I fear that Owen Smith’s leadership rally in Cambridge, last night, furthers division rather than promotes reconciliation and party unity. I did not attend but I watched most of his speech online. Smith’s message was that Jeremy Corbyn has good policies but he is a weak and incompetent leader and that Smith will be competent and will lead the party to power.
This message glosses over the underlying fault line in the Labour Party. The fault line marks a division between centralised parliamentary control of the party and having a devolved movement with a greater active role for the grassroots. So, on one on hand, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is supreme, leading on policy to ensure that it is attractive enough to the majority of voters to get elected. Party members do the groundwork, they are the foot soldiers in the process. On the other side of the divide is a vision for a more democratic party, with the grassroots having a much greater say in policy and that they work with, rather than for the PLP. The electoral strategy is for the grassroots to reach out to and mobilise disaffected voters in their locality through meaningful participation.
The rapid rise of Jeremy Corbyn and his substantial victory in the leadership election last year is evidence of support for a grassroots party and the development of a social movement. There is a growing view that remote Westminster politics is not going to solve the problems individuals face in their lives. At the same time, there are those in the party who still wholeheartedly believe in the centralised approach.
At Owen Smith’s rally, a member of the audience spoke passionately about the Labour Party being, fundamentally, a parliamentary party and that seeing MPs as equal to members is wrong. He criticised John McDonnell’s view that the PLP were just a part of the party. I have a different view, I see the PLP as having a special role and their professional work must be respected. However, Labour MPs must respect and listen to the membership and the knowledge and skills that they bring. The Labour Party must be a model of multiple stakeholder democracy. The success of which is dependent on building trust and forging alliances.
I am aware of these contrasting views in my own life. I work with people who have a variety of political views, some are Corbyn supporters, a number are sceptics. The division, I imagine, is similar to the wider membership, those supporting Jeremy Corbyn seek a fundamental change in the party and in the country. Those not supporting him are more conservative (note the little ‘c’), they perhaps have a preference for order, hierarchy and the status quo.
Smith’s message is simple, he rejects the efficacy of the Corbyn project, in so doing he demeans Corbyn supporters. He is not offering reconciliation. This about ensuring the balance of power returns to the PLP. In his defence though, given that Corbyn is likely to win again, he has little choice than to go on the offence. But he must realise the damage he is doing by attacking Corbyn and his supporters. In so doing he is leading those opposed to Corbyn into a bitter dispute rather than encouraging a healthy and productive debate.
I was talking to a long-standing member of the Labour Party and Corbyn supporter, who went to the event out of curiosity. He said how there had been many of his friends there, and he felt they found it difficult to look him in the eye. He was concerned about how the leadership election and how the character of Smith’s campaign would affect relationships. There is always a danger that political debate can degenerate into intractable and even bitter dispute.
Smith’s error is to exploit division; it is weak leadership to play one group off against the other. Strong leadership attempts to resolve differences or constantly seeks ways of allowing different viewpoints to be heard. Strong leaders promote understanding and not division.
Our local MP Daniel Zeichner is not a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, but has taken a principled line in not being part of the vote of no confidence and has remained in his shadow cabinet position. However, to see him introducing and endorsing Owen Smith last night caused me great concern. Does he also support Smith’s divisive and partisan approach to this leadership campaign? One in which my views are attacked and devalued. It is not so long ago that Smith claimed to be the unity candidate, I fear that Owen Smith’s visit will have exacerbated division amongst Cambridge Labour supporters rather than healing them.