Labour's expulsion of Alastair Campbell shows it's tied to old ideas

Disciplinarian, command and control parties are a remnant of the past. We might not like Campbell's politics, but expelling him from Labour for voting Lib Dem is a mistake.

Neal Lawson
28 May 2019, 3.36pm
Alastair Campbell
Chatham House, cc2.0

There are moments in politics that simply and neatly crystallise everything. Today it was the absurdity of Labour expelling Alastair Campbell for voting Lib Dem last week. The only analogy my mind can conjure up is the prison guards on the Berlin Wall shooting the first people flocking through the gaps on 9 November 1989 before realising the futility of it, giving up, taking off their uniforms and merging into the crowd – forever trying to hide their Stasi past.

Last week tens of thousands of card-carrying Labour members voted Green or Lib Dem in the EU elections. Many of them voted tactically to stop the rise of Tommy Robinson. Should they be expelled too? They did so because for them their party’s equivocation over a second referendum was too much and had gone on too long. For them it was Brexit or Remain. Personally, I’m more sympathetic to a politics that tries to unify the country, but that’s another debate. What is clear is that this attempt to instil fear and an iron discipline to back the Party or else, is hopelessly misplaced in the 21st century.

Why? Because this is not the age of the factory – where everyone knew their place and took their orders. An age of paternalism and no questions asked deference. Rather it is the age of Facebook and a sentiment in which you join and leave different groups all the time, where loyalty is fleeting as the aggregating and accelerating effects of social media take their toll and people swarm from this to that group at a whim. You can like it or not, but this is how things now are.

The main point is that this form of leadership and command and control disciple may have worked in 1917, but today looks foolish. But it’s hard to resist the secondary and cheaper point that the leadership are hypocrites. Much of the early Corbyn wave was powered by people coming over from the Greens and the Lib Dems. And it is impossible to ignore that Corbyn voted against the Labour government and with other parties all the time, or that he publicly congratulated candidates like George Galloway when they defeated Labour candidates. We won’t go near the non-expulsion of anti-Semites. It's not wrong to stand by your principles as Jeremy and Alastair have in their own ways done, it is wrong to say one thing and do another and all the time fail to realise the rest of the world has simply moved on.

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Of course, there is argument that says that if you belong to a party then you must always and forever vote for it. But it’s a claim made for a world that has gone. The future will be negotiated by all of us, not imposed by any one of us. In part this must be the case because the problems we now face as a society are too complex for any single party to solve.

But if this model of discipline, getting out the vote, winning an election, gaining a majority and pulling the levers of power is over, so must be the archaic rules that go with it – rules that say no matter what a party does or doesn’t do you must back it at all times, that only votes for the two big parties count and that MPs should be whipped to vote against their beliefs. The control freaks of the left and right won’t be able to take any of this.

Instead we should take a leaf out of the Women’s Equality Party's book. The WEP allow their party members to join other parties. This makes utter sense in a world where we all need to be egalitarian, green, liberal and democratic. One size no longer fits all. It’s not two TV stations we have a choice of but hundreds, each on demand. If our politics fails to catch up with this complex modernity then it will get left further and further behind.

Some will simply rejoice that Campbell has been thrown out. An evil Blairite who had it coming. I had little truck with New Labour but a world of binaries – it’s black or white, good or bad, them or us – isn’t a world I want to inhabit. As Albert Maysles has said ‘tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance’.

Instead of expelling Alastair Campbell the Labour leadership should debate and discuss Europe with him. It’s the only way to learn and develop your argument – it’s the way to make yourself stronger. Instead this just looks brittle and weak.

Fight the expulsions, the left always used to say. Well, everyone who wants a politics that is tolerant, open and respectful should fight any expulsion that simply makes no sense in the modern world.

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