It has been a long summer for Labour members and the heat of the leadership contest has left little hope of uniting our fractious party.
For many Labour members, particularly newer members, ‘Labour MP’ or ‘PLP’ are bywords for treachery or right wing villainy. In their enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn they can’t understand why Labour MPs supported a leadership challenge. Paul Mason, in one of the strangest articles I’ve read this summer, even suggested that Labour MPs had triggered a contest because we fear that Jeremy Corbyn is on course to win the next general election.
The hard truth is that the vast majority of Labour MPs are desperate for a change in leadership because we fear that Labour is unelectable under Jeremy Corbyn. The most recent ICM opinion poll shows Labour slumping on 27 per cent, with the Conservatives riding high on 41 per cent. Among those most likely to vote – the over 65s – Labour has tumbled into third place behind UKIP, with a paltry 15 per cent of the vote. Many people will argue, with some justification, that poor poll ratings reflect divisions in our party, but that analysis does not explain why the vast majority of voters – including a majority of Labour voters – say they would prefer Theresa May as Prime Minister to Jeremy Corbyn. Leadership counts. These numbers are fatal.
The leadership contest has laid bare that there are now, effectively, two big camps in the Labour Party and neither side really understands the other. In the aftermath of the leadership election, we can try to address the deep divisions within the Labour Party. No one wants to see an SDP-style split. But continuity Corbynism will do nothing to address the divide we should really worry about: between the Labour Party and the electorate.
The Labour Party was founded more than 100 years ago, born of a collection of labour and co-operative movements who recognised that protest is no substitute for power. Power isn’t a dirty word; it is the means through which the Labour Party has made a transformational difference every time we’ve been in government. Compromise isn’t a dirty word either. Some compromise will be needed to hold the Labour Party together, but compromise is an essential part of achieving power in a democracy and confronting difficult decisions in government. That’s why there can be no compromise with the mentality that says there can be no compromise with the electorate.
Debates about power versus principle aren’t new in the Labour Party. They’re old and tired. While we’re debating Labour Party rules and processes, the Tories are busy dismantling the social fabric of our country that successive Labour governments worked so hard to build. I didn’t join the Labour Party in 1998 because it was a pale imitation of the Tories; I grew up in Tory Britain and joined Labour because it presented a radical alternative, which lifted millions of children and pensioners out of poverty, rebuilt schools that were crumbling, rescued an NHS that was in crisis, changed the conventional wisdom of politics and public opinion on issues like international development and LGBT equality and acted to stop the slaughter of innocent people in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Britain under Labour was a confident and outward looking country at ease with itself in stark contrast with the divided and confused nature of Brexit Britain under the Tories.
The Labour Party has always been a broad church. I’m voting for the candidate that represents the more radical of our traditions, which is determined to put our principles into practice in government. As the late great Denis Healey once said: ‘There are far too many people who want to luxuriate complacently in opposition… We are not a debating society. We are not a socialist Sunday school. We are a great movement that wants to help real people at the present time. We shall never be able to help them unless we get power.’
That candidate is Owen Smith.
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