I was put off party politics for nearly 25 years because of factional infighting.
In 1987, I was an enthusiastic Labour supporter studying ‘A’ Levels and reading extensively about history, politics and culture. Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone spoke at debates at my school and I was excited when my dad stood for Labour against David Owen in Plymouth Devonport. I joined the Labour Party as soon as it was possible for me to do so.
At the time, Labour had just won a famous by-election victory against the Tories in Fulham and I was looking forward to my first meeting at Harold Laski House.
When I arrived in the small hall, I was told that we had to ‘get through the business’ as quickly as possible. I wasn’t entirely sure why this was the case until I was told at the end of the meeting that if we didn’t then ‘The Militants’ would arrive and we would end up with ‘some motion about Nicaragua’. The meeting took about 10 minutes and then everyone decanted to the Durell Arms across the road.
This was really not the best introduction to the Labour Party. I wanted to discuss ideas and learn about campaigning and how the party works. I wanted to get involved, but all I was seeing was a party where people were more obsessed with stopping expression than encouraging it.
I was not a Militant nor was I particularly opposed to Militant. I was a Labour Party member. I didn’t want to be forced into making a choice between these factions.
The experience of being denied a discussion because of factionalism was enough to put me off going to any Labour meetings until I rejoined the Labour Party in 2010. I hate being pigeon-holed.
I am certain that I am not the only person who has been put off Labour Party meetings because of factionalism.
What’s wrong with discussing ideas?
Nobody agrees with anyone else about everything. Disagreements are inevitable, but we must find a way in which we can meet and discuss things. And the power of ideas must be tested by rigorous debate, otherwise policies that are drawn up may not have been properly scrutinised and be found lacking later on.
Unfortunately, however, intellectual arguments are ignored within factional politics as we are given a list of ‘slates’ for elections. People are instructed to vote for who is in their faction (this could be at a local level or something like the NEC) and the level of debate has been reduced to ‘labelling’ (as Chuka Umunna wrote recently).
The Labour Party cannot provide a welcome platform for enthusiastic young people or politically reawakened older people if it is divided between factions that play out battles in this way. There may well be some great talented politicians of the future who are being discouraged from participating.
Political participation should be a right for all and those who join the Labour Party should not feel marginalised if they do not want to join a faction (this is especially true when we consider that the Labour Party has a membership of nearly 600,000 yet the largest faction, Momentum, has only 30,000 members).
There may be some people who suggest that these factions are good and that these drive change. I contend that the main change they drive is towards the personal power of those within them. And it is often the case that those with a propensity for factions will end up with further factions within factions so that the only drive is towards further division.
There are also people who think factions are inevitable and that there is nothing that can be done about them. But this doesn’t wash with me. Just because something has happened for a long time does not mean that it is inevitable – whether it is votes for women, the founding of the NHS, the Good Friday Agreement.
Unity is strength
The first step towards ending unnecessary factionalism in the Labour Party is for all the groups within the party to come together. Avoiding each other (like in my first meeting in 1987) leads to groups drawing up ridiculous caricatures of each other and working on their own agendas – rather than the good of the party as a whole.
The Labour Party was created with such a meeting in 1900. The Fabians, the trade unions and the Independent Labour Party all agreed to work together. These groups realised that they were stronger if they combined and focused on what they have in common. By creating the Labour Party they put their differences to one side. This wasn’t to say that they didn’t continue to express their own opinions and speak up for issues that were close to them, just that they knew that ‘unity is strength’.
To facilitate a modern day meeting of groups, I am inviting all Labour members, from across the party to come to a curry night and discussion, on Sunday 4th March.
Already I have had positive feedback from the following groups: Blue Labour, CLPD, Compass, Tribune, Labour Future, the FBU, the BFAWU. I have contacted a number of other groups and have yet to hear back but will continue to chase them and to invite their members.
We will all have an amicable discussion about how the Labour Party can win the next General Election. Everyone will be invited to speak but there will be clear rules that have to be followed: only those people holding the microphone are to speak and no one is to make personal attacks (and only to talk of issues).
The chefs at Mumbai Square can cater for meat lovers, vegetarians and vegans; those who like it mild and those who like it hot. Just as with the Labour Party, they appreciate we all have slightly different tastes, but this does not mean we cannot eat together.
- ‘Breaking Naan’ takes place at Mumbai Square restaurant (7 Middlesex Street, London E1 7AA) on Sunday 4th March (starting at 6:30pm and ending by 10pm). Tickets are available through the Stand up for Labour website here.