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Hobson’s choice – the issues facing unhappy LAB MPs

March 7th, 2019

How far does loyalty stretch? How far should it stretch? Loyalty to persons who have behaved wrongly is misplaced loyalty but is more common than it should be. Still, even in the absence of misbehaviour there is no one easy answer to this, especially for anyone who has voluntarily joined a group because they believed in its mission, in what it was trying to do.

The question is even more difficult for members of political parties given that these are, inherently, broad groupings – with left and right wings and views which necessarily change according to the times and the voters’ demands.

Still, for all that, there are usually a set of values, of principles, a way of looking at the world, however imprecisely these may be delineated, which all in the party can sign up to, ends which they share, even if they may on occasion disagree fiercely about the means.

And parties generally have mechanisms to keep out undesirables and entryists, those seeking to use the party label, the party’s goodwill with voters, to achieve what they could not do were they to face voters under their own label. (This has been a particular issue in the past for Labour, given the number of small Far Left groupuscules, and a Labour leadership rather more alert to Far Left entryist tactics.

Even the Tories have had to take steps to eliminate those groups which threatened their good name – see the Federation of Conservative Students in the 1980’s, though their response to UKIP in recent years has been somewhat incoherent.)

What stretches that loyalty to breaking point?  Sometimes it can be the leader, behaving in a way which leaves Ministers with little option.  See, for instance, Geoffrey Howe talking about the “tragic conflict of loyalties with which [he had] struggled for perhaps too long.”   Still that was an argument within a government, within a party about policy and about the leader’s management style.  Howe was not saying that the Tory party was no longer Tory.

More often it can be a sense that the party has changed in a way which no longer makes it what it truly is, what it truly ought to be – “the party has left me” argument. This was the complaint made by the three Tory MPs joining TIG: that the Tory party had become more and more like UKIP and less and less like the party they joined and believed in.

It was the essence of the Gang of 4’s complaint about Labour in the 1980’s– that it had moved to the Left, been infiltrated by those who were not real Labour and was, as a result, taking positions which no longer made it Labour and, critically, which were electorally unpopular. By contrast, according to recent opinion polls (which the Tories would be wise to ignore) their move towards UKIP-style policies on Europe is not, apparently, denting their popularity.

Ah, but there’s the rub. If a move to the extremes is electorally popular but renders the party unrecognisable from what it has always been, is it still the same party? Or has it fundamentally changed? And what should a disaffected member do then? What matters more: popularity or sticking to the essence of a party’s values? And who determines what those values are?

This dilemma is particularly excruciating at present for Labour MPs not particularly enamoured of their leader. The claim of some that voters should vote Labour but that if Labour win they will not make their leader, PM, is ludicrous and/or dishonest.

The brutal reality for such MPs is that Corbyn is popular with the membership, which has increased significantly in recent years. He achieved, unexpectedly, a significant increase in the Labour vote in 2017 so there is evidence, recent opinion polls notwithstanding, that he can be popular with voters, not simply Labour members. His allies are in control of all the key levers of the Labour party. His values are increasingly becoming Labour’s values.

Are his values really Labour values, though? It’s not all that obvious that they are. When Kinnock (a leader on the Left of Labour) and his allies were fighting hard to expel Militant, Corbyn opposed this. During the last Labour government he voted 428 times against his party.

In 2012 he congratulated George Galloway on his victory in Bradford West. When did it become OK for a Labour MP to support those defeating Labour candidates in a formerly Labour seat? Corbyn seems to have been at best semi-detached from the party whose label he wore, at worst severely at odds with it.

What about since he became leader? What about those people whom he has appointed as his closest advisors, those he relies on and trusts, those whose advice he seeks and who speak for him? What do they say about the values he has brought to Labour and increasingly stamped on it?

Well, we have Andrew Murray (Corbyn’s “Special Political Advisor”)– a member of the Communist party for 40 years until December 2016 becoming a Corbyn advisor 4 months later, just after his former party announced that it would be working “full tilt” to get Corbyn elected. Of course, he may have changed his views. The fact that he continues to write for the Morning Star, a paper described by Corbyn as“the more precious and only voice we have in the daily media”and one following the Communist Party’s platform might perhaps give the lie to that.

Labour has had ex-Communists in high places before, of course: Denis Healey, for example. But it was rather clearer that he had disavowed his former views than it is with Murray. Or what about Andrew Fisher, suspended from Labour for urging voters to vote for another party (Class War), but now reinstated. Or Milne with his background in Straight Left, a pro-Soviet faction within the Communist Party. Milne has never hidden his admiration for Soviet Russia, Stalinism or for its current leader, Putin, and was described as sharing “Jeremy’s world view almost to the letter.”

It has been said of Labour that it is best governed from the Left. It is certainly now that. But the question for Labour MPs is whether this is a Left which belongs within the Labour movement or one which is using it as a vehicle to achieve ends at odds with what Labour really is. Is it correct that,  as one Labour MP put it: “These people are not Labour, have never been Labour, but we now find them in our party.”?

And if they take the latter view, do they leave – and allow the entryists the power they want – or stay to fight a perhaps unwinnable battle and give cover to those who have taken over, making it seem that the party is still at heart recognisably Labour?  What they surely cannot do is ask people to vote Labour while pretending or hoping that this does not mean Corbyn as PM or a Labour party based on his values.  It is surely time for unhappy Labour MPs to put up or shut up.

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