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2 December 2022

Labour’s manipulation of selection contests reveals its emptiness of purpose

Keir Starmer’s party is fast becoming a desiccated calculating machine that offers nothing but a small target.

By Neal Lawson

What do you do if the branch you are precariously perched on feels like it’s going to break? Ridiculously and hopelessly, you grip on even tighter. Welcome to the world of Labour’s uber-control machine. A body of people who know they are losing their grip on the world, and can only desperately cling on even tighter. It is the politics of ever-decreasing circles.  

Fiona McGowan hears the ping of an incoming email. It’s from Labour Party HQ. She’s excited as she has applied to become the prospective parliamentary candidate for her hometown of Camborne, Cornwall. But the news isn’t good. At all. She won’t be the potential candidate because she is being thrown out of the party. Tweets she sent in May are presented as evidence against her by Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee:

On 13 May 2022 you retweeted Green Party Baroness Jenny Jones with the statement, “‘This government is absolutely incapable of making positive change. Everything is regressive.’ @GreenJennyJones is bang-on as usual. Imagine having her as PM…” (Exhibit 1)

On 10 May 2022 you replied to the tweet “If Britain became a Republic who would your dream non- Executive President be? And Yes – feel free to include members of the Royal family.” With the response “Caroline Lucas” (Exhibit 2)

They are both fanciful tweets. Obviously. The type normal people often share without a thought on social media. There is no chance of Jenny Jones ever becoming prime minister. McGowan wasn’t being serious. And you may have noticed that the UK is not a republic and that we don’t have an executive president post for Caroline Lucas, or anyone else, to be elected to. Her expulsion is nonsensical.

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A bit of background. McGowan was a Labour member and left because, in her view, Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t sufficiently anti-Brexit. She joined the Greens for a while before rejoining Labour after Keir Starmer became leader in 2020. This is the fluid nature of people’s political identities today. The planet is burning. We are all G/greens. Caroline Lucas is a terrific politician. Being this and saying this should not be grounds for expulsion from Labour.

Now compare and contrast this treatment with that of a new member of Labour, Christian Wakeford, the MP for Bury South. Wakeford was a Conservative who crossed the floor in January of this year. This may stick in the throat of some but defections are the life blood of opposition politics. Wakeford didn’t tweet about liking this or that Tory because he was one, voting in the Commons chamber for austerity, the lot. I’m sure that moral salvation, not electoral survival, was his motive but he has now been waved through the reselection process so that, unlike every other Labour MP, he cannot be “triggered” by party members (the process that opens selection to rival candidates). The local Bury South party has been given no say over whether to accept an ex-Tory as their representative now and for the foreseeable future.

So, the same HQ that green lights an actual Tory, throws out an idealist such as McGowan and scores of other hopeful candidates and members. She is not an ideologue of any stripe. Not a danger to anyone. And while, of course, every party must ensure its candidates are fit for public consumption, having a lively mind, like McGowan, should be a prerequisite. Not grounds for expulsion.

So, what is Labour HQ up to, and why and what does it tell us about the state of opposition politics?

The purpose of expelling McGowan and countless others on such facile grounds is three-fold. First, to purge the party of anyone who thinks or acts differently, not least because of the possibility of a hung parliament or narrow majority when the machine believes control will most be needed. Second, to discipline and intimidate those who remain, both MPs and members. And third, to send a signal to the elites and the swing voters that this is a party they can now trust – because McGowan is not wanted. It is a seismic misjudgement by Labour of the moment and the mood.

This is grim and crushing behaviour – by design. But in the urge to purge, the machine does something important. It reveals itself. It reveals its sense of fear and anxiety, its brittleness and neurosis. It shows the world it can’t argue or persuade, only bully; that it is driven by a binary, adversarial us-or-them culture in which might is right and means are justified by ends.  

In the minds of the apparatchiks in the bowls of Labour’s HQ, grimly scrolling through people’s social media timelines, McGowan is simply dismissed as something like a “dangerous Trot” to be weeded out in the relentless, bloodless pursuit of office. The party machine exists to control the state machine – cogs that grind and crush – and deliver what the technocrats deem to be right and best for the people. In its narrow certainty and absence of nuance, it edges close to internal party tyranny.  

This crushing of hope, the loss of talent and activism is welcomed by them. None of it was ever wanted. Because, they think, it leads to Corbynism. Because people cannot really be trusted. Because the machine knows best.

The machine dominates like this for a reason: a more noble purpose is absent. Because what does Labour stand for? How does it make your pulse race or your heart beat? Starmer and his allies are not Tories. They are not Corbynites. But what are they? Pledges such as £28bn-a-year in green investment and the creation of a publicly owned energy company, Great British Energy, are welcome, but there is no pulsating north star with a mission to explain and a purpose to empower. Labour is fast becoming just a desiccated calculating machine that offers nothing but a small target, intent on closing down any attack lines and with it any accountability. Because the Tories are so bad, it could win. But then what?

This is a deeply sad and ultimately futile politics. Because it refuses to recognise that Labour’s biggest victories were built on pluralism and diversity. The 1945 election wasn’t just Labour’s triumph but that of the Liberal genius of John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge. And 1997 owed much to Labour and the Liberal Democrats working in tandem, intellectually and organisationally, to rout the Tories. Equally, any humane and liveable future will be a blend of red, green and liberal politics; a broad and deep alliance that can forge the kind of long-term settlement this country needs to address the environmental and economic challenges it faces.

In its crushing of internal democracy and difference, Labour denies itself the right to claim a new democratic future for our country. This is one part of the battlefield that the Tories are most vulnerable on. Because the object of progressive politics is not for a small clique to wield all the power but for people, as citizens, to build their future collectively. Yet you can’t preach externally what you don’t live internally.

This isn’t just wrong morally but practically. The world in all its complexity and fluidity can only be shaped through shared creativity, innovation and challenge. A narrow Labourist monopoly denies itself the agility and bandwidth to meet the challenges and opportunities of our age. Because the spirit of these new times is to let go, to trust and to negotiate a future – not impose it.

The machine operators know and feel all this. A future in which they get to pull the levers and be the heroes and heroines is slipping through their fingers. Labour’s poll lead, rather than liberating them, freezes them still further. And so, they tighten their grip.

It will not work. If this is indeed a sixth-form play of 1997 then they have got the script and acting all wrong. Back then, the Blair project was full of verve and imagination but in the most benign economic circumstances. Today, Labour has nothing close to such a developed political project in the most tumultuous economic, social and environmental times.

If the party wins, it will build a cage from any victory the Tories might hand to them. Or it could yet lose. The Tories have time to right the ship. If in two years they can say to the country, we delivered on Brexit, Covid and Ukraine, and now we have steadied the economy – what will be the positive reasons for voting Labour?

From this vantage point, it feels like a dark moment. But hope stirs. Within the grassroots of Labour, a new heart beats. It is warm, generous, plural and open. It is represented by the majority at Labour conference who voted for proportional representation (PR) and mirrored by the serious public intellectuals, such as John Gray of this parish, who now back PR

It is reflected in the councils throughout the land that work together across party lines to keep the Tories out and help keep communities together. In this they are aligned to all those activists and citizens, of all progressive parties and none, who want to build a better society for and by themselves. An equally open, generous and warm Labour or Labour-led government could accelerate and cement the transition to a brave new political settlement. Or it can order the patrol of the watchtowers and shoot on sight people such as McGowan. 

Until inevitably, an unstoppable tide of hope and passion breaks open the doors to a genuinely new politics for a new country. With or without Labour, this new politics must be born or the vultures of authoritarian populism, as witnessed in Sweden and Italy, will do more than circle.

Neal Lawson is director of Compass, which is campaigning against Labour’s current selection process.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s mildly authoritarian streak chimes perfectly with these troubled times]

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