If they can’t run a competent leadership election, how can they claim to run a competent government? The membership purge launched by the Labour establishment in their efforts to block Jeremy Corbyn, is not only making Labour the laughing stock of the Edinburgh Fringe, it is doing immense damage to their own credibility.
It was the right of the party who long argued, correctly in my view, for Labour to introduce one member one vote in leadership elections. It was the former leader, Ed Miliband, who finally introduced OMOV after many years of prevarication.
It was also predominantly the right of the party who argued, wrongly in my view, to import primaries into its election process. In America primaries seem to work, though there are historical reasons why that is the case. We have an intensely adversarial political culture in the UK.
But alowing non-members to vote in Labour’s leadership election was supposed to revive party democracy, bring in “real people”, and that was a laudable motive. But you have to have the courage of your convictions here.
If you invite all and everyone to support your party you can’t then turn round and say that you only want the ‘”right” kind of supporters. That they have to support the right leader and mustn’t have made critical remarks on social media. That just makes the party look hypocritical, incompetent and manipulative.
Labour even sent me a personal email inviting me to become a supporter and vote for the leadership. I thought about it but regard for journalistic independence held me back. However, I’d probably have been purged by now if I had. A neurotic party machine is excluding long-time Labour supporters, like Marcus Chown, the campaigner against NHS privatisation.
The truth is that the membership drive has succeeded beyond all expectations, bringing over a quarter of a million mostly younger supporters into the Labour Party. These are precisely the people Labour has been trying to attract for decades. More than 600,000 will take part in this leadership election.
There may be a few Tories and other mischievous interlopers signing up – but that is only to be expected if you throw open the doors. Using this feeble pretext, Labour has instituted a purge of its membership which is undemocratic, probably illegal, but above all stupid.
People who have tweeted that they voted for the Green Party have been purged. Yet Labour is supposed to be trying to attract that party’s supporters into its ranks. The Greens have had the greatest recruiting boost in years as a result of this cack-handed gerrymandering.
The Liberal Democrats, SNP and Plaid have also had a propaganda windfall. They can say with some justification that Labour has no right to call itself a democratic party. The SNP had a similar membership influx after the independence referendum. It’s membership quadrupled in a matter of months.
Many of these new SNP members were disillusioned Labour supporters and Liberal Democrats. But the SNP didn’t hold an inquisition into whether they were serious nationalists. It welcomed them with open arms, even dropping the rule that new members have to wait at least a year before becoming general election candidates.
If the SNP had behaved like Labour then MPs of the calibre of Tommy Sheppard might have been purged for “not sharing the aims and values”. He was an office bearer of a rival party, Labour, and has said that he isn’t a “nationalist”.
There are various conspiracy theories going around about why Labour launched this exercise in crack-pot McCarthyism. It has been suggested that the interim leader, Harriet Harman, hoped to use the bogey of entryism to discredit the election and even bring it to a halt. According to one theory, the leadership deliberately made the exercise as unfair as possible in order to encourage a legal challenge.
But I don’t buy it. The truth is that these people couldn’t organise a conspiracy in an X-Files convention. They simply panicked when they saw the support that Jeremy Corbyn has been attracting and have been floundering around ever since using any excuse to undermine him. If Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper had been winning does anyone seriously think that Labour would be holding an inquisition into bogus supporters?
The claims of entryism were originally made regarding Militant Tendency, which managed to infiltrate some moribund Labour constituency parties in the 1980s. Then someone pointed out that Militant Tendency doesn’t exist any more.
So it became “Communists and Trotskyites” who were supposed to be sneaking in Labour’s back door. The idea that there are a quarter of a million closet supporters of Leon Trotsky – murdered by Stalin’s agents in Mexico in 1940 – just waiting to sign up to Labour is so far fetched that even Alistair Campbell has stopped claiming it.
The reality, as James Bloodworth, editor of Left Foot Forward, put it on BBC TV on Friday, is simply that Jeremy Corbyn has “enthused and inspired” thousands of new members because “the other candidates lack any vision”. Now, there is no more dedicated opponent of Jeremy Corbyn than Mr Bloodworth, but he laid the blame firmly on the other candidates for their “lacklustre campaigns”.
He is right. Liz Kendall has probably fought the most ideological campaign, but to most Labour members it looks like the ideology of another party. Her remarks about immigration, welfare and “aspirational” values sound more like Michelle Mone than a potential Labour leader.
Cooper and Burnham have tried to say as little as possible – though Burnham has belatedly adopted some Corbynite themes on public ownership. Yvette Cooper seems to believe the mere fact that she is a woman gives her the right to lead the Labour Party.
The entire campaign – Corbyn aside – has been relentlessly negative, based on a presumption that Labour must abandon its social democratic values in order to make itself electable in middle England.
But Labour is not in the business of competing with conservatives – with a large or a small ‘c’. It is the party of radical change, and has been since the days of of the Scottish trades unionist, Keir Hardie, who died 100 years ago next month.
Cooper and Burnham would like us to believe that they are radical at heart, but have tempered their instincts with ‘realism’. They say that to achieve social justice you first have to get elected to government. That is true – but there is a line beyond which this ‘realism’ negates the purpose of being in Labour and turns leadership into careerism.
There is a new generation of politically conscious young – and not so young – people now for whom the Cold War is ancient history and don’t feel they have to apologise for the sins of Soviet Communism. They have lost their fear of talking about redistribution of wealth or state intervention in the economy. They have immense energy and are remaking UK political culture in fascinating ways.
They see how the state stepped in to save the bankrupt British banking establishment with a £1.2 trillion bailout in 2008, and are asking why these kinds of resources cannot be mobilised for socially just purposes. These are the true Labour party supporters. And purge or no purge, they aren’t going away.