Last Thursday I met with Nottingham South Labour Party members to explain my recent decision to resign from Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. Most members weren’t able to attend that meeting and many constituents have also been in touch to ask me to explain why I felt it necessary to resign.
With this in mind I thought it would be helpful to reproduce my speech here:
It’s hard to imagine a more turbulent or disturbing four weeks in politics. Just four weeks ago, in the midst of a divisive and frankly xenophobic Referendum campaign, my friend and colleague Jo Cox was brutally murdered in the street on the way to her advice surgery. Murdered for standing up for her beliefs and speaking up for what is right.
Three weeks ago, although Nottingham South voted to remain, people in our city, and especially in this community, voted to leave the EU. To turn their backs on our friends and neighbours in Europe. 20 days ago, David Cameron announced that he would be stepping down as Prime Minister and we faced the prospect of a General Election, against a Party led by some of the most right wing Tories ever, and with UKIP buoyed by huge Leave votes in our Labour heartlands, including in places like Clifton.
And 18 days ago, after nine months serving in Jeremy’s Shadow Cabinet, I resigned.
You all know that last summer I didn’t nominate Jeremy, and I didn’t vote for him. I know that Nottingham South did nominate him and that overwhelmingly members across the country did vote for him. So when he asked me to serve I said yes.
I wanted to make it work and I promise you, I tried to make it work.
In the 9 months I spent in the Shadow Cabinet I never briefed against Jeremy. I never tweeted what was happening in Shadow Cabinet meetings or spoke to journalists about our private discussions Whenever challenged, I defended our Party Leader.
I hope you all know that I work hard for my constituents in Nottingham South. I worked just as diligently in the Shadow Cabinet. Leading the Labour Transport team. Co-Chairing Labour’sTransport Policy Commission. Holding the Government to account at the dispatch box. Going on national and local media to speak for Labour, even when it was difficult. Being a part of the collective decision making in Shadow Cabinet, setting a direction for the parliamentary Labour party in Parliament on challenging issues.
Many of you will know that I’m passionate about transport. I’ve been in the Labour Transport Team for almost 5 years. Becoming Shadow Transport Secretary was my dream job, a huge privilege and I’m extremely proud of the work our team did. It was fantastic to address our Party Conference last September and be able to pledge that a Labour Government would bring the railways back into public ownership.That was a policy that would make a real difference to passengers, and I believe in it wholeheartedly. It was brilliant when we forced the Government to u-turn on their plans to cancel the electrification of the Midland Main Line. And I was looking forward to speaking in the Bus Services Bill, in favour of re-regulating bus services and standing up for outstanding Municipal bus companies like NCT.
So I’d like you to imagine how I felt when, even though I was trying my hardest, it became impossible for me to do my job in the Shadow Cabinet. Some people have asked me for examples of why that was the case, and I wanted to explain tonight what’s happened over the last nine months as fully as I can.
Rail fares go up once a year on 2 January. It’s the perfect opportunity to show that this Tory Government aren’t on the side of working people. Commuters who’ve seen their season tickets go up by more than 26% since 2010. Some of whom are paying more for their rail fares than their mortgage. Four, five even six thousand pounds a year. People who live in Essex and on the Kent coast, in suburbs and small towns, in marginal seats. Many of them are not Labour voters, but they are the people we need to win over. It is a huge date in the political calendar every year.
We had the opportunity not just to criticise the Government, but to show we had a real Labour alternative. Our flagship policy. One that unites our party. My staff spent weeks preparing briefing materials for MPs and constituency parties across the country. Trawling through mountains of rail fare information to provide examples of the season tickets that had risen the most and that cost the most. Examples for every MP and CLP. Like Nottingham to Derby – where the cost of an annual season ticket has risen by almost 30 per cent since 2010.And over the Christmas period we were listening in to Network Rail conference calls, monitoring the engineering works. Several calls every day including Christmas Day and Boxing Day, even New Years Eve.
On 4 January – a cold dark Monday morning – I was at Kings Cross at 7am doing Radio 5 and BBC TV. Standing with Jeremy and the Rail Union General Secretaries for the media photocall. It was a crucial day in the Party’s media grid.And all across the country local party activists were outside railway stations in the cold and the dark, leafleting commuters with the materials we’d prepared. Armed with the briefings and statistics.
Incredibly, Jeremy launched a Shadow Cabinet reshuffle on the same day.
This was the reshuffle that had been talked about since the Syria vote a month earlier. A vote where I supported Jeremy’s position.The reshuffle that meant all our staff spent Christmas not knowing whether they’d have a job by the New Year. By mid-afternoon the press were camped outside the Leader’s office. They were there for the next three days. It knocked all the coverage of the rail fare rise and our public ownership policy off every news channel and every front page.
I respect completely Jeremy’s right to reshuffle his top team. But why then?
It was unnecessary and it was incompetent. It let me down, it let my staff down but most of all it let down the Labour campaigners and trade union members, people like you, who had given up their time to go out campaigning for us that morning.
Now I’d ask you to imagine how you would you feel if you agreed something with your boss but he then did something completely different. Something that undermined you. Something they hadn’t even had the courtesy to tell you about.
HS2 has always been controversial, including in our Party, but it is something that I believe is vital for the future of our country. It has the support of all the rail unions. It has the support of Labour leaders in the great cities like Birmingham and Manchester and Leeds and Nottingham. It is important for jobs and skills in Derby and Doncaster and across the country and it is our official policy to support it, as agreed by the Shadow Cabinet and our National Policy Forum. I’ve been one of HS2’s strongest supporters, so I when I took up the job in Jeremy’s Shadow Cabinet I wanted to be absolutely sure we were on the same page.
I met his Director of Policy to talk it through. We talked about the most difficult parts of the project, the impact at Euston in London. I’d been working with Councillor Sarah Hayward and her colleagues at Camden for more than two years to try and help them get what they wanted for their local residents. It had been very difficult. I’d been to visit several times, meeting residents and businesses and dealing with some hostile media. But we secured real concessions – changes that will make a difference to local residents. It didn’t matter that it was in a nominally safe seat. It was the right thing to do.
Despite our agreed policy, despite Jeremy’s Director of Policy and I agreeing our position, without saying anything to me, Jeremy gave a press interview in which he suggested he could drop Labour’s support for HS2 altogether. He told a journalist on a local Camden newspaper that perhaps the HS2 line shouldn’t go to Euston at all but stop at Old Oak Common in West London – but he never discussed any of this with the Shadow Cabinet, or me, beforehand. I felt totally undermined on a really difficult issue. And when two frontbenchers voted against the three-line whip at 3rd Reading in March he did nothing, telling one of them: “well I’ve done it enough times myself.” Breaking the principles of collective responsibility and discipline without which effective Parliamentary opposition is not possible.
When I raised my concerns it was simply shrugged off. It undermined me in front of colleagues and made me look weak. It made me feel like I was wasting my time. That my opinion didn’t matter. And it made me miserable.
I’d discuss it with my political adviser, a Labour Party member of staff and activist from Nottingham who has also lost his job in all this, and we’d agree to go on because the policy mattered. Because we wanted to keep holding the Government to account. Because we love the Labour Party. This didn’t happen once or twice. It happened time and time again.
The EU 4th Rail Package is a bit complex to explain here and now, but it had the potential to make it difficult to implement our new rail policy. I’d been working with MEPs to ensure it was amended or blocked for the last 3 years. We felt we could live with the final draft issued in April but it was a very sensitive issue. ASLEF and the RMT were on the Leave side in the referendum because of their concerns. So when Jeremy talked about it in a speech, in very Euro-sceptic terms, without giving me any warning let alone discussing it with me, I was concerned and asked to meet him.Our frontbenchers were being challenged on the issue in the media, but there was no common position.
I asked and asked. After my staff chasing virtually every day for a month, we got a meeting. We put together a briefing paper in advance. We drafted some lines to take in any press interviews for us to give to all Labour MPs. We discussed the lines with his Policy staff and made some changes in response to comments. We agreed a final version. We sat down together and discussed what was in the 4th Rail Package, how we were ensuring it didn’t stop our policy, how we’d been working with our MEPs and the Socialist Group and we agreed the lines to take.
The lines were circulated to all frontbenchers, to all MPs, to ensure they knew what our policy was and how to deal with difficult questions. But Jeremy went on SkyNews and took a completely different, eurosceptic line. Not what we’d agreed. With the potential to make us look divided. It undermined me, my staff and his staff. I wondered why I was bothering to put in the hard work.
You’ve all heard stories about pro-European speeches being downgraded, events, being cancelled, and Jeremy and his staff privately subscribing to Eurosceptic views. And I felt that I was watching my leader deliberately sabotage the campaign on an issue on which he and I had a personal agreement.
How would you feel if your boss undermined your work and when you complained he listened and then did nothing different?
How would you feel if you were part of a team and you knew that not only was your boss undermining you but that this was happening to other colleagues?
You can agree or disagree about whether Jeremy was half-hearted about the Labour In campaign. You can agree or disagree about whether it’s OK to take five days holiday three weeks before the most important vote in my lifetime.
But I sat at the Regional Count with Glenis Willmott the Leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, my friend, a fellow trade unionist from the East Midlands doing media duty for our Party. And as we left at 5am, defeated and in despair, we finally got sent lines to take from the Leader’s office. Acknowledging Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart for their work in the Leave campaign. Their work in direct opposition to Labour Party policy.
And shortly after we heard Jeremy calling for the immediate triggering of Article 50. Without any discussion with the Shadow Cabinet or the Leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party.
Think about that. The country had just voted to leave the EU after more than 40 years and Jeremy made a major announcement on the Party’s position without waiting to discuss it with the Shadow Cabinet, without even consulting the leader of our MEPs in Europe.
How can that be right?
At 6.30am I was interviewed by Radio Nottingham. I was tired and I was gutted and I tried to use the lines I’d been sent, even though they were so inadequate, but when I was asked the question “is Jeremy the man to lead the Labour Party in these challenging times?” I found it hard to say an enthusiastic yes. Because I didn’t believe it. Because I’d worked with him and I’d tried hard but in my mind, it simply wasn’t true.
When I saw that Cameron had resigned, I felt like I was looking into the abyss. Towards a General Election in which dozens of my colleagues would lose their seats. And I already know what that is like and I was in despair.
But at that moment I knew that I didn’t have to put up with it. I could leave the Shadow Cabinet and return to the backbenches and focus on Nottingham South.
I was tired and emotional, so I wasn’t going to do anything hasty. So I talked to some of my closest colleagues. I discussed it with my staff. And I told Ravi. And decided to raise my concerns at Shadow Cabinet on the Monday. I arranged to meet my agent and several CLP officers on the Sunday afternoon to explain what I had decided to do.
But it didn’t go as planned.
On Sunday morning Ravi woke me and passed me my phone. Hilary Benn, who I’d been with on the campaign bus with in Derby and Peterborough only three days earlier, had been sacked. And Heidi Alexander, one of my closest friends in the Shadow Cabinet, one of the best and most talented and loyal colleagues I know, had resigned.
So I rang Brian, my agent, and my adviser, Laurence, to tell them. I wrote my resignation letter and I rang Jeremy to explain. And I texted asking him to call me. And I rang Katy Clark in his office and asked her to ask him to ring me. After an hour or so he did ring me. And we had an amicable discussion and I explained that I has lost confidence in him.
He didn’t even ask me why. Or what was wrong, or how he could fix it.
I wasn’t part of any coup. I didn’t plan it. I didn’t co-ordinate the timing of my resignation with anyone else.
I just knew that I could not go on. Things were, and are, falling apart.
Jeremy has always treated me politely, and with kindness. I know that he has strong principles. I remain proud of our policies on transport, especially rail. And Jeremy is right to set out an alternative to the economics of austerity, to focus on affordable housing, to defending a public NHS and to tackling poverty and inequality. But through my own personal direct experience I know that Jeremy operates in a way that means progress towards these goals is impossible. He is not a team player let alone a team leader.
Jeremy has a new Shadow Cabinet but it’s clear to me that he doesn’t understand collective responsibility and that he can’t lead a team, so I’m afraid the same problems will eventually emerge in the new front bench. This is not about policy or ideology, it is about competence.
I can’t describe how sad I have felt this last four weeks.
I remain very proud to be your MP and to serve my Party and my city. I will always support Labour as best as I can in Parliament.
I am sorry that many of you feel very angry and let down, but I know that I have done what was right, that I have behaved with integrity and that I had no option but to resign from Jeremy’s Shadow Cabinet. It’s clear that he cannot command the support of his colleagues in Parliament and under those circumstances I cannot see how he can lead our Party to the election victory people in our city so desperately need.
Eight years ago I asked Nottingham South members to put their trust in me. Tonight I’m asking you to do the same again.
I don’t ask you to agree with me, but I hope you will understand and respect my decision. I have tried to be completely honest with you tonight. And I will try to answer your questions.