Ian Davidson: Labour must rally behind radical agenda

Corbyn flanked by Ian Murray and Kezia Dugdale in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
Corbyn flanked by Ian Murray and Kezia Dugdale in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
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Now it’s over, again, and Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected leader of the Labour Party, this time with a bigger majority, by a bigger membership. He won with no rules having been bent in his favour, no organisational manoeuvres to increase his chances and no unfair help from the party machine.

It’s a clear, unequivocal and decisive success. Some have enjoyed the contest so much they want it as an annual event. I don’t, because I think it has been a self-indulgent diversion from the real issues affecting the people we seek to represent. And anyway, the decision to force another contest will not lie with Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, but with others.

After a year of having excrement dumped on his head at every opportunity and withstanding enormous pressure, no one should now have any doubt about whether Jeremy is tough enough to be Labour leader and Prime Minister. Politeness should never again be mistaken for softness.

This evidence of Jeremy’s inner steel, and his decisive re-election, are good, not only for the Labour Party but also for the country. Britain, and Scotland, need a strong Labour Party, not only to provide opposition to the Government, but also to provide an alternative perspective on politics.

The real dividing lines in politics are not about race, nationality or location – but about class and how to tackle the unfairness and inequality inherent in a capitalist society.

That is why the Labour Party was set up and it is the inspiration to which we must return.

People in the country will now be watching to see how Labour as a whole reacts to this result and will judge us harshly if we are involved, for another year, in internal convulsions. Some MPs may feel that we learn so much from our mistakes that we should make a few more, but that is not a majority view.

Instead, Labour has to make clear that Jeremy’s re-election marks a seismic change from the Labour of recent decades. And it is the more significant exactly because it has been a verdict reached after a year’s internal debate amongst the largest membership of any party in Western Europe.

In politics there are two alternative courses of action when faced by a strong establishment: to seek to join, or to challenge. Too often, particularly in Scotland, Labour has sought position, without being clear on our purpose. Jeremy represents what working people need – a challenge to the operation and ideological underpinnings of a system in which the rich are growing richer at the expense of the rest and where inequality is growing rather than falling. Labour now has a leader whose instinct is to challenge the establishment and is oriented towards the Labour Movement, because he recognises that political change comes not from patrician good will, but by the education, agitation and organisation of working people and their families across the country.

His re-election, with a bigger majority overall, and a majority in Scotland, is a clear victory for those of us who see the Labour Party as part of a wider movement, active in the economic and social spheres as well as the political and marks a clear and decisive defeat for those who see Labour as mainly a support group for parliamentarians, for whom the search for office often swamps the drive for change.

How we behave in opposition is a pointer to the country of how we would behave in government. We therefore need to show that Labour is now a party which will be driven by respect.

The Respect Agenda: 
respect the result

Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign committee in Scotland met a few weeks ago, before the result was clear, and agreed that we would respect the result of the leadership election even if we lost.

We now expect Owen and the Owenites to do the same, in the way that all of us in the Labour Party in Scotland recognised and respected the mandate that Kezia Dugdale and Alex Rowley got when they won the Scottish leadership election.

We recognise that those who have lost will be hurting and that some steps will have to be taken to help reconcile them to the result.

Jeremy and his supporters should be willing to make some compromises in order to bring the party together. Simply because the Blairites of the Progress group made few if any concessions to their opponents when they were on top does not mean that we should operate by the same standards.

Opponents should be found ways to make a contribution within the framework the majority have voted for.

However we are now entitled to expect an end to the factional manoeuvring that has gone on over the past year. For example, the call for the election of the entire Shadow Cabinet seems simply a blatant device to flood the Shadow Cabinet with MPs unsupportive of Jeremy Corbyn, in order to smother him with a majority of his opponents. We cannot have the votes of hundreds of thousands of party members undone by those of a couple of hundred MPs.

By all means let us seek a negotiated settlement, but compromise must not become capitulation. We are also entitled to expect all those who are asked to serve by Jeremy to do so, without conditions.

Respect the policy mandate

Much of the discussion during the campaign has been on the personalities of the candidates – because there has been so little difference in policy.

Here, much credit must be given to Owen Smith, who has helped move the centre of gravity across Labour, even in the PLP, to the left. With only a few exceptions, Jeremy’s supporters could easily line up behind Owen’s manifesto.

Before I retired from parliament by public demand, I had always found Owen one of the most approachable and radical of my colleagues. Angela Eagle, whom I had supported for deputy leader, was carved up in a disgraceful manner, but for him rather than by him. Just because he was supported by the right wing doesn’t mean he is all bad!

Jeremy should offer him a role in the Shadow Cabinet, to take forward some of the policies he has championed over the past few weeks. And he should accept. Far better that a man of such talent plays a prominent part in fleshing out a new Labour programme rather than sulk.

Respect each other

Heretics should not be burnt. Dissent is not disloyalty.

Trying to change society gives many options and thus disagreements are inevitable. These can be robust but must be respectful. Abuse or threats are unacceptable and should be grounds for suspension or expulsion if proven.

However, this should not be a green light to the use of administrative means to tackle political problems. A party which applies rigid discipline, suppresses independent thought and relies on oaths of everlasting loyalty condemns itself to eventual sterility.

After the dust has settled we need to examine the cases of all those who were excluded from voting and ensure they were all dealt with fairly, and not as an organisational move to support one candidate over another.

Respect for the membership

Since our approach to the membership is to see them as a constructive and contributing asset we need to build a campaigning party.

Accordingly, we need to consider how best to retain and recruit, not just for any third leadership contest, but to provide the sinews for change. We need to get involved in campaigns based on solidarity and social justice rather than on parliamentary tactics. Since we presently don’t have the aptitude nor the ability within our bureaucracy to switch easily to such an approach we have to look for issues where we can add value and heft and which already have leaderships and structures in place.

The Fast Food campaigns being run by the Bakers’ union offers scope for solidarity and political activity, as do many of the campaigns run by the RMT and Unite Community. These, plus action against unfair employment practices and consumer boycotts against tax dodging multinationals all allow us to work alongside those already involved and need not be universal in their application.

If members are to be attracted and developed they must be protected from death by meetings. Education by action would also allow us to develop the next generation of activists at a time when many have drifted away.

And for Scotland…

After Jeremy’s thumping victory we would expect that he and Kezia would each recognise the others’ mandate and neither would try to undermine or challenge the other.

Each will now have their own areas of policy and operational responsibility, which will interact, and where a divergence in application will be a healthy sign of devolution responding to different priorities.

In this context Kez was particularly badly advised to come out so strongly for any candidate in the UK leadership election. She should have remained apart from the fray, since she will now have to deal with someone she strongly opposed. Thank goodness Jeremy’s nature is magnanimous rather than vindictive.

One of Jeremy’s first actions should be to offer a post to Ian Murray, ideally as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. Ian has a wider responsibility to the party than his own constituency and his response should be to accept, with gratitude, any opportunity offered to serve by the party leader. He should do so without attempting to hold Jeremy to ransom by setting factional conditions.

While the agreement between the two leaders on greater autonomy for the Scottish Party is a welcome step forward, Kezia will have to be careful about how the new Scottish seat on the National Executive Committee, Labour’s ruling body, is used. If the Scottish rep becomes just another vote for the Progress bloc then there will undoubtedly be a reaction in Scotland.

In the short term, to show how seriously she takes this role, Kezia should be willing to take the post herself, or appoint the deputy leader, Alex Rowley, who also has a direct mandate from the membership.

Alternatively, a bold choice to ensure the Scottish Labour Party was not treated like a branch office, would be she of the phrase: Johann Lamont.

However, there needs to be a recognition that as soon as practical we need the post filled by a vote of party members in Scotland.

Now that Jeremy’s re-election has given Labour across Britain a huge boost of ideas and supporters we in Scotland have to see if we can capitalise on this Corbyn surge.

The SNP are starting to run out of steam and the Teflon coating is beginning to wear through. People in Scotland are beginning to recognise that complaining about inequalities in wealth, power and life chances should actually lead to proposals to tackle these rather than a constant chorus saying it’s all somebody else’s fault.

Scots are starting to notice that the SNP, while having a grievance a day, are not providing any meaningful action to tackle any of Scotland’s multifarious problems.

Who would have thought that a Scottish Parliament, run by the SNP for a decade, would turn out to be much less radical in tackling poverty and deprivation than the Labour run Regional Councils of Strathclyde, Lothian and Fife over 20 years ago.

The obsession with constitutional matters as a diversion from grown-up problems, which involve decisions rather than posturing, serve Scotland ill, and while I welcome the SNP’s plan to give us a choice between the UK and the EU in a referendum, Labour must force them to face immediate problems now.

This is Labour’s great opportunity in Scotland, the question is whether the Scottish Labour party is up to it?

Ian Davidson was Labour MP from 1992 to 2015 for Glasgow Govan, Glasgow Pollok and Glasgow South West