A response to Jeremy Gilbert - nothing is possible without power

Jeremy must understand that the purpose of the Labour party is to win power, and to use that power for progressive ends. To implement anything you must be able to win a general election.

John McTernan
17 September 2015

Flickr/Centre for American Progress. Some rights reserved.

Dear Jeremy,

I have read your open letter to ‘Blairite MPs’ and, after some consideration, thought it needed, rather than deserved, a response. I hope you don’t mind that I have used your name as you seem to have an aversion to actually naming those you are trying to bully. I have also taken the liberty of answering on behalf of the PLP as I am pretty sure that you have ordinary members like me in your sights too.

The first thing I want to say is that the purge mentality at the heart of your argument is alien to the Labour Party. Of course, we have always had boundaries, ones designed to protect us from our enemies to the left. Thus we never accepted affiliation from the Communist Party and avoided the balkanisation of the labour movement suffered in continental Europe. And, when the Revolutionary Socialist League (Militant) created a party within a party they were expelled. But the active purging of mainstream Labour MPs which you envisage would be unprecedented. I use the word mainstream deliberately because your targets are not just the MPs you are too craven to name (Rachel Reeves, Tristram Hunt, Emma Reynolds and their colleagues) but nine out of ten of the Parliamentary Labour Party – the ones who do not believe that Jeremy Corbyn can ever possibly be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. As you want a purge you should be honest about both your intention and the scale of your ambition.

This is my second point, not merely that you reject a defining characteristic of the Labour Party – its breadth and tolerance of competing views, but that you reject its defining purpose – winning power to change the country for the better. The welfare state, decolonisation, the Equal Pay Act, the Race Discrimination Act, civil partnerships, spending 0.7% of GDP on aid and development – changes which happened because Labour governments with majorities were elected and able to act. Not only did we change Britain we changed the world – and we did so permanently because our opponents had to embrace our polices. They did so not because Attlee or Wilson or Blair were secretly Tories but because our actions embodied the best instincts of the voters. When we are the progressive wing of the British people, what we do is irreversible.

Which leads me to my third point, winning is not the first betrayal – as too many on the left appear to feel – but it is the historic purpose of our party and the labour movement. As Mick McGahey once said ‘Anger is not enough’ – for if it was then all of our demands would have been met decades ago. Anger fogs the mind and confuses our thinking. But more dangerously it brings a deceptive sense of satisfaction. Anger becomes the conclusion, an end in itself, rather than a spur to action. Thus is produced the self-righteous self-satisfaction of permanent opposition.

Progressive change needs progressive governments and they, in turn, require progressive majorities which have to be argued for, people must be won over and coalitions built and maintained. I do not doubt the passion of those who voted for, and support, Jeremy Corbyn. I do not doubt their passion for change. I do, however, doubt whether the politics they are supporting has any chance of ever being implemented because – like 90% of the PLP and 48% of voters – I do not believe that Corbyn can win an election. Starkly put, Labour lost in May because voters did not think that Ed Miliband looked like a Prime Minister and they did not trust him and Ed Balls to run the economy. I am not alone in feeling that the team of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are not the ones to restore the public’s faith in Labour’s economic credibility.

Finally, you may be one of the many in the party who are angry at the cruel cuts in tax credits which will impoverish millions – I know I am. Those are tax credits that only exist because a Labour government was elected and implemented them. Those cuts will only be reversed by a future Labour government. It is not ignoble to want to work for the election of a majority Labour government. Nor is it a crime to seek to win support from the actually existing voters. What is wrong is for you to believe that the first step towards the election of a Labour government is to purge it of the moderate mainstream majority of MPs who agree with me. ‘Fewer but better MPs’ is a counsel of despair which I will resist because mine is the politics of hope.



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