The purposefully timed departure from the Labour party of several Blairite members has drawn myriad responses from rank and file members and the press over recent weeks. The latter have in the main hailed the possibilities of what a new centrist, neoliberal party could bring to Uk politics. Guardian opinion pieces rejoiced in a moment that could ‘redefine’ the landscape of our discourse in Britain, applauding the ‘bold break’ of the MPs towards the centre ground.
Within a rank and file that is still largely composed of the progressive left, the consensus is a little more cynical when addressing the supposed altruistic motives of the splinter group. Those brave few, selflessly making a pitch for that innocuous third way, for the good of the country and democracy. For many activists who have fought through successive failed neoliberal administrations to take a socialist message to doorsteps and communities their departure at this crucial juncture feels like the ultimate betrayal, however predictable an eventual split might have been.
The reaction from many quarters has been, ‘good riddance, its better this way’. It’s better that we lance the boil of neoliberalism now, so that we may finally renew as a party and take our social and economic reforms forward in preparation for the next election.
Given the tenacity of these members in hanging on through the abstentions and appeasement of the Blair years it is easy to understand the level of frustration at this final betrayal. The actions of the defectors speaks to a wider issue that has festered within the labour party, and in politics generally, for many years – the struggle over where power within our democracy and within our party structures truly lies and how it can be best exercised to improve the lives of those who most need it.
In truth, the machinations of this splinter group and those who might eventually follow them speaks to issues of control and not to a genuine desire to create a better politics. If that were the case, they would have remained with the party best placed at a Westminster level to make that change.
There is a better way – but it’s not the third way.
It’s baffling that, even now, the fading stars of the Blairite old guard fail to see this simple truth. They have, instead thrown all of their toys out of the basket and stormed out of the nursery to make friends with the nasty kids across the road.
The tension between the rank and file members of the labour party and the parliamentary party has been thrown into stark relief since 2015’s leadership contest, and the battle that has ensued over the structure and direction of the party has betrayed some revealing truths about how power is wielded and how control is exerted within political parties.
In my years as a staffer in the party many of my own preconceptions of what the party stood for as a movement were fundamentally challenged, as was my own faith in representative democracy. Witnessing then the exchanges made within and between parties on terraces and in the corners of parliamentary bars, it became apparent how quickly the sovereignty of the people could be bargained away to maintain a powerful status quo.
There were hours spent in committee rooms where well-meaning and softly spoken academics indulged in sincere discussions about the need to connect and engage with citizens beyond the shallow pool of ‘civic Scotland’. All would agree and nod and cite their own examples of best practise. The in-house ‘yes men’ had the ear of the government and the concept of a citizen led politics, rooted in communities and built around a shared experience and desire for change, seemed far away.
Today, the party are on the cusp of building something entirely new with a genuinely reforming set of policies and more direct ways of communicating with members. This is the grassroots politics we wanted. It was built on the campaigning efforts of thousands of members and many good parliamentarians who saw the writing on the wall and pushed to democratise the party with new leadership and a popular manifesto.
Now, in the midst of crucial Brexit negotiations, this minority has sought to jeopardise all of that progress. MPs are burdened with an immense responsibility and privilege to exercise power in a manner that is true to the platform on which they were elected. It is no longer acceptable to use that privilege of trust to control and undermine our democratic structures. Yet the ‘Independent Group’ are doing just this – indulging in the very worst kind of Machiavellian subterfuge and turning this moment of crisis to their own personal advantage. They are denying thousands of members and labour voters the right to have their voices heard in parliament.
The old guard have been confronted by their greatest fear; that mass of faceless ‘others’ who have risen up to take the reins of a party that is by rights theirs to steer. And rather than put their elbow to the wheel to help, this is their response. Defection.
The fact that it is still beyond their abilities to understand this fundamental shift towards movement based politics is testament to their own blind egoism, permanently trapped in a tiny orb of privilege and blind to the protestations of thousands of desperately frustrated people. Ironically, it is this very attitude that led to Brexit in the first place – the notion of an indifferent and isolated cabal of bureaucrats, who act with impunity and harm the democratic interests of the people. In truth this applies as much to Westminster as some believe it does to Brussels.
In the past few weeks we have seen yesterday’s men and women abandoning a party that could provide one of the few vehicles for real and meaningful democratic change in this country, and they have done so out of spite and personal ambition.
May they rue the day that they turned their backs on those who have fought and campaigned for an alternative that would support rather than punish vulnerable people. We are a movement of thousands and we will march on – only without the dead weight of their right wing appeasement, hawkish interventionism, abstentions and toadying to jingoistic sentiment.
It’s better this way.
You can read more Ungagged Writing here or hear from more left voices on our podcast