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Frank Field calls for Labour MPs to stand as independents if deselected

Former minister says MPs should trigger immediate by-elections and run as "independent Labour" candidates if removed. 

One of the greatest causes of unrest among Labour MPs was the launch last week of new group Momentum. The organisation is billed as a "grassroots movement" to harness the energy of Jeremy Corbyn's campaign. But MPs fear it will become a vehicle for the deselection of critics of the Labour leader as parliamentary candidates. The involvement of Jon Lansman, a veteran of the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, and an advocate of mandatory reselection, is the cause of particular anxiety. "When there are selections of an MP, I would like to see MPs who reflect the values of members of the party," he said recently. "The fact is that Liz Kendall got 4 per cent of the votes in the leadership contest." 

In my column in tomorrow's NS, I reveal how some are responding to the threat. Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions select committee, told me that any MPs "picked off" should "cause a by-election immediately" and "stand as independent Labour". He said: "If candidates are picked off they will stand as independent Labour, cause a by-election immediately and a whole pile of us will go down there to campaign for them. They can't expel 60 of us. Momentum ought to know that they're not the only pair of wide eyes in the business. We're not powerless." He added: "Those of us who are not going to let Momentum win have a trump card on our side, which is that we would probably win the by-election." Field's intervention marks the first time since Corbyn's election that an MP has suggested that colleagues could stand against each other.

It is not only critics of the Labour leader who have been antagonised by Lansman. One Corbyn-supporting MP told me: "Jon Lansman needs to wind his neck in and get back in his box. He's doing a lot of damage." Sources suggest that Corbyn, who has rejected calls for the reintroduction of mandatory reselection, may soon distance himself from Lansman. 

Momentum supporters cannot fully rebut the claim that it will be used for deselection attempts. Forthcoming boundary changes will force selection contests in some seats and activists can already initiate “trigger ballots” against incumbents. But Corbynites are seeking to reassure their colleagues. Katy Clark, one of Momentum’s six directors, told me: “The reality is, if you’re a good constituency MP, constituency Labour parties recognise that. I would say to anybody who’s worried about new people coming into the Labour Party: embrace it, work with the new members, engage them.” She added: "People need to recognise what took place over the summer. People that voted for Jeremy understood why they were voting Jeremy ... If people supported other candidates they need to reflect on why those candidates weren't successful". 

Shadow minister Clive Lewis, another Momentum director, told me: "If people are concerned about Momentum, all I would say is judge it on what it does. If there are people who are spouting off about reselections and so on and so forth, those people are clowns, anyone involved with Momentum that is talking about that is a clown.

"I can speak for myself, I think I can speak for any of the MPs who've been associated with this, we are doing this from a positive perspective in terms of campaigning and engaging those new members - that is it. I want to see as many MPs as possible, as many members as possible involved with it. It has nothing to do with some kind of sectarian project. That's me saying that hand on heart, those are the intentions. That's not the politics that I backed in Jeremy Corbyn - sectarian politics. Always politics, always policy, never personal ... We want this to harness the energy of the Corbyn campaign and work with the Labour Party." 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.