostilities might have been like in the late 1979s and early 1980s. Labour is fast becoming an unpleasant place to be a lifelong member.

In contrast, the Labour party that has tolerated Corbyn voting against the Labour whip 400 times in 13 years should allow parliamentarians to put their ‘country first’ in the coming years. As Woodcock says, the ideas ‘some [MPs] take a “principled stand on issues”, others are Tory-lite’ is appalling. The party, like an eagle, needs two wing to fly. Both should be respected.

Without this respect, MPs may feel little choice but to bow to the will of the politburo – only to receive a chilling reminder in 2020 that it is the public that are ultimately in charge.

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Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets @RichardAngell

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