Like Fight Club, the first rule of Labour First (the voice of Labour “moderates”) is to not talk about Labour First. Or at least it used to be. Pulling up outside the Brandhall Labour Club in Oldbury yesterday morning, conference-goers were treated to banners festooned with the Labour First logo and reminders everywhere about its hashtag. If that wasn’t enough, these days even Corbyn-critical lefts like me get invited. Assembled comrades included national secretary, Luke Akehurst, and parliamentary stalwart, John Spellar, a smattering of MPs and MEPs old and new, about 150 or so attendees, and the recently back-benched Michael Dugher, who was present to give the keynote.
I know from my six years as a party member that Labour First has a dark, backroom glamour – if such a thing could be said to exist. Unfortunately, folks expecting a conference living up to this Tuckeresque reputation were to be disappointed. Michael’s speech was witty and warm, and lacked the rancour one might have expected. His theme was, rightly, taking the fight to the Tories. In the first place it meant highlighting their many deficiencies, defending our record in government, but also avoiding the reopening of previously settled debates. Michael noted, for instance, that party conference had made its views on Trident replacement clear in September, so to try and overturn that decision by passing over party structures in favour of a “weekend email” to selected members is not only not on, it is a massive distraction from the burning issues the overwhelming majority of party members agree on. Michael also argued that he wants to see a Labour Party the Tories fear, and that will only happen if we’re prepared to pick fights with them. Every day we spend out of power is a betrayal of the people we serve, and ultimately it is them who pay the price.
There followed a number of questions. Referring to nuclear weapons, one comrade asked if the party’s policy is multilateral disarmament then why aren’t we pushing that position more strongly and challenging the government to take an international lead on this issue? Another comrade, noting the lessons of the Better Together campaign in Scotland, argued that our position for change can’t be a defence of the status quo but offer a vision of a changed Europe. Another, referencing the imminent Beckett report, asked why the party hadn’t turned outwards to ask members of the public why they didn’t vote for us. Noting the preponderance of men in attendance, there were questions on what can be done to promote more women, the need to construct an emotional appeal voters would find convincing, and, recognising the enthusiasm of the tens of thousands who’ve joined the party, what can the moderate wing of the party say to them?
I found Michael’s reply interesting, seeing as other self-professed moderates have called them “morons“, Trots, etc.. He said these new members were in the party for the right reasons, and to capture them for more mainstream politics means welcoming them and earning their trust. Later on, John Spellar returned to this theme and argued the best way to integrate new members into the party and administer a dose of pragmatism is to take them door knocking – preferably around a council estate to see what our people really think.
The conference also heard from Labour First-endorsed NEC candidates Ellie Reeves, Cllr Pete Wheeler, and Luke. Joanna Baxter, who’s also on the slate, was otherwise engaged. Also notable was the contribution of Labour First candidate for the national constitutional committee, Maggie Cosin. Referencing the electability gap Labour is facing, she said “I’ve been a member for 59 years, I refuse to die under a Tory government – I want to be buried under a Labour government.”
If there was a message consistent through all the speakers and contributions from the floor was this need to win. In the spirit of straight talking and honest politics, comrades on the left would be wise to take the politics and concerns of people who support Labour First (and Progress, for that matter) at face value. The reason why I remain a Jeremy sceptic is because I do not believe we can win an election under his leadership. This concerns me not because there’s a safe seat waiting for me, or I stand to personally profit from the handout of spadding jobs, it’s because “our people” – our class and our politics – are strengthened by a Labour government. And going from what was said at Labour First yesterday by people who aren’t running for Parliament, nor fishing for positions on the party payroll, this – though not necessarily using the same language – is what they want to see as well.
It’s time all sides of the Labour Party at least came to a common understanding. Some of the issues that divide left, centre, and right cannot be papered over. They will always bubble up and will have to be resolved one way or the other. But the tearing of the party apart can be avoided if we recognise everyone enters these debates in good faith, and that all sides work to polemicise and organise against the others’ positions as they actually are, not what one’s factional rhetoric says they are. Yesterday’s Labour First conference was certainly encouraging in this regard.
Photo Credit: Ian McKenzie