Labour Party activists are in for a torrid time over the summer, whatever way events unfold. We are about to embark on an all-out civil war where the very identity of the party is at issue: it is an existential crisis. Emotions are running high and the idea that Jeremy Corbyn’s election marked the beginning of a “gentler, kinder politics” can be dismissed with a hollow laugh. Those of us who support the challengers can expect internet abuse: I myself have just received some insulting remarks on my Facebook page from a second cousin who I didn’t even know existed.
I was involved in the battles of the 1980s but unlike this and previous occasions, what we are facing is a not a left-right split: it is not about public ownership or nuclear disarmament. It is about what sort of organisation the Labour Party should aspire to be: should it be a party of opposition and potential government in a system of parliamentary democracy or should it be a campaigning and pressure group operating outside the electoral system? There is a place for both in modern society but they are incompatible aspirations for a single political party. Until we recognise that this is what is at issue, there is no hope for any dialogue between opposing factions – and we can see that even in somewhere as remote as North Norfolk.
I have no doubt that, for some time, the mood in the electorate has been for a less adversarial style of politics. They have sought more honesty and integrity from their elected representatives and fewer people have identified with the traditional divisions based on social class. That does not, however, mean that people have rejected the principles of parliamentary democracy: that MPs should be elected on the basis of the constituencies; that they take a party whip, something that they will have indicated to the electorate in advance; that the government should govern and be held to account by an opposition that offers a challenge and performs a role of scrutiny.
I first came to know Jeremy Corbyn in the late 1970s. I was the Associate Director of the Co-operative Development Agency and he was the Chair of the Economic Development Committee at the London Borough of Haringey. We worked together on a proposal to develop worker owned enterprises in North London. Even at this stage he was more interested in campaigning than delivery. He then became my Member of Parliament and I served on his party General Management Committee. He was assiduous and energetic but wholly inflexible, not interested in policy and showed no disposition to work with those who did not share his views. Most importantly he was a poor Parliamentarian: he avoided committee work and was an erratic attender at meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He preferred to spend his time at meetings of like–minded people. This pattern continues: on Monday, the day when Theresa May was installed as Prime Minister designate and Angela Eagle announced her leadership bid, Jeremy Corbyn chose to address a meeting of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.
Given this history his failure as leader comes as no surprise. However we must recognise that, at a critical time, we are letting the nation down. We have the shameful situation where an MP from the North-East is obliged to double up and serve as Shadow Minister for both Scotland and Northern Ireland while Brexit could have a very different impact on these parts of the UK. Yet the Labour benches are bristling with talented MPs who refuse to serve under Jeremy Corbyn.
If we are to survive as a Parliamentary Party Jeremy Corbyn must go.