I enjoyed listening to your speech at this year’s Labour Party Conference. It was good to hear a Labour leader so obviously rooted in his community, address moral issues once again.
Throughout the conference – and during the leadership campaign – much of your focus was on being prepared to listen to ordinary people. You said formulating policy would be a ‘bottom up’ process, dominated not by focus groups and MPs, but by ordinary members and supporters.
I’m no longer a member, but I like the idea of ordinary people being able to influence Labour policy. However, I’m sceptical. There is such a strong tradition of limiting free speech in the party, I find it hard to believe you and your team really will listen.
I did smile when I heard your Blairite opponents in Parliament predict that your leadership will bring ‘punishment beatings’ and deselections of right wing MPs. In the past, I recall that it appeared always to be the left, not the right, that was disciplined for behaviour ‘likely to bring the party into disrepute’. The same rules never seemed to apply to rightwing MPs – who seemed free to break party policy at will and viciously criticise fellow members and their leaders.
Those of us who were on the left of the party in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, recall all too well the ways in which the leadership of the party limited our freedom. Many members were expelled or disciplined. As a Labour councillor in Brighton, I was one who had the Whip removed and therefore couldn’t stand for Council again. Our local party was closed down for two years, while investigations by the national Labour Party were carried out. Twenty six party members were investigated by the national party which, after many months, organised ‘trials’ at the Royal Albion Hotel. Many people believe this period of dislocation led directly to the rapid growth of the Green Party in Brighton.
You may say that that if the left gains ascendency they will behave better. However, I wonder. I’m very familiar with the Labour left ‘script’ – a set of views you’re ‘supposed’ to have and many others that you’re not. I wonder what will happen when people – ordinary people – ask questions that don’t fit the script or use ‘unacceptable’ language in doing it. Will they be subject to insult and hostility, the indrawn breath, the shocked silence, the turned shoulder – if they ask the awkward questions that liberal progressives don’t like?.
It’s not as if there are just a few areas of sensitivity. Rigid convention binds and stultifies left debate on most areas of policy from immigration, the NHS, education and patriotism, to nationalism and Europe, defence, foreign affairs, religious tolerance and equalities.
It seems to me that if Labour is to win elections, it must be prepared to engage with issues it finds difficult – and abandon its script. There’s no point in saying you’ll listen, if you then silence ideas you don’t like or avoid speaking to opponents. In this regard, it’s disappointing to hear you recently chose not to speak to local TV stations, but did carry out an interview with Al Jazeera.
I’m glad you’ve spoken out against political abuse and sexist trolling and that you’ve condemned the demonstrator who spat at a journalist at the Conservative Party Conference. However, there’s much more you could do. There is a culture of macho insult and abuse in sections of the left, which makes it very difficult for anyone to disagree. Without dissent, there is no possibility of real democracy.
In 1956, when Mao Zedong said “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” he refused to accept the ideas the Chinese people subsequently expressed and arrested many dissidents. Some suggest the whole exercise was just a ploy to flush out his critics.
You are judged to be a man of principle. It’s really important that, having raised people’s hopes, you don’t stifle ideas or crush dissent – or permit your supporters to do it for you.