Baby Health in Winter
It was February 2014, and I was flushed with excitement as over a hundred friends had crammed into a curry house to support my fundraiser as the Labour candidate for Redcar at the next election, expected the following year.
The guest speaker was Andy Burnham, then shadow health secretary, and I vividly remember him praising then leader Ed Miliband for keeping the party together; “So often in Labour’s history,” said Andy, “when we have lost, we have torn ourselves apart and turned in on each other. Not this time – we are united and heading for government.”
I nodded and applauded enthusiastically. Thank goodness the dark days of the Eighties were behind us. Thank goodness my generation didn’t have to face the battles with the hard left and with the likes of Militant. We were united, we were decent, we were competent if not electrifying, and we would make sure the 2010 election would be an aberration and Labour would return to government.
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Now, as we survey the smouldering wreckage of the Labour Party after its worst election defeat since 1935, Andy’s speech and the word “unity” keep coming back to me.
When I hear it now, the word smacks of complacency and denial. Of our failure to listen to the angry cry of the public this December, or to acknowledge the steady haemorrhaging of support in former heartlands over the last 15 years. It says as long as we are happy and getting along and branch meetings are a bit more bearable, then all will be well.
I’m afraid Labour unity in opposition means nothing to my former constituents, who are using food banks in record numbers. Or when another company announces hundreds of job losses because of a hard Tory Brexit. It comes across as introspective, self-satisfying and tin-eared.
What benefit is it to the people that need a Labour government for us to be united with people who are completely at odds with the mainstream of public opinion – indeed who are actually a barrier to Labour getting into government?
Those who are responsible for the legitimisation and proliferation of anti-Jewish racism within the movement that led to a community fearing its safety under a Labour prime minister? Those who dismiss the public as gullible to the evil mainstream media because they refused to see Jeremy Corbyn as worthy to be in No 10?
Those who refuse to compromise their own ideals or vanity projects or ideologies – Neil Kinnock’s “impossible promises” that get “pickled into a rigid dogma”? Those who proudly demand “no compromise with the electorate” or tell anyone with a different opinion to “F*** off and join the Tories”?
I ask this difficult question and pose these challenges because no candidate putting themselves forward for election in the leadership contest can do so because of the selectorate whose approval they require. I’m afraid I fear the price of unity with many of these people and these ideas is more years of Tory government.
It feels to me as though at this point in the electoral cycle that honesty should be more important than unity when you look at the scale of the challenge facing the next Labour leader. And the public deserve no less.
It feels as though the emphasis on unity in this leadership election is being done to satisfy those whose interpretation of last December’s disaster is that there was nothing wrong with the leader or the policies; we lost because MPs didn’t get behind Jeremy.
In future, perhaps instead of seeking the deselection of MPs who dare to warn that a leader may not be on a guaranteed path to government or who overwhelmingly sign a motion of no confidence in him, those MPs should be listened to like canaries in the mine – the first to sense the public are unhappy and that things are going awry.
Don’t get me wrong: I do understand where the cry for unity comes from. There’s no doubt that the broad church maxim of our party has been stretched to the limit in the last few years, and these have been grim times to be a Labour member or MP. Meetings have been unpleasant, social media a cesspit, threats have been made, bricks have even been thrown through windows.
We all want an end to this. But wanting an end to this has already meant too many people keeping their heads down and not challenging the drift to the hard left even as antisemitism grew, the manifesto turned into an absurd wish list, and the leader acquired cult-like status – even as we knew perfectly well what the election outcome would be. Better to keep heads down, get reselected and not provoke a horrible Twitter pile-on. Unity over honesty.
There will also be a lot of new members for whom the scales have fallen from their eyes, partly over Brexit and partly over the horror of the election. They will now be realising the scale of the challenge we face. That is a positive thing. We need the brightest and best of our party to put their shoulders to the wheel, and everyone who wants to win should be encouraged.
In principle, unity sounds great. Who can be against getting on with each other, pulling together, cooperation, common endeavour? The public want to see a united, competent party. But if unity is to be prized above all else – above asking the difficult questions and making the necessary compromises, expelling racist members, tackling abusive behaviour and bullying in local parties, speaking truth to power (or, indeed, to members) or being honest about why we lost and what it will take to win – then the Labour party is doomed to slip back to 2014: heartily applauding our internal comradeship, but ultimately failing the public test for which we were created.
Anna Turley was Labour MP for Redcar from 2015 to 2019
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