A reconstruction of the Lib Dem clearout (maybe). Photo: Guiseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: the Liberal Democrat clear-out sale

Money raised goes into a “fightback” fund – although the flattened Lib Dems will need more than the odd jumble sale to rise, Lazarus-like, from the dead.

A sign of things to come, perhaps? Conservatives queued up to slap Frank Field on the back after Maggie Thatcher’s favourite Labour MP was elected as the chair of the work and pensions committee on 18 June.

The Tory salutes were led, according to my snout, by Matthew Hancock, a ministerial member of Team Osborne so oily that his parliamentary comrade Philip Davies once remarked, “Anyone tempted to lick George Osborne’s backside should be careful . . . if you go too far, you’ll find the soles of Matt Hancock’s shoes in the way.” The cooing Tories interpreted Field’s first public statement as qualified support for Osborne’s and David Cameron’s welfare programme.

The industrial and political wings of the labour movement continue to diverge. The talk among Unite, Unison and GMB members is of endorsing none of the four candidates for Labour leader. If the unions decide to withhold patronage it would be a blow to Andy Burnham, who is seeking their support but not their money (in order to avoid the accusation that he is in their pocket).

One informant whispered that there is a groundswell in Unite to back Jeremy Corbyn, who shared a platform with the union’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, at an anti-austerity march in London on 20 June. Islington’s Dave Spart is already the pick of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, with Tom Watson its choice as deputy. A Corbyn victory remains improbable but not impossible, if the union bandwagon rolls. Ed Miliband’s 2014 reforms were intended to marginalise union influence. The result is that an affiliated member’s or £3 supporter’s ballot paper is worth as much as an MP’s.

The indignities of defeat included an “office clear-out sale” for the Liberal Democrat John Leech. “There’s ten years’ worth of electricals, Risos, printers, folders, tablets, monitors, phones, chairs, desks, tables, cabinets, noticeboards, whiteboards, stationery, campaign materials and other bits and pieces,” advertised the ex-MP for Manchester Withington.

Money raised goes into a “fightback” fund – although the flattened Lib Dems will need more than the odd jumble sale to rise, Lazarus-like, from the dead. I trust that none of the items above was purchased with public money.

The metal turnstile newly installed at the peers’ entrance to parliament will send shivers down the spines of dishonourable members. Expenses cheats, arsonists, perjurers and other assorted ex-cons will be reminded of the prison gates they walked through before shuffling back into the House of Cronies.

Bananas were banned from the recent Unison conference, as one of the 1,200 delegates was allergic to the fruit. No wonder David Miliband the banana-waver never secured the union’s support.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.