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Something is changing within the Labour party, and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign might just be a sign of things to come.
For years, Labour’s left wing in parliament has been represented by only a small handful of figures. Dennis Skinner’s removal from the national executive committee last year symbolised the divorce between Labour in parliament and the party’s left. But over its five years in opposition, the political mood within the party has shifted.
Shortly after the election, a group of the newly-elected Labour MPs signed a letter to the Guardian that declared: ‘We need a new leader who looks forward and will challenge an agenda of cuts, take on big business and will set out an alternative to austerity.’ Such sentiments have been almost taboo in the parliamentary party for some time. The letter was a bold declaration that the new MPs are drawing a line under New Labour.
The new intake is the most left wing in years. Several of the new MPs have already started to shift the party’s centre of gravity by boosting Jeremy Corbyn onto the ballot paper. Many of them are openly challenging austerity, are willing to criticise the leadership and are looking beyond parliament to achieve their vision. It has been many years since such a diverse group was elected.
In the Blair-Brown years, candidate selection was tightly centralised. Talented left-wing politicians were either not promoted or were shut out of parliament entirely. Under Ed Miliband’s leadership, the controls were relaxed as a means of democratising the party, allowing candidates from a much wider spectrum to be selected. The diversity of the new intake is partly due to these changes to the party’s culture.
But it is also partly a reflection of the political atmosphere in the country. The years following the banking crash, characterised by welfare cuts, the bedroom tax, falling wages, legal aid cuts and food banks, have left people looking for real change. Many of the new intake have come to parliament through campaigning, and they share a sense of urgency about the future.
Norwich South MP Clive Lewis speaks energetically about the opportunity to change Labour’s direction. He describes himself as a ‘proud socialist’, and acknowledges that his way into parliament would have been barred before Miliband became leader: ‘I definitely don’t think I would have been selected in the middle of the Blair-Brown years.’ But he has refused to temper his politics. A former vice president of the NUS, he first battled New Labour over student fees in 1997, and has remained a staunch critic ever since.
Despite Lewis’s opposition to New Labour, the party was an important part of his political upbringing. Born into a working-class trade unionist family, he grew up respecting its achievements. ‘The Race Relations Act 1976, the council house I lived in, the comprehensive school – everything came from a Labour government and Labour legislation,’ he says. He argues that Labour’s great failing is that it ceased to be a movement and has become simply a machine for winning elections.
But Lewis is confident that there is an appetite within Labour for building a new movement. He talks about creating links with groups with which the left has traditionally had little dialogue. He argues that it should look for political allies from all points of the political compass – not just anti-austerity groups and the green movement, but the right: ‘There are good, decent people on the right who are anti-corporatist and anti-big business, because they can see it isn’t competitive, it isn’t good for business, it isn’t good for small and medium-sized companies.’
For Lewis, the danger of not doing so is clear: ‘What we’re now entering into is a new phase of neoliberalism. Under the old post-’45 settlement, it was about using taxation to redistribute and pay for public services. Now we are being told, after the crash, that we can’t even afford that – we can’t afford the debt – so therefore we’re going to reduce the debt but not have the public services. We are moving back to a Victorian concept of the role of the state.’
Cat Smith, MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, is similarly trying to build an anti-austerity movement that reaches out to groups beyond Labour. She argues that the party cannot combat the Tories’ cuts alone. ‘If we oppose austerity, we need to be working together. Let’s face it,’ she says, ‘we’re up against some pretty mighty forces, and we can’t afford to be sectarian.’
One of the youngest of the new intake, Smith is illustrative of the changing face of Labour. She is a campaigner who eschews the slick politics of the Blair era. She refuses to compromise Labour’s core values for pragmatic reasons, and speaks scathingly of the leadership candidates who do. ‘There are going to be some people in the Labour Party who for various reasons decide that we don’t oppose certain things the Tories are doing for “strategic reasons”. But if it’s the wrong thing to do, we shouldn’t do it.’
Smith describes her background as ‘political, but not party political’. She entered into politics at a young age through the third-world debt campaign, but she was sceptical of the national Labour message. She was persuaded to join the party in 2004 after being convinced that it was possible to change it from within, and she maintains that vision. She worked for Jeremy Corbyn – ‘I think politics would gain a lot from more voices like Jeremy’s,’ she says – and has been busily organising his leadership campaign.
Like Lewis, Smith might have been squeezed off the selection list during the Blair years. Instead, she ran and overturned the Tory majority in her constituency. But her perspective remains rooted in campaigning, and she is using methods she learned outside the party. She is involved with the Labour Assembly Against Austerity, a group based on the People’s Assembly that aims to use Labour to promote political education.
Smith says that the party needs to look closely at why it lost the election, but dismisses the idea the campaign was too left wing: ‘No one said to me on the doorstep in Lancaster and Fleetwood, “I can’t vote Labour because you’re too left wing.” I did hear many times, “I can’t tell the difference between you and the Tories” or “You’re all the same.” I heard that, but no one ever said, “You’re too left wing.”’
The new intake is soon likely to be tested by the threat to the party’s relationship with the unions. Already, a group of MPs, including many of the new intake, has written to the New Statesman calling for the union link to be defended, fearing a shift towards disaffiliation following the election defeat.
Miners’ strike veteran Harry Harpham knows how crucial the union movement is to the Labour Party. He was an NUM rep, and remained out on strike for a year in 1984-85. Once the strike ended, he left his home in Nottinghamshire. ‘I knew I’d find it difficult living among people who’d crossed me on a picket line for 12 months,’ he explains. ‘People I’d grown up with, people I’d gone to school with, people I’d been out socialising with.’ It was a proud moment when he secured the NUM nomination for his Sheffield constituency.
Harpham fears that the party is in danger of destroying its traditional links with the unions. ‘People who say the unions are a problem have got it completely wrong. In my opinion, the union movement is a huge asset to us, and we should make sure we use it. They are the reason that we formed the Labour Party – so we could give a voice to ordinary working people.’ He thinks the Tories’ proposal to limit strike ballots will be fatal: ‘They are formally outlawing strikes. It’s a very dangerous, worrying time for trade unions.’
For Harpham, the unions are Labour’s real link to Britain’s workers – the party’s backbone – and the means by which it can reconnect with lost voters: ‘One of the things we have got to do is to go out and talk to people, listen to what their concerns are, listen to what their everyday worries are, what their everyday struggles are and work with them to find the solutions to their problems. I see unions as being a huge part of that. The unions offer us a voice – an opportunity to talk to ordinary working people.’
It is impossible to predict what effect the new MPs will have on Labour. Many of the party’s monolithic structures persist, and the leadership campaign remains dominated by those who actively disavow Labour’s left. But the spotlight on Jeremy Corbyn is shifting the language of the debate and creating opportunities for new voices to emerge within the party. One thing is clear: a new debate over Labour’s future is beginning.