Labour and its longest ever suicide vote!

Suicidal

I cannot claim the credit for this headline so I immediately acknowledge the brilliance of the Independent whose idea it was! However it does seem to me to encapsulate the problems that the Labour Party do and will have and why there are major opportunities for the Lib Dems at present.
I believe that just 14 weeks into a 260 week Parliament there have already been two seminal votes and in 48 days there will be a third. Of course only one of these has been a parliamentary vote. But what an important one! It now makes no difference what the Labour Party do and say for the rest of this Parliament because for the whole of it their failure to vote against the Benefits Bill will hand like an albatross around their neck.
Already it has been mentioned more to me around the ward I represent by Labour voters than any other topic. It is a basic failure to stand up for the most deprived members of society that will be seared across the minds of many ‘left thinking’ electors no matter what the Labour Party do with the rest of the Bill’s progression through Parliament or for the rest of the Parliament. The reason is that it really showed up the Labour Party’s split between high minded but impractical idealists and people who think that principles don’t matter the only important thing is winning. More about Labour later.
Lib Dems were able to oppose the Bill on grounds of both principle and practicality. We’ve spent 5 years defending the poorest members of our society from vicious Tory attacks and were not going to change our mind on such an early crucial vote as this. However we were also able to oppose it on the grounds of it being unnecessary. Earlier in the year Parliament had passed a budget with many Lib Dem principles in them. The books balanced both to reduce the deficit in a reasonable time scale and continue try and minimise the impact on the poor. Tories have introduced the cost for ideological not fiscal grounds and all the Lib Dem MPs were able to vote against the Bill on that basis.
The second important vote was, of course, the Lib Dem leadership vote. What a pleasure to be able to choose from 2 outstanding liberals. 99.5% of the Party would have been happy to work with whichever Leader had been chosen. The contest laid out the direction of the Party as being both liberal and radical. Tim has made it clear that the Left-Right Continuum is of little relevance to him or the Party. We are a Party of social conscience that believes in a fundamentally different way of running our country. A country which is decentralised and more power put into the hands of local citizens and their communities and a much greater emphasis on the social and cooperative, mutual way of doing things.
There was a little discussion about Tim’s Christianity but most of this was conducted by outsiders. For most liberals a person’s spiritual beliefs are their own. We have no problem with understanding that anyone from a Judeo/Christian/Moslem background would want to carry their religious ideals into their political ones. So what? As a person of no religious faith I can support 9 of the 10 commandments and the principles in which the vast majority of Jewish and Moslem people carry out their lives and the role within society. We would have difficultiues with a sect like the Scientologists, although some would have a little sympathy with the idea that Prince Phillip is a lizard!
We will know soon in greater detail how Tim wants the mechanics of the Party to work. He has made a great first step in appointing Ben Rich as his interim Chief of Staff although I hope that there will soon be a removal of the word interim. Ben has long roots in the Party both as a theoretician – he played an important role in the Party’s policy making process – and as a grass roots campaigning members. Tim will appoint his wider team soon and give indications of how he wants the Party to be run including the appointment or election of a Deputy Leader which I hope will become a none-parliamentary role.
We are winning council by-elections and gaining seats in all but one of the 30 or some council by-elections that have been held. Our membership is still rising even after more than 18,000 people joined us in the 6 weeks after the election. We have come out of the General Election and Leadership election united and unbowed. Contrast that with the situation of the third seminal vote – the one referred to in the headline – the Labour Party.
In some ways it is now irrelevant who wins because the damage of the elections has been done in two ways. Firstly, as with 2010, the Labour Party have spent the first 6 months fighting each other and not the Tories. During that time the Tories have done many things which are wrong but have hardly impacted on the consciousness of a labour movement looking inward. Secondly the fault lines of the Party have been not only opened but opened in a way that will take years to either resolve or even bridge over. The fact is now clear that large elements of the Labour Party do not like large elements of the Labour Party.
Increasingly Labour reminds me of those very left wing splinter groups very popular in the 70’s. The Marxist-Leninists hated the Leninist-Marxists more than anyone else and the anarcho-syndicalists thought they were both corrupt! No-one else understood what they were arguing about but their arguments were furious.
Let’s take Liverpool. It was announced in the press today that a huge phone bank is being created in the City to promote Corbyn amongst Labour members. None of the 5 local Labour MPs are supporting Corbyn. The Labour Mayor of Liverpool has gone even further. He has told the World through the Guardian that if there was a ‘None of the Above’ box he would tick it. There is clearly a big disconnect between the Liverpool leaders of the Party and the rest of the membership. But there is an even bigger disconnect between Labour and a large part of its electorate. To be stopped and have to listen to complaints about the Labour Party is amusing but in the minds of many who voted Labour as recently as last may there is a clear understanding that they voted the wrong way.
Interestingly this is not because of what we are doing and saying although clearly we will take political advantage of this. People are reaching their own conclusions that the Rubicon has been crossed and they can never support Labour again.
Will this lead to an SDP type split as there was in the 80’s? I sincerely hope not. I am one of the few people around now who had to negotiate for seats, policies and authority. We got some really good people into our new joint Party such as Shirley Williams, Robert McLennan and Bill Rogers but many of the people who joined were not acceptable to us. They joined the new SDP because they thought it was their way to electoral success every bit as much as they believed in the principals of the SDP. They soon lost their seats and their way!
10 weeks I wrote a blog which suggested that in 10 years there might not even be a Labour Party but there would always be a liberal party. I hold to that belief. Of course there will be in existence something called the Labour Party but it will look nothing like the Party we have known for the past 50 years. It will either become a rabid left wing group or a bunch of technocrats. The original conditions for creating a mass labour movement have disappeared.
I face the future with confidence. For the first time in 5 years I am looking forward to local elections in Liverpool next May when we will move to a situation where the Lib Dem Council Group membership is in more than one ward and has only one surname! Onwards and upwards for my Party. Downward and depressing for Labour.

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About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. UK representative on UCLG Finance Committee, Executive Bureau and World Council. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperon on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and three grandchildren.
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