Red herrings are still being used to conceal real arguments about democratic accountability within the Labour party, argues Lindsey German
What exactly does it take for local Labour members to be able to no confidence, criticise or even deselect an MP? It seems that the bar is so high that even a strong suspicion that the MP in question is going to join another party isn’t enough. Luciana Berger, the MP for the very safe Labour seat of Liverpool Wavertree, has long made plain her opposition to the policies of the Labour leader. In recent weeks she has refused to say that she wants to see Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister (when interviewed by Eddie Mair on LBC), and has refused to say that she will not join a new centre party (on Robert Peston’s show).
Surely this lack of public commitment to Labour and its leader would give anyone who voted for her or was in her constituency party serious cause for concern? After all, local members have a right to question her attitudes, especially if they may involve a fundamental breach with the party on whose ticket she was elected (after being parachuted into this safe seat against some opposition from those in the party).
Yet the tabling of motions of no confidence by members of her party in Wavertree has been met with complete outrage. Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has accused them of ‘bullying’, and demanded the party should be suspended. Harriet Harman has insisted that any criticism cease because Berger is eight months pregnant. And much of the criticism aimed at the local party centres on Berger’s experience of antisemitic abuse.
Berger has spoken out about this abuse of which she has been the victim online - including it appears from Labour members. The abuse should be unreservedly condemned, from whichever source it comes. But it would also appear that the proposed confidence motions were to do with completely separate issues from antisemitism. They have now been withdrawn, but they concerned worries about her attitude to a new party and to Corbyn, both of which seem justified issues to raise in the circumstances.
It is perfectly fair enough for Berger and her supporters to argue that her advanced pregnancy should at least warrant delay to political debate on this, and that her receiving abuse should also be treated with the seriousness and sensitivity that it deserves. But it is not fair enough to take the view that her personal circumstances exclude any responsibility to account for her politics to her local party.
I don’t want to get into a tactical argument about whether the motions were right or whether they should have been put at the time they were. However, the pressure to withdraw them, including from the leader’s office, has actually made it harder for local activists to hold MPs to account, and has given the right wing MPs who are clearly planning their departure from Labour at some point a free pass to continue. And if there is an election in the next few months, as many believe, are we to witness the spectacle of some MPs running as Labour only to break from the party when they win in safe seats? That would be a shocking and cynical attack on Labour supporters everywhere and would only aid the right. We shouldn’t be making this process easier.
One reason this has all blown up is the rage felt among significant sectors of Labour MPs at Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to Theresa May about a possible Brexit deal. The deal is an attempt to outmanoeuvre May by putting forward a deal she can’t accept without splitting her own party. However, it is not a great deal and has been praised by EU leaders precisely because it would mean a Brexit still very closely aligned to the EU - possibly even as close as the so-called Norway model. There may be good tactical reasons for putting forward such a deal but it is hardly radical. Most worryingly, if accepted - which is admittedly unlikely given May’s attitude - it will tie Labour much too closely to a Tory Brexit, with all the consequences. It is already the routine line of questioning in news programmes to ask why is Corbyn propping up May.
However, it also leaves the strong Remain or People’s Vote faction more isolated since it makes such an outcome less likely. Hence the anger from those quarters. There is now much talk of a breakaway centre party (let’s see when push comes to shove) and also a return to the antisemitism crisis of last summer, with claims that Labour is not doing enough to combat it.
There is something particularly reprehensible about reheating these arguments about anti-Jewish racism when there seems to be little new evidence, just an argument that not enough is being done.
Striking back - the way to bring class into the equation
It’s axiomatic that the level of industrial struggle in Britain is very low. Nothing much has changed in the headline figures - indeed the 2016 Tory law which increased the threshold for legal strikes makes that harder - but nonetheless, there are some encouraging signs. One was the agreement last week between the GMB and the Hermes courier company which gives its ‘self employed’ drivers rights of holiday pay and other benefits. This is a hugely important and welcome development which will strengthen the attempts at unionisation in the so-called ‘gig economy’. The second was the settlement that Northern trains has agreed with the RMT to keep the guards on the trains after months of strikes. Again, highly significant. There are many reasons for these developments - the effectiveness of strike action, the tightening of the labour market, the increasingly bad publicity for companies which treat workers and consumers so badly. But they are very welcome, because they show working class power - and put class back on the agenda of British politics.
Angry old man
Albert Finney, who died last week, was a great actor. My favourite film of his was Tom Jones, directed by the left wing Tony Richardson, then married to Vanessa Redgrave. It is a story of the poor and disreputable against the rich in the hideously unequal 18th century. When it was made in the early 60s, the social conditions looked like ancient history - not so much now. Finney is perhaps more famous for the 1960 film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. This was one of a number of films - The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, This Sporting Life, Billy Liar, Room at the Top, A Taste of Honey - which all dealt with working-class life mostly in the north of England.
They raised all sorts of issues about work, hatred of the foreman, the need to live for life outside work, the personal and sexual dilemmas, including pregnancy and abortion. There are many flaws in the characters, and some faults in the films. But I see them now as signalling the changes of the late 60s, and of marking the transition from 1950s stultifying conservatism to the much more liberal and then radical 60s. Albert Finney epitomised that time. He also refused all honours from royalty. A good man.
The gutter press part 94
I was contacted to take part in an interview with Tom Bower about Jeremy Corbyn for his forthcoming biography, now out and serialised in the Daily Fail. I declined because I couldn’t see much good coming out of it. Turns out that proved only too correct with the book’s prime revelations just a rehashing of not very interesting gossip about his previous marriages. Apparently, Corbyn urged his first wife to read the French existentialist philosopher and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir. Having read much of de Beauvoir myself, I don’t see a recommendation of her as anything but positive, and hardly the sign of cruel and unreasonable treatment. But maybe for Daily Mail readers….
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
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- Antisemitism: real news, old news and fake news - election briefing 27 November