This article was first published in the i News on 21 September 2016.
Labour rightly protests against those who stand in the way of the fight for equality and justice. But we are not a protest group. We aim to do so much more: to build a fairer, more equal, democratic and environmentally sustainable Britain by harnessing the power of government.
As a result we have become the biggest political change makers in UK history. From the Attlee Government’s crusade against squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease, to the equalities legislation of the Wilson government that gave both my parents – an English/Irish woman and Nigerian man – rights they did not previously have at work, Labour governments have touched all our lives for the better. Indeed, the tax credits our current leader boasts of defending against Tory attack and the national minimum wage he says he would increase were both introduced by his Labour predecessors - Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
That was the past but Labour has always been in the future business. We are a great country with huge potential. Yet in my borough of Lambeth – located in one of the richest cities in the world – 40% of children live in poverty, the average property price is more than ten times the average salary, with sky high rents and a creaking infrastructure. If you look at places like Tech City to the East of London, we see opportunities and the future but, sadly, it is a world away from too many people. So the work of progressives is never finished. We must continue our mission to change Britain – “change “ being the key point of distinction from the Conservatives, a party established to “conserve” the status quo.
Under our flawed First-Past-the-Post electoral system, there is only room for one main party of Government on the Left: The Labour Party. First-past-the-post should be abolished and replaced with the fairer and more democratic system of proportional representation - already used in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and London. But it is the system we are saddled with and – again – you need to win power to change it. Opinium recently asked people where they placed themselves on the political spectrum. 10% described themselves as “Left wing”, 15% “Centre left”, 45% “Centre”, 17% “Centre right” and 13% “Right wing”. Of course people describing themselves as being on the Left may agree with views on the Right and vice-versa, but to win under FPTP this shows we must be a broad church representing the full spectrum of opinion from the Left to the Centre of those who vote in British politics (no one has ever won an election relying on non-voters to get you over the line).
This does not necessitate junking our social-democratic and democratic socialist ideals; it is the principal way to make them real. It entails showing – as we did in 1945, the 1960s, 1970s and from 1997 - how our values can deliver a better life for people. We should not patronise people by suggesting if they have ever voted Tory it’s because they are inherently selfish and have been brainwashed by the mainstream media. Afterall, what Labour leader has ever been given an easy ride by Fleet Street? We should be seeking to convince them that our values - translated through credible, deliverable policies - provide a better vehicle for each person to achieve their hopes and dreams not only for themselves and their families but their communities too. We are currently failing to do this.
In the most recent polling by YouGov 29% of Owen Smith supporters and 36% of Jeremy Corbyn supporters say they will leave the Party if their candidate does not win. I would urge all of them to stay. We need them all because we cannot hope to achieve our mission and illustrate that we provide the best answers if any one part of the party takes its bat, quits and walks off the field, leaving us confined to a narrow part of the political spectrum. If we fail to be representative of Britain and its different shades of progressive opinion, we won’t be capable of appealing to that vital election winning coalition of voters. Long before the current leadership contest, poll after poll showed we were struggling to do this and be relevant – the task will not be made easier by pretending away this fact or, importantly, if any part of our Labour family walks out of the family home.
Some, mainly Conservative leaning media outlets, have unsurprisingly been gently promoting the idea, not only of members quitting, but Labour splitting and a new party being formed, like the Social Democratic Party in 1981. 28 MPs defected from Labour to the SDP back then but just 6 SDP MPs were elected in the 1983 election that followed. That split of the Left was a gift to the Right, which saw 18 years of Tory rule as the consequence. This is why I know of no Labour MP now who wants to repeat the same mistake and doom our country to the same fate.
I have been an activist in my local party for nearly 20 years but have never know the internal atmosphere nationally be so tense. Before the leadership contest last year, there were simply not the levels of abuse, intimidation and vitriol on social media that now too often spills over into some party meetings. So I can understand why some wish to disengage. But we cannot allow bullies to take over our movement and force out any part of the Labour tradition, all strands of which have the right to a voice whoever is the leader. The Labour family is bigger, better and stronger than that. Our diversity has always been our greatest strength and this is no better exemplified than by the broad church of our movement – community activists, faith groups, trade unionists and more – all working together able to vigorously debate, in a spirit of solidarity and mutual respect. This is what we must to return to.
When we look at those who inspired us to go into politics, not only our party’s founders, but champions of social justice around the world - like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Aung San Suu Kyi - they faced much greater hurdles than any present day member and supporter of the British Labour Party. They would never have waved the white flag and walked away from their cause. Nor should we.