It is sometimes said that the Labour Party is a “broad church”. The phrase — a cliché at this point — is usually trotted out opportunistically. Those who find themselves in a position of weakness within the party evoke it as a plea for tolerance. “Don’t kick us out of the party, it would go against tradition,” they seem to suggest.
The issue of who should and who should not be a member of the Labour Party has come to the fore again this week. It was reported by the Times on Tuesday that Keir Starmer, the party leader, is considering expelling left-wing Labour MPs who do not voice “unshakeable support for Nato”. This followed an incident at the start of the invasion of Ukraine in which 11 Labour MPs were forced to withdraw their names from a Stop the War Coalition letter that criticised Nato and argued the security alliance should “call a halt to its eastward expansion”.
Starmer is apparently worried that the Conservatives will portray Labour as a party unchanged at the next general election, and Starmer as a leader who, should he become prime minister, would be tightly controlled by a handful of radical left-wing MPs. Ed Miliband suffered a comparable misfortune in 2015 when he was portrayed by the Conservative Party as in the pocket (quite literally) of Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader. The fact that Boris Johnson is today in the pocket of his own libertarian backbenchers is apparently beside the point.
The story in the Times prompted a furious response from the left-wing campaign group Momentum. Mish Rahman, a member of Labour’s ruling body (the NEC) and Momentum’s national co-ordinating group, said that any move against the left by Starmer would “spell the end of the Labour Party as we know it”. The Labour Party is a “broad church which has held together for over a century”, Rahman added.
And yet, the left hasn’t always been so enamoured by the concept of the broad church. The Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband (father of Ed and David) wrote: “Pious references to the Labour Party being a ‘broad church’ which has always incorporated many different strands of thought fail to take account of a crucial fact, namely that the ‘broad church’ of Labour only functioned effectively in the past because one side — the right and centre — determined the nature of the services that were to be held, and excluded or threatened with exclusion any clergy too deviant in its dissent.”
Indeed, when it has had control of the party’s internal apparatus, the left has been just as keen to sideline and even exclude “any clergy too deviant in its dissent”. Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum and at the time a member of the NEC, tweeted in 2018 that “Tony Blair was never in the right party and there will never be a return to his politics” within Labour. Shortly prior to that, amid a mood of triumphalism following unexpected electoral gains under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party chairman and Corbyn ally Ian Lavery warned that Labour was “too broad a church” and that MPs should work “very hard to avoid deselection”.
Now that Keir Starmer is firmly in control of the Labour Party there does appear to be a place for Tony Blair within the Labour fold. And it is on the left of the party that appeals to Labour’s “broad church” can be heard.
From its founding at the turn of the twentieth century, the Labour Party has brought together political tendencies with quite different aims — some practical and others more utopian. What began as a narrowly based party of trade unions steadily grew into a movement that drew on Fabianism as well as Marxism and Methodism. The co-existence of the Labour Party’s jostling factions has often been fraught and ill-tempered — periods of party unity dependent upon what Michael Foot called “imaginative sympathy”. In other words, whatever one’s own view might be it was necessary to recognise the legitimacy of Labour’s competing traditions. The common purpose was to elect a Labour government.
Still, up to now Labour’s broad church approach to its competing traditions has served the party relatively well. As the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman wrote in 1966, the Labour Party “would not be what it is — maddening, perhaps, but also capable of arousing strong positive emotions — if people not only with widely differing views but also with widely differing analyses of episodes in the party’s history did not come together as fellow members”.
Of course, Labour does not win elections when it is divided (a problem in the 1950s and the 1980s), but thanks to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system internal dissidents have been unable to successfully split off and form new parties. The fates of the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Party and Change UK are instructive in this regard. There are also sound political reasons for maintaining a plurality of views within the Labour Party. Both left and right may believe that they “represent the soul of the party”, as the authors of the Labour Renewal Project put it. However, the notion that all of Labour’s best ideas have come from a single faction of the party is pure fiction.
In the 1980s it was the so-called loony left that led campaigns for equal rights for gay and lesbian people. Prior to that, the architect of much of Britain’s socially progressive legislation was Roy Jenkins, a politician of the Labour right. The concept of a National Health Service was first proposed by the Liberal MP William Beveridge, yet it was implemented by Aneurin Bevan, a man of the socialist left. During the Corbyn era New Labour assumptions about not taxing the middle class were retained by the leadership in opposition. And under the “right-wing” leadership of Tony Blair public services enjoyed what the academic Glen O’Hara calls a “golden age of funding and performance”.
As for the present row, it is clearly foolish to make false equivalence between Russia’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine and the actions of Nato. But foolishness should not constitute grounds for expulsion in a genuinely democratic political party, not least because Nato’s historical doctrine of “massive retaliation” with nuclear weapons should Russia invade a member of the alliance violates the principles of Labour’s longstanding (if small) pacifist contingent. Should they be booted out of the party too?
Tony Blair had it about right when he was leader. Instead of wading in heavy-handedly and expelling dissident MPs, he let them stew in their frustrations on the backbenches. Blair had the luxury of several large parliamentary majorities, to be sure, but if he could handle dissent from political heavyweights such as Tony Benn, Michael Meacher and Clare Short, I’m sure Keir Starmer is more than capable of handling anything that Richard Burgon throws at him.