Luciana Berger announcing Labour Party split

via YouTube Screengrab

Today, what many had been predicting for some time happened. The cold war in the Labour Party became hot, as seven Labour MPs resigned their membership, and are now sitting as an independent group in parliament. Naturally, this is of most importance to those in Labour. But the defections have significant ramifications for Greens too. And we need to have clear responses. Here are 5 ways we should respond:

1. These people are not our friends – we should have nothing to do with them

The seven defectors – Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Ann Coffey and Gavin Shuker are some of the most contemptible members of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The worst of a bad bunch would be a generous description.

The three MPs who were in parliament at the time of the 2002/3 – Mike Gapes , Chris Leslie and Ann Coffey voted in every parliamentary division to send British troops to Iraq, bar one which they both were absent for.  Coffey, Leslie and Gapes are all consistent supporters of Britain maintaining its nuclear arsenal. Five of them voted with David Cameron’s government to send air strikes into Syria. Their politics is interventionist, militaristic and neocolonial. As the drums for a regime change war in Venezuela are beaten, there’s no prizes for guessing what these seven’s position would be.

On economic issues, they sit firmly on the right of the party. In 2015, their political back bone was so strong, they couldn’t bring themselves to vote against draconian Tory benefit cuts. Leslie was Shadow Chancellor during Ed Miliband’s leadership, where the Labour Party was barely a cigarette paper away from the Conservatives on economic issues. So wedded to the agenda of privatisation is this group, that Smith penned an article last year supporting continued private ownership of water – despite its obvious failures and the popular support for public ownership. Their politics is right wing, neoliberal and pro-austerity. In an era of mass support for economic alternatives, it is this group who are the defenders of the status quo.

And on one of the most significant areas of political debate this decade – migration and racism – they sit alongside the reactionaries, the racists and the xenophobes. In 2014, Umunna’s views on migration were seen as too right-wing even for the Labour Party which would shortly go on to carve “controls on immigration” into stone and sell it on coffee mugs. Within hours of her leaving the Labour Party, Smith referred to BAME people as being a “funny” colour. In 2018, Leslie wrote a position paper in which he called for migrants to be forced to be registered under an electronic version of identity cards. Their politics panders to the far-right, and is anti-migrant.

This cabal of right-wingers and reactionaries are no friends of Greens. Everything about their politics, whether it be in its rabid neoliberalism, imperialism, or anti-migrant pandering to the far-right is everything which Greens must resist. Any attempt to forge alliances with this rump of vexatious and insidious Blairites would be several steps in the wrong direction.

2. They’re politically toxic and out of touch – we should have nothing to do with them

But their politics isn’t only deeply reactionary and unpleasant. It’s also hugely unpopular, and vastly out of touch with the public.

Overwhelmingly, the British public is now opposed to the dogma of austerity. Similarly, people in the UK despise the decades of privatisation and are in favour of public ownership of key services. Opposition to military intervention in Iraq and Syria has only grown over time.

The seven defectors represent everything that people hate about politics. They represent an out of touch political establishment which seeks to maintain the status quo. They represent that which so many wanted to do away with in the 2016 EU referendum, and so much of which Jeremy Corbyn promised to sweep away as his support surged during the 2017 election. The defectors are of a political tradition which sees “business as usual” as the right direction. Meanwhile, millions of people in the UK turn to foodbanks, homelessness spirals out of control, wages are kept down, public services are gutted and marketised, environmental collapse comes ever closer, wealth is redirected from the Global South to the West and so on, and so on.

Associating with these people is a sure fire way to ensure that the public perception of Green radicalism is overturned, and our future as a legitimate party of the left disappears.

3. Brexit isn’t the only issue – we should have nothing to do with them

Despite all of this, it may be tempting to make quick and immediate alliances in order to effect clear political outcomes in the short term. After all, each of the seven MPs that left the Labour Party are ardent in their opposition to Brexit and their support of a second referendum. Criticism of Labour’s handling of Brexit in fact made up a core part of their resignation statement.

Surely, in this context, the Greens should find common cause with these people, who are campaigning for a second referendum, just like the leadership of the Green Party?

Such a strategy would be ill advised and ill fated. The lessons of the 2016 EU referendum need to be learned by all those pushing for a re-run. When there is widespread anger and distrust towards the state of politics and the establishment, you don’t win a campaign by being the mouthpiece of that establishment. Britain Stronger in Europe was a disastrous campaign, led by a litany of the worst examples of elite politicians. Any campaign for a second referendum, or in the event of a second referendum led by this group of MPs would be just as disastrous as that.

Even if Greens support a second referendum of Britain’s membership of the EU, it should have nothing to do with a campaign run by this lot.

But more importantly, although Brexit dominates every inch of our politics and media at the moment, it is by far from the only issue people care about at present. Indeed, the scandal of decimated funding in the NHS and schools; the crisis in housing which is plunging thousands into homelessness and even more into debt; stagnating wages; increasing knife crime and the racist response of increased stop and search; and a whole load of other issues are just as important – if not more so – and take up much more of the day to day thinking of most people.

Given this, Greens need to understand that a short term strategy of association with neoliberals and Blairites over Brexit is a moribund strategy. Instead, our strategy needs to be based in building a clear, compelling and radical narrative on how we, as Greens, would overhaul all the systems, structure and policies that keep these problems alive.

4. We need to find a distinct voice – we should have nothing to do with them

Details of the defectors’ future plans are still emerging. But the assumption is that they will soon form a new political party. Given this, the political set up in the UK is starting to look exceptionally crowded. In England, there are least 6 parties – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Green, UKIP and whatever the defectors call their new outfit – that are serious contenders for parliamentary elections. In Scotland and Wales, the SNP and Plaid Cymru are also in the mix. And this doesn’t even touch upon the many smaller parties that have also emerged – from the Women’s Equality Party to Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party.

In this context, differentiation becomes increasingly difficult. How do the Greens carve out a political space?

Well, central to this will be to avoid thoughtless association with parties vying for the political ‘centre ground’ – or more accurately the centre right. An anti-Brexit alliance with this cabal, potentially also including the Liberal Democrats, would do just that.

Instead, Greens must speak more actively and openly about a whole range of other issues. And, further still, we must articulate a vision that is distinct from the odious ‘centrist’ #FBPE types, as well as the Labour Party. That means talking a lot less about Brexit, but also talking about our radical positions on a whole range of issues that differentiate us from the Labour Party, and place us to their left.

Taking a resolutely pro-migrant, pro-free movement position, in the face of Labour’s equivocation is part of this. Demanding radical transformation of the economy – beyond ending austerity and renationalising a few industries – but rather completely reworking and democratising much more of our economy, re-balancing towards people, rather than profit is part of it too.

These positions are so far divorced from those of the seven defectors. Associating with them for short term gain will limit our ability to effectively champion such positions, and this needs to be resisted.

5. Now is the time to make a compelling case for political reform – we should have nothing to do with them

Of all the areas that Greens ought to be making noise about in this climate, political reform is perhaps the most important. The crowded political context we’ve already been over is tantamount to a crisis. Our creaking, anachronistic, and archaic political system can’t accommodate the range of political forces that exist within the UK today.

While 2017 saw a swing towards the big two parties, this was in an election fought in highly polarised circumstances, in which an insurgent left wing party sought to disrupt the status quo, and a reactionary, Conservative party sought to defend it. Naturally, people pulled towards supporting either of these two positions. It left little room for anything in between, or indeed further to the left or right.

Such a scenario is unlikely to happen again. Politics is fragmenting once more, and the political structures we have need to accommodate this.

Given Labour’s movements in this area are sluggish to say the least, Greens should be pushing hard in this context for widespread political reform. Changes to our electoral system are important. But it must go beyond this, and demand a dismantling and rebuilding of all our political institutions. Failing to articulate such radical reform would be insufficient. Simply changing how votes are cast and counted in election won’t rebuild a political system and culture fit for the 21st century and for our current political context. All it will do cover over the cracks.

In pursuit of this, Greens must obviously work with those who also want to see our democracy rebuilt. This would include civil society groups – from Unlock Democracy to the Electoral Reform Society. But it should also include those in Labour fighting for the party to adopt a more coherent and effective position.

It shouldn’t include those whose commitment to political reform is wafer thin. In the near future, these seven defectors will likely call for changes to the voting system. Such calls will be centred around self interest and self preservation. Genuine political reform won’t be in pursuit of that. Rather, it will be in pursuit of the destruction of the state as currently comprised, and rebuilding a new model of governance where power is fundamentally redistributed. That isn’t what Chuka Umunna and his co-conspirators are in politics for.

Chris Jarvis

About Chris Jarvis

Chris is a writer and campaigner. He has been active in the student movement for almost a decade - working for two years as an elected Sabbatical Officer at the Union of UEA Students, and for two and a half years at student activist network People & Planet. A Green Party member since 2010, Chris has served on the Executive Committee of both the Young Greens and the Green Party of England and Wales. In 2014, Chris co-founded the progressive online publication The Norwich Radical, and in 2018 joined the writing team of The Canary. Chris is currently a Press and Communications Officer at We Own It.