Despite the efforts of one councillor, it looks increasingly likely that the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as Labour party leader will not involve a major split or the formation of a new centrist party – at least for the time being.
Instead this weekend we witnessed signs of a more long-term strategy in the formation of a right opposition within the party. A number of prominent anti-Corbynites came forward to call for unity and to deny either the viability of a split or the potential of a new leadership challenge, all while drawing up the core policy of their opposition – the post-Brexit limitation of free movement. In less public environments these figures have eviscerated Corbyn and Momentum and vowed they would not be ‘pushed out’ of the party through deselection. Prominent in this was Tristram Hunt, who gave a speech at a Progress fringe event during the Labour conference.
Hunt is a consistent Corbyn critic who is likely to be one of the key figures of this faction in the future. However, his selection as an MP is one illustrative example of how the party has arrived at this point, and how the Labour right have no basis to claim to uphold democratic values or be victims of bullying.
Hunt entered parliament in 2010, having being selected for the safe seat Stoke-on-Trent Central by the Labour national executive committee (NEC) – not by the local constituency Labour party (CLP). The NEC had taken over the process and imposed three non-local candidates (Hunt was London-based and was born in Cambridge, and his father, a Cambridge university fellow, was made a Baron by Tony Blair in 2000). The local Labour party, which had expected local candidates to be put forward, demanded a new shortlist, but this was ignored and Hunt won the ballot. In protest, the former CLP secretary changed his name to ‘Gary Labour Candidate Born in Stoke-on-Trent Elsby’ and ran as an independent, subsequently receiving legal threats from the Labour party because he used red on his rosettes.
In 2008 Peter Mandelson was made a Lord so he could return to government as business secretary, and in 2010 he was charged with coordinating the general election campaign. Downing Street described the imposition of Hunt on Stoke as a ‘Mandelson ask’. Mandelson had previously done similar when he successfully pressured for Jonathan Reynolds’s placement on the shortlist for Stalybridge and Hyde (also a safe seat) even though the NEC had already prepared a shortlist that favoured a Brownite Unite official.
The motivations for this were clear. Mandelson expected to lose the general election he was overseeing – a fact he himself admitted in his memoirs. As he had completely written-off Brown as a prime minister, he was eager to give power to the new generation of Blairites clustered around David Miliband. Reynolds and Hunt were brought into parliament to grow this generation and to aid Miliband by supporting the campaign to be Labour leader that would inevitably follow the general election defeat. They duly nominated him in the 2010 leadership contest.
Mandelson joked with cabinet colleagues that the election campaign should be based around the ‘three Fs’: futile, finished, and fucked. For the Labour right the purpose of the 2010 election was a regenerative defeat. Tristram Hunt was forced on his constituency to pack the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) with young Blairites untainted by the 1997-2010 government. With this in mind, when people like Hunt attack the Labour left’s ‘threats’, they’re not doing it as a point of principle. Party democracy is not particularly sacred to them, and the imposition of candidates was a complaint directed at Blair since the first years of his leadership. Instead, they represent a faction far to the right of the Labour party which possesses a bleak and racist social vision that will entrench poverty and inequality, and they strongly believe this vision is the only one that can and should be implemented.
The context of Hunt’s selection in 2010 therefore illustrates why there are no moral arguments against deselection. If anti-Corbyn Labour MPs, members and supporters think ‘Mandelson asks’ were fine – examples of normal politicking that people have to be realists about – then they also have to accept that similar moves by so-called Corbnyites are also fine. If Mandelson can force candidates on CLPs in authoritarian gestures from the top of the party, then surely Corbynites can similarly replace candidates through democratic processes coming from the bottom.
On the other hand, if those MPs, members and supporters think the top-down interventions of the Blair years were wrong, then to be consistent they must be in favour of more democratic control. This may well require them to accept Corbynite majorities in elections, CLP meetings and ultimately votes for parliamentary candidates.
Constituency-led selection is an inherently democratic way of choosing candidates; the way Hunt was selected was not. If the Labour members in Stoke want to choose a local candidate who better represent their politics, then that is their right. It will likely be revealed that for a number of anti-Corbynites party democracy is the problem, and that candidates should be imposed by the ‘realist’ right of the party – who should also form its leadership. To effectively defend themselves from the next onslaughts from the Labour right, members on the left should emphasise this discrepancy between the professed principles of figures like Hunt and their own pasts.