Jon Lansman of Left Futures outlines the responsibilities of Left MPs in Ljabour’s leadership election
The entry of Jeremy Corbyn into Labour’s leadership election at last makes it possible to force all candidates to address the widespread opposition amongst party and trade union activists and councillors to austerity. The continuous stream of pronouncements by Andy Burnham to appeal to the Labour right has undermined his credibility as a “left” candidate – the image he carefully cultivated for most of the last parliament. Yesterday’s support expressed in Progress magazine for open primaries in parliamentary selections was just the latest concession, a “reform” opposed right across the spectrum of the party but long advocated by Progress. But the stream of pronouncements from all candidates has also shown the effect of not having a left candidate in the election — the contest for nominations has been almost entirely on the right of the party, which has determined the nature of the debate. And that’s what brings the responsibilities of Left MPs to the movement outside parliament into sharp focus.
In this leadership election – unlike the last – the only important role that MPs can play is to make a nomination. Last time it was possible to nominate one person and give your first preference vote to another, but the most important thing an MP did when their vote was worth the same as 930 trade unionists was which Miliband got their highest preference even if that was their fourth. Now that an MP is just another voter, their nomination acquires greater significance that cannot be balanced by their subsequent vote.
The left in parliament is in better shape than for many years. Well-meaning Left members of parliament may well think that their power to nominate brings a responsibility is to ensure that the next leader of the Labour Party is the one best placed to lead Labour to victory. Like most Left Futures readers, they think this should involve opposition to austerity, support for trade union rights,world peace, the redistribution of income, wealth and power to eliminate inequality, prejudice and injustice, and so on. But they’re realistic about the probability that Jeremy Corbyn will win this contest, and may think we’ll have to settle for something less – or risk a return to the bad old days of New Labour in a newer Kendall-shaped guise.
In one sense, that’s right. Compromise is necessary in subsequent preferences even if Jeremy is on the ballot paper, and it is vital that the best candidate who can win does win. But we do have a preferential voting system. And using it to best advantage is the responsibility of all of us who have a vote, not just MPs (who have no special duty in this matter). Although Blairite MPs would no doubt claim otherwise given the managerial, ‘skills’ based approach they advocate for picking candidates, MPs do not have any special expertise in picking winners (if anything, time spent in the Westminster bubble makes that harder) .
A Left MP wants to build and strengthen the Labour movement away from Westminster, to empower it, ensure it reaches out to communities and workplaces and then trusts its experience and understanding of the hopes, needs and challenges they find there. That’s where the expertise lies, in the movement outside parliament. That’s why Left MPs support democracy, argue for both wings of the Labour movement, political and industrial, to make the policy at our conference and elect an executive to run the party. You only have to look to Scotland to see what happens when parliamentarians fail to prioritise building the party, and ignore the advice of trade unions.
MPs are the gatekeepers in this election. They can allow the Labour movement a real choice or they can deny it and reinforce the return to what passed for debate between Brownites and Blairites, about personalities and image and how we best appeal to Mail readers in the south of England.
Labour lost the last election because we failed to convince C1s and C2s that we’re on their side, that we have anything like enough to offer them to allay their fears about pay and the cost of living, for the NHS and job security and the prospect of their children getting decent homes to live in. And Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Mary Creagh are talking about aspiration.
Jeremy Corbyn may not win this election but if he gets on the ballot paper, he’ll widen the debate and change their campaigns. Candidates will talk more about austerity than aspiration. If they mention party “reform”, they’ll be more likely to mean democracy and less likely to mean new ways of excluding trade unions.
When the “left” candidate says he won’t take trade union money and wants to downgrade the role of party members in picking candidates, the contest needs a shake up. I hope that MPs, new or old, won’t rate any commitment they may have made last week to a fellow MP above the right to choose of those that put them there.