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The Regeneration of the Labour Right

Three stalwarts of the Labour right – Margaret Hodge, Barry Sheerman, and Harriet Harman – are stepping down at the next election. But we should be just as worried about who might turn up in their place.

Labour former minister Dame Margaret Hodge addresses delegates in the main hall on day two of the Labour Party conference on 26 September 2021. (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

Few tears were shed on the Labour left when three stalwarts of the parliamentary party’s right wing—Margaret Hodge, Barry Sheerman, and Harriet Harman—announced they were to stand down at the next general election. A number of their veteran colleagues are also unlikely to seek reselection. While embattled Labour leftists might welcome their exit from the House of Commons, there is little to celebrate considering the calibre of the candidates likely to replace them.

Certainly, a cursory look at Hodge, Sheerman, and Harman’s respective voting records—particularly with regard to foreign policy—gives us little cause for sorrow at their departure. Inevitably, all three voted for the calamitous invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then largely opposed attempts to investigate the unfolding disaster and how it came about. Hodge’s starring role in the Blairite counter-revolution against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has, of course, been dealt with at length elsewhere and doesn’t need to be recapitulated again here.

Harman’s tenure as interim deputy leader, between the resignation of Ed Miliband and the shock election of Corbyn in 2015, was infamously marred by her decision to whip Labour MPs to abstain on a package of spiteful Tory benefit cuts—the notorious Welfare Bill episode, which encapsulated everything grassroots members and activists had then come to despise about right-wing Labour’s cowardice and capitulation. Corbyn was the only leadership candidate that summer to defy the party whip and vote against it.

But it’s difficult to feel any joy at the fact they’re standing down—Sheerman having served as an MP since 1979, Harman since 1982, and Hodge since 1994—with the Left having already missed its chance to remould the Parliamentary Labour Party. This failure to transform the political composition of the PLP under Corbyn means, with Keir Starmer’s Thermidorian reaction now in full swing, that the chances of any outgoing Labour MPs being replaced by socialists prepared and willing to fight for social transformation are depressingly slim.

Needless to say, this mostly explains the timing of Hodge, Sheerman, and Harman’s retirement from the House of Commons. No doubt they, and many of those other MPs now planning to depart, would have done so sooner had they considered it safe to do so—without the risk of them being replaced by an actual left-winger. But now, with the Labour left demoralised and embattled, having been subjected to an extended public humiliation, it appears that any outgoing Blairites have picked their moment quite astutely.

Not only is the left at the grassroots badly disorientated—with tens of thousands having already quit the party in despair at the direction Starmer has taken it in—but the right also has a clear majority on the National Executive Committee, giving it a high degree of control over shortlisting in parliamentary selections. Dislodging this right-wing majority has been made all the more difficult by the introduction of single transferable vote for elections to the NEC’s CLP section; this measure, though masquerading as a democratising reform, has only strengthened the hand of the most anti-democratic people in the Labour Party.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that many—if any—socialists will be making it onto shortlists for Labour-held or winnable seats, let alone being selected as prospective parliamentary candidates. (Deselection rumours continue to swirl around some prominent left-wing MPs, with Starmer doing nothing to discourage them.) Hence, right-wing MPs who’ve been clinging to their spot on the green benches primarily for the purpose of blocking left-wing successors can now afford to relax. Plus, Labour rightists who quit Parliament are usually well rewarded for services rendered, with peerages, media slots, or corporate non-jobs.

But for the Labour left, some self-criticism is necessary here. The grassroots of the party during the Corbyn years was strongly in favour of open selection for sitting Labour MPs, but the then-leadership—to its ultimate cost—was unwilling to take the risk of pursuing it, presumably fearing that it would trigger a bigger split in the PLP than the one which actually occurred (that is, the Change UK debacle). What this meant, however, was that a historic opportunity to shift a mostly rotten parliamentary party sharply to the left was passed up.

Combined with the recent changes to nominations thresholds for leadership elections—which now require the support of 20 percent of MPs—it also ensures it’ll be much harder for socialist candidates to get on any future ballot. As a result, left-wing party members are likely to find themselves forced to lend a vote to the least right-wing candidate on offer and hoping for the best—but without sufficient organised power (both inside the party and throughout the labour movement) to put them under real pressure, this would surely be a futile hope.

It’s possible that the increased threshold for leadership elections, which CLP delegates mostly opposed at this year’s party conference, could be lowered again at some point. But in the meantime, the Labour right looks set to further strengthen its stranglehold over the parliamentary party. If the left’s chance to lead Labour ever comes again—a highly debatable notion, admittedly—the likelihood is that it will find itself having to reckon with an even more right-wing, reactionary PLP than that which confronted Jeremy Corbyn.