3rd August, 2016
– By Sarah Atkin –
In Defence of Parliamentary Democracy
It would be ironic if, more than a century after its formation, the Labour Party was to succeed in the ultimate U-turn and end up as it began: a movement of protest.
From Keir Hardie onwards, Labour’s mission has always been to provide a voice for the voiceless, be a force for progress, improve lives, take our country forward and change our world. Idealistic, absolutely, but also deeply pragmatic. Keir Hardie was a pragmatic idealist. He worked to achieve a broad-based and inclusive political movement, but very early on concluded that the then ILP (Independent Labour Party) must learn to win elections. It is through elected representatives that change was/is achievable. From the pioneering early Labour Councillors at the turn of the 20th century through to our reforming national governments, we seek power to change things and it is through electoral politics that we have succeeded.
I was not born into Labour. I chose it. I joined the Labour Party in the mid 1980’s because Neil Kinnock looked to be somebody who could provide much needed opposition to an all-powerful Margaret Thatcher in parliament and second, I wanted to be part of making Labour electable again.
Working in London’s creative industries I saw a changing world and knew Labour needed to change with it. In the 1980s I collected money for striking miners’ families. I was one of the first to join Charter 88 and campaign for constitutional reform (before it was fashionable). I always did my ‘bit’ as a Labour member during elections and spent many evenings on the phone fundraising for the party. Over the decades I’ve given much to the party and to the cause of progressive politics.
Nothing heroic. No ‘gong’ expected. Just the everyday contributions many thousands like me have quietly made down the years. To now be corralled under the label ‘red Tory’ does rather stick in the gut.
The road to government was long and tortuous but during the Kinnock years there was always forward movement. Progress. Hope. To therefore lose the 1992 election was utterly gut-wrenching.
I suppose that confirmed to me, beyond doubt, that the Establishment never wants Labour to be in power. Patently, to advance our agenda Labour always has to be smarter, stronger and altogether better at the ‘business’ of politics than the competition. Nothing is inevitable in politics. You create your luck. Attlee knew this. Wilson knew it. And so did Blair.
Think on this. My first vote was in 1979. Up until 1997 my entire adult life had been spent under Tory governments. To see Blair and the New Labour project ‘wipe the floor’ politically and make Labour electorally unassailable was exhilarating. Oh, and we did do some great things too.
That was then. This is now.
I did not vote for Jeremy Corbyn but did understand, after what had been, to my mind a post-Blair vacuum of intellectual and organisational ‘drift’ why a ‘change’ candidate won. Even my partner (a non-aligned former advertising ‘guru’) said I was daft not to see that Corbyn was the best chance of putting us back on the map (which he now concedes he got wrong.)
Nobody knows how any individual will perform as Leader. It’s generally more ‘gut’ than science.
Despite his history, there was a way for Jeremy Corbyn to unite the party around a common narrative for progressive, radically and relevant change – relevant as in resonating with the lives, aspirations and anxieties of the majority. The primary focus of his energies, though, needed to be parliament.
It is in parliament that a Leader of the Opposition has to be at his/her best. It is in parliament that the majority of the electorate see national politics at work and it is in parliament that Jeremy Corbyn has failed to make an impact.
Labour has fallen short in its vital democratic job of holding the government to account – disastrously exposed, in my opinion over Europe and Brexit. Was there anything in politics more important than Europe this past year?
80% of MPs have lost faith in Jeremy Corbyn. If you do not have the support of MPs in parliament then you cannot do your job as leader. The MPs represent all Labour voters across the UK. This has to be pre-eminent. Yes, of course Labour members matter as well but MPs do not work at the behest of party members, supporters or trade union affiliates. They work for the people who put them there – the voters.
We live in a parliamentary democracy. Electoral representation is the best way to advance the causes we believe in. The alternative is the politics of protest or, more worryingly, the muscular ‘street politics’ of intimidation and intolerance that’s been meted out to (mainly female) Labour MPs. The antithesis of democratic engagement. This isn’t ‘political passion’ got out of hand. It’s thuggery. Jeremy Corbyn may well condemn it but prior to his leadership this didn’t happen.
I would ask the many thousands who, in good faith supported Jeremy Corbyn a year ago, is this the ‘kinder, gentler politics’ you envisaged? Is the ‘Corbyn project’ advancing the cause of progressive, centre-left politics in Britain? At this moment when our country grapples with the Brexit fall-out and the years of upheaval, uncertainty and challenge this will present, are Jeremy Corbyn and his team up to the job of providing disciplined, coherent, unified, strategic and credible parliamentary opposition to this newly installed right wing Tory government?
I don’t think so.
There is no point denying that we are a long way from power but somebody else has to be given an opportunity to try and turn the tide for Labour. This time I can say I am voting for change.
By Sarah Atkin
Sarah Atkin is a Labour member living in Scotland and she writes in a personal capacity. She was a volunteer organiser for Better Together in the Highlands; a Highlands and Islands Regional List candidate in the 2016 Scottish Elections and an EU ‘Remainer’.
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