To paraphrase Marx, from the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, history tends to repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In 2007, the Labour Party was left with no debate about its future direction, no discussion about policy, no opportunity for members to exercise their democratic rights. Gordon Brown was left unopposed, because the PLP chose to nominate him in such numbers, there were insufficient remaining MPs to nominate any alternative candidate.
In 2010, there may well be a contest! But there is a real danger of there being no debate, if two brothers with very subtly different New Labour outlooks take to the country on some surreal hustings merry-go-round. Should people vote for Steve or Glenn (apologies for the obscure musical joke)? Even if other non-Miliband names eventually enter the fray (there are whisperings of Balls), none of them are really offering anything different to the party’s discussion. There is a serious danger that this leadership election could become a laughing stock.
What we have to remember is that the Labour Party does have a left wing. There are some on the non-Labour left who would prefer that this remain a secret! As such, some have been engaging in mud-slinging about the potential for any challenge from McDonnell. But it shouldn’t be a secret.
If McDonnell could get onto the ballot paper, then the Labour Party will have a genuine debate over the summer. We’ll talk about the cuts agenda, and the alternatives; we’ll talk about temporary workers’ rights and trade union rights; we’ll talk about council housing; we’ll talk about peace, about Trident, about party democracy, about education funding… We’ll talk about all the things the Labour Party needs to talk about in this situation.
If it’s Miliband v Miliband, surely nobody on the left can deny that we would find ourselves having a very different, and much less satisfying or useful discussion. The Labour Party doesn’t deserve the narrow discussion promised by the current field of candidates and the Labour Party and its leadership will be the poorer for such a restricted discussion. We have a left wing. That wing is not strong in Parliament, but it is present. It is a much more significant minority outside parliament.
No individual candidate has an automatic right to be the candidate of the left. John’s leading positions in the LRC and the Campaign Group of MPs, alongside many trade union parliamentary groups, make him the most likely candidate of the left, coupled with his stirling efforts in 2007. But if other candidates from the left had been put forward, or had put themselves forward then it would have been only right that the left of the party should debate this. Indeed this is one of many reasons why today’s timetable is so inadequate: it forces candidates effectively to declare unilaterally, and for MPs to nominate without any opportunity to consult their CLPs.
But neither is there any justification for the personal attacks launched against John and some of his supporters in some areas of the left blogosphere, most notably on the ironically-named Socialist Unity. Any attempt to paint John as an uncooperative, divisive monster is torpedoed by any slight acquaintance with reality. People only need to read the transcripts of the one proper leadership hustings in 2007, or watch the contributions on YouTube, to see that John McDonnell led by example in calling for a “comradely” debate. He paid great tribute to both Brown and Meacher. Of course he puts his views across strongly. Why would the left want him as their candidate if he didn’t? But he is also a very good ambassador for the left in terms of being open, frank, comradely, polite, eminently likeable, and a very good speaker. All excellent qualities in a leadership candidate.
Of course, the nay-sayers make one very important point: John McDonnell did not succeed in getting the necessary nominations in 2007 and, though the bar is a little lower in 2010, is likely to struggle once again. That is no argument for not attempting this thing. And of course, it could be done. Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society today argued that John’s candidature would be good for the contest, suggesting MPs should consider this when making their nominations.
And this is a key point: nominations are not declarations of support, nor yet are they votes. Nominations are the PLP’s veto over who may be allowed on a ballot paper that comes before the rest of the electoral college. The left should unite and call on as wide a range of MPs as possible to nominate John McDonnell to ensure that there is a full, broad debate over the summer on all the issues we want discussing, not a narrow debate about personality and presentation.
The presence of two Campaign Group MPs amongst Ed Miliband’s declared supporters should not automatically mean that this is where their nomination shall go. MPs have a duty to consider their nominations very carefully. They have a later opportunity to cast a vote.
John McDonnell did not declare early on in this process, he was asked to stand. He was not asked to stand by a narrow group of supporters, but by many people on the left. A Facebook group urging his candidature had over 1000 members when last checked. A Labourlist poll did not include John McDonnell among the candidates and yet 6.7% of those who voted actually wrote him in.
Of course Facebook groups and Labourlist polls are not objective measures of support, but this is not some unilateral declaration. It is an attempt to meet a demand in the party and to ensure that this contest is a meaningful experience for the Labour Party.
So if you are an MP and reading this, please consider nominating John McDonnell. Everybody else: write to your MP, a neighbouring MP or an MP you know, and push this case. Remind them that nominating is not voting; remind them that they have a unique role in determining whether this Labour Party leadership election should be a meaningful one or not. Remind them that the Labour Party deserves a real debate, and Labour Party members deserve a real choice.