As the UK Labour Party conference comes to a conclusion, it’s time for everyone in the Party to remember the words of Keir Hardie; "Unity should be the first object of all of us who desire socialism.”
The one fact that has to be recognised is that Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership ballot emphatically. He won in all three parts of the selectorate and he won on a higher rate of participation. His victory was all the more remarkable given the vitriolic campaign against him in the media. Even normally progressive papers like the Guardian use value based language like ‘moderates’ to badge his opponents. I am usually the last to attack the BBC, but as the Media Reform Coalition report shows, it is justified on this occasion. Twice as much airtime was given to critical voices and BBC reporters regularly use pejorative language when describing Jeremy and his supporters.
After the ‘coup’ failed, it was always unclear to me why the plotters continued with a leadership challenge. If as Andrew Rawnsley suggests, “it was to take the shine of the incumbent”, it failed dismally. Rawnsley, himself a Corbyn critic, explains why. Most party members, including myself, were appalled by the behaviour of the PLP at a time when we should have been attacking the Tories. Whatever the reservations about aspects of Jeremy’s leadership, we were not going to reward bad behaviour.
There has been a lot of coverage of the role of Momentum, but much less about Progress. I am not a member of either, but I accept that Momentum is at least an open and transparent movement, something that cannot be said for Progress. Again, the BBC did not cover itself with glory with its botched documentary.
On the issue of ‘The Purge’, I have to say that I have seen no examples in Scotland of members who were suspended without due cause. However, when you look at the voting numbers there does appear to be cause for concern, particular at the turnout of registered supporters. There must be greater transparency over this matter and the application of the rules of natural justice. Suspension letters that I did see were not of the standard we would expect in any walk of life.
Research amongst party members undertaken by Queen Mary University has highlighted some interesting views. They found that party members, old and new, shared a common vision of what the Labour Party should stand for. They also found that Party members have been longing for someone like Jeremy, long before he was on a ballot paper.
Newer members are more likely to feel politicians are estranged from them, but the big difference is over their view of leadership. Fewer than half (42.5%) of old members said they had been driven to join because they believed in the party leadership. More than three quarters (76.5%) of the post-May 2015 members said this had been a driving factor. Rising to 82% among those who joined during the 2015 leadership election and to virtually everyone who joined afterwards.
As far as Scottish Labour is concerned, the most important part of conference was passing the rule changes that give significant autonomy to the party in Scotland. The SEC will be responsible for the procedures and selection of all UK parliamentary candidates in Scotland and for the management of constituency Labour parties in Scotland. Scottish Labour will also have full control over policymaking, including for the first time in reserved policy areas.
These are very big changes. It’s not an independent party because members clearly rejected that option – rightly in my view. For those who think they are minor, just look at how certain sections of the UK party hierarchy resisted them!
A frontbench member of the Scottish Parliament, nominated by the Scottish Labour leader, will also directly represent the Scottish Labour Party on the NEC. This was not part of the joint SEC/NEC working group’s proposals, but it does regularise an arrangement that has been in place for several years and is therefore consistent with the tidying up elements of the rule changes. Personally, I am not convinced that there needs to be a seat on the NEC, given the new levels of autonomy, but I am equally unconvinced about direct elections with limited accountability. The measure only became contentious due to Kezia Dugdale’s unwise intervention in the leadership ballot - Carwyn Jones used better judgment.
So where do we go next? I thought Owen Jones struck the correct note in his ‘critical friends’ approach. Members will expect the PLP to accept Jeremy’s mandate, recognising that you can express dissent without damaging the Party. If Labour’s right wing had an obvious route to power they wouldn’t be in such a parlous state. Equally, mandatory reselection is not the way forward – the current rules are perfectly adequate. Jeremy now needs to set out a coherent vision on the big issues of the day and communicate it effectively.
As Gary Younge says; “Principle and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive, and neither side owns a monopoly on either. Political parties do need to win elections, but they are more likely to do so if they stand for something more than just power”.
That’s a circle the Labour Party has joined up before and can do so again.