Euan McColm: Shut broad church to get Labour Party back
You can tell something’s awry in a political party when its members start explaining that it’s a broad church.
Nobody ever uses the expression when all is well. When a party is united and focused on winning the prize of power, there is no need. But as soon as cracks start to appear out comes this particular explanation.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of broad church chatter from Labour Party MPs. We’ve heard it whenever evidence of disharmony in the party’s Westminster group has emerged. And that has happened frequently.
To confuse matters, “broad church” is a multipurpose platitude. Those Labour MPs loyal to departing leader Jeremy Corbyn use to it to paper over division while those who believe the party must move back to the centre ground cite it as an aspiration.
“We are a broad church,” insists the Corbynista. “We must become a broad church,” demands the Labour moderate.
The truth is that, under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour became a very narrow church indeed. The hard left seized control of the party machine and only those devoted to the cult of Jeremy were considered sound.
But the Corbyn era now draws to a close. The current leadership election presents the Labour Party with an opportunity to reposition itself in the political marketplace.
In the aftermath of Labour’s humiliating general election defeat in December, it seemed that the contest to replace the new leader would not lead to substantial change in the way the party does its politics. The Corbynista MP, Rebecca Long-Bailey, was widely regarded as an unstoppable candidate who would maintain the positions adopted by the current leader.
Now, it seems Long Bailey’s victory is far from assured. Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer is the current front-runner in the leadership contest and, if he can see this thing through, he will have the opportunity to make real changes in a party currently infected with the disease of ideological purity.
In recent years, we have seen far greater public engagement with politics than ever before. Social media has given platforms to those who would have struggled to have their voices heard and, in some instances, party memberships have soared.
This has meant, particularly for the SNP and Labour, healthier finances and huge activist bases on which to depend during campaigns.
But the downside for these political parties of greater public engagement with politics has been greater public engagement with politics. Members might be the lifeblood of political parties but they also, inconveniently, expect to have a say in how things are done.
For SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, this has meant juggling the desire of the majority of her members for another independence referendum with the reality that she has neither the power to hold one nor the support to win it.
Sturgeon has, so far, survived by perpetually leading the troops to the top of the hill. One last heave and we’re there, she says. The nationalists, however, have not yet reached the summit.
Corbyn’s successor will inherit an even larger membership than the SNP’s and these people will have expectations. Given that the majority of these members are enthusiastic supporters of the man who has just led the party to its worst defeat in living memory, the next Labour leader may be tempted to give those members what they want.
This would be a mistake on a par with the decision of the members to elect Corbyn leader in the first place.
If Starmer can stay ahead of Long-Bailey and wrestle the Labour Party back from the hard left, then his first act as leader must be to make clear that the Corbyn era is firmly over and that those who do not like this are welcome to leave.
Political activists are a curious bunch. They assume a great deal about the voting public, not least that they are as engaged with the debate as they are.
This delusion leads SNP activists to believe most Scots share their view that the failure of the UK government to grant the First Minister the power to call a second independence referendum represents an abuse of democracy.
As we have seen recently, this delusion has led very many Labour supporters to believe that a UK public that rejects Labour would return to the party if only it was more left-wing.
Starmer – or whoever succeeds Corbyn – must ignore the demands of members who want to maintain the party’s purity.
Sturgeon is a master at this. She manages to retain the loyalty of members while clearly and repeatedly failing to give them what they want
The challenge for the next Labour leader will be greater. Not only will they want to keep membership numbers healthy, they will have to convince the voting public that the party has changed and that there will be no going back to the politics of Corbyn.
This will require a fair degree of brutality. The exile of Corbyn favourites such as Richard Burgon and, yes, even Long-Bailey herself, to the back benches would be a good start.
It would also help if Labour MPs would stop enthusiastically criticising the Blair and Brown years. On the day in 2015 that Corbyn and Tom Watson were elected leader and deputy leader of the party, Corbyn is said to have told his second in command “We’re got our party back”.
The next leader should feel the same way when they watch Corbyn shuffle off to the obscurity from whence he came.
I have no doubt that whoever wins the Labour leadership election will have much to say about the party being a broad church. We have room, they will say, for people from many traditions, from the left to the centre.
But, in reality, Labour will continue to fail if the party doesn’t become narrower, with the hard left cut adrift.
Voters have twice looked at Corbyn’s broad church and then decided to congregate elsewhere.