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How Labour’s 2017 Opportunity Was Wasted

It is increasingly clear that the coalition Labour built in 2017 was a rare blip amid decades of decline – but from the beginning, right-wing forces in the Parliamentary Labour Party wanted to tear it apart.

As we seek a path to recovery from this truly awful set of election results – which have taken us backwards even from the defeat of 2019 – any attempt to find a way to put the Labour Party on track to contend for power, it is past time for a proper reckoning. One of the consequences of the current Starmer leadership – and its seeming lack of purpose and direction – has been an absence of proper discussion and debate over what went wrong in recent years.

In particular, we haven’t properly accounted for how the opportunity that was presented by our 2017 electoral breakthrough — the greatest increase in our vote share since 1945 — was squandered. It may serve some on the the Labour Right to substitute platitudes and misdirections for a settling of accounts, but it is not in the interests of the wider party and labour movement. And as a party, we need to face some harsh truths.

The moment things truly went off the rails for Labour can, in my view, be pinpointed to the evening of 1 April 2019 — the night that the indicative votes on Brexit were held. That was the night that the chance for the House of Commons to pass a deal with a Customs Union was narrowly defeated. To understand the reason why this was such a pivotal moment, and thus why the betrayal by some in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) was so great, it is necessary to rehearse a bit of context about the political realities of Westminster.

The Westminster Bubble

Back in 2017, I entered parliament — unexpectedly, and on a total high, as a local school cuts activist and newcomer to national politics who had been elected MP for my hometowns of Crewe and Nantwich. My time in parliament was short-lived — only two and a half years — but that is more opportunity than most people get to see the inner workings of one of our most august institutions.

Taking what had been considered an unwinnable seat from a privileged millionaire and coming into politics from the grassroots, it was both a huge shock and an incredible opportunity. We had fallen short of victory – but in an election that had been called to annihilate us, Labour’s bold vision of hope for the future, of an economy for the many not the few, had been vindicated. I simply couldn’t wait to be part of the project from inside parliament, to make sure that next time we would form a government.

Somewhat naively, coming from a place where the factions within the Labour Party had pretty much muddled along without too much drama, and being able to maintain relationships with people from across the political spectrum, I had underestimated the reality of the ‘Westminster bubble.’

As a party member, of course, I had watched in horror at the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). I saw their determination to take back control of the party machine at any cost. But walking in as a new MP, together with a cohort of other newly-elected MPs, many of whom had been elected as unexpectedly as I had, I let myself believe that a new era had begun. I believed that we could get down to business, planting the seeds of hope from that manifesto in the minds of citizens and communities, and developing a plan for its delivery.

At my very first PLP meeting, there was a standing ovation for Jeremy that went on for five minutes. MPs who had previously gone along with the coup stood up to apologise, and the new intake seemed eager to work together and not end up in the same bitterly divided mess that had befallen our predecessors in 2015. There were promises of unity in the WhatsApp Group, and everything seemed pretty positive. But my naivety quickly wore off.

Select committee elections were almost immediate, and a small but well-organised right wing started to circle. Invites to weird gatherings began to come in, and it was pretty evident to me that my politics were being tested out. I was effectively told: ‘You have to pick a side, that’s just the way it is. If you don’t, then you’ll know about it.’ I can only describe it as being like a high school, where the popular kids hang out dictating the agenda and then there is an outer circle desperate to be noticed and accepted. It really did feel that petty.

Luckily, I never really cared about that stuff at school – and I didn’t care for it when I was in Westminster. For me, that’s the real difference between those who simply want a career in politics and those who are there because they desperately want to fight for change. I knew all too well the consequences of a Tory government, and not just in the now all-too-familiar ‘I grew up in a council house’ sort of way.

Austerity had been snapping at my heels as well as at the heels of those that I loved, and its ravages could be seen in every corner of my town. I wasn’t there to be an overpaid Citizens Advice Bureau, feeling self-important and well-connected in London. I was there to be part of a team fighting to change the way the economy of the whole country ran so that it could begin to work in the interest of the many and not the few.

The Problem with the PLP

This was a huge challenge, and I knew I would have to manage relationships with lots of different people. I was more than capable of respecting those who respected me, even if we differed in our ideas and solutions. I even came out of my time in parliament with some real friends.

Unfortunately, the culture within certain sections of the PLP is toxic: it amounts to bullying, pure and simple. Many of them can be waspish, are nasty, unkind, judgemental, and hypocritical. They are accomplished gaslighters, perfectly capable, as soon as you fight back, of painting you as the bully and the unreasonable one. Many activists in Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) were able to see this for themselves during the Corbyn years.

The only way to get by in such a cesspit, I realised, was to starve them of that attention and simply not care. Not care about being liked, not care about being popular or included. Of course, that was easier said than done. In a place where, quite frankly, the most astounding thing to me was the frequent lack of any actual political beliefs, there was always the risk of being swept along into a camp without even really knowing it.

As many took to sulking at the advent of a politically-committed leadership that threatened to thwart their professional ambitions, Brexit provided the opportunity that was needed for those who were committed to getting rid of Corbyn above all else. WhatsApp groups that I wasn’t in but saw were full of plotting and unlikely bedfellows collaborating together to pressure Jeremy and his team to move our position towards a People’s Vote.

What I couldn’t understand is why avowed socialists in the PLP were happy to work with these people, who sought continuously to destroy the left of the party. Why could they not see their motivations? Or could they? Change UK had sprung up, and there was a worry that a hundred MPs or more would go.

I did not believe it would really happen, but I also thought it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to let some of the worst offenders depart. It was obvious to me that changing our position on Brexit and not getting a deal would mean the electoral annihilation of the Labour Party in a general election and the end of our socialist leadership.

All of this brings us to the indicative votes. Why was that night so important? In Spring 2019, Theresa May was a woman on the ropes. The hard right of her party which had taken her government in its grip and were holding her to ransom would never have supported her deal — or, indeed, any ‘soft’ Brexit.

Big business overall was keen for a deal involving a customs union to be struck. The pro-European Tories led by Ken Clarke were pushing her in the opposite direction to Jacob Rees-Mogg. The Tories were as close to imploding at that point as they have ever been in the modern era, and perhaps are ever likely to be again for the foreseeable future.

If all Labour MPs had voted to support a Customs Union, then a deal would have happened and the Tory party would have imploded into internal civil war that could, in turn, have resulted in a catastrophic split. Instead, for reasons that they should be called upon to answer for, a small number of Labour MPs threw away that opportunity and either abstained or voted against.

The Alternative

For me, that was when the fate of the Corbyn project was sealed. May was finished, the ERG would get one of theirs into position and ruthlessly purge Clarke and co. And they would go to the country knowing full well that, in electoral terms, Britain had not changed its mind on implementing the referendum result. Crucially, the Labour Party had internal polling at the time which said the same.

Had the right wing of the Labour Party knowingly decided that destroying Labour over Corbyn’s leadership was worth it? Their arrogance was such that they viewed getting rid of Corbyn and the left as an opportunity for the ‘grown ups’ to once again be back in charge – a line they have briefed publicly in the year since.

The problem was that while they are certainly skilled and adept in plotting and party manoeuvres, they are utterly useless with vision and ideas – and disconnected from the reality of ordinary people’s lives. They are unwilling or unable to grasp the solutions of the left in the way that, across the Atlantic, their fellow centrist Joe Biden now appears to be. Their eyes are closed to the reasons why socialists like Paul Dennett in Salford and Matthew Brown in Preston have done well in building Labour support.

Instead, they are part of a cargo cult of Blairism, hanging on to memories of the 1997 landslide win, which occurred in a different era when the economic and political landscape were completely different. They refuse to analyse and look for solutions as to why the party’s vote share has mostly deteriorated since 2001 (Corbyn was the exception in 2017), and don’t seem capable of looking at the fate of similarly-positioned social democratic parties overseas and their long-term, secular decline.

Worryingly, given the forces at work in the world today, they seem totally oblivious to the risk that more and more of our core votes will be peeled off by right wing populism unless we have a proper response. What’s more, they can’t see the fact that their attempts at a synthetic patriotism – contrived by consultants and totally lacking any connection to working class communities – is only going to accelerate that shift. Desperate to return to their Third Way, now irrelevant in modern times, they want to preserve the economic model of neoliberalism but make it a little less brutal.

Of course, this won’t work. People need real economic change; they want an end to tax avoidance, and they support the redistribution of wealth. Brexit and Scottish independence are each in their own way expressions of a failed economic order that had a stranglehold for too long across the UK.

Despite the fact that this economic order was constructed by the Tories, they have used Brexit to pose themselves as its greatest opponents. In many areas, Labour is sadly allowing the Tories to rebrand and reboot, pinching our policies and offering watered-down versions of our solutions. This did not need to happen.

Attacking the same old Tories won’t work anymore because they are a protean party when it comes to power and always have been. They have now morphed into something new, a blend of race-to-the-bottom capitalism and state interventionism. Meanwhile, many blame their (often ineffectual and Blairite) Labour local councils for the conditions in their communities – they see our party as the incumbents and don’t look as far afield as Westminster.

The Tories aren’t stupid. They know that as they establish political inroads in these places they can start throwing around some cash (the era of big government is back!) and use smoke and mirrors to make it look like change is happening. Ben Houchen, the Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, re-elected this week in a landslide, is the face of this new enemy. He was elected on a promise of bringing his local airport back into public ownership – a policy that could have been Labour’s.

In the final analysis, the Tories will fill their pockets and those of their friends. But how is Labour different? Why are we determined to be the rubbish tribute act to the real deal, waving a big flag and pretending to sup a beer like ‘ordinary folk’? People are good at sensing inauthenticity. Ideas built around our values of fairness, equality, opportunity, and community are what’s really needed, with a transformative agenda to deliver that change.

Solutions not soundbites — looking at the areas that are already implementing our new economics and proposing to support it across the board wherever and whenever Labour has the power. Thursday’s local elections showed that it was time to offer real alternatives with passion and commitment. Otherwise, the next general election will see the Labour Party slip further into irrelevance.