#014 The Epitome of Shameful Labour
Watson, Smith, Slaughter & McNicol
In the summer of 2016, the Labour Party establishment repeatedly undermined the democratic and progressive values upon which it is based. Key figures in the Labour Party showed they are more than willing to drop fundamental Labour Party principles in favour of a series of opportunist, self serving acts, designed to maintain their own power and/or undermine the power, interests or influence of Labour members and constituents.
Here we focus on five examples and four individuals, instances which clearly epitomise, what could be called, ‘Shameful Labour’, an elitist trend running through the top of the Labour Party, one that is increasingly inspiring a progressive fight back, through Jeremy Corbyn & John McDonnell, through Momentum and through the growing, grassroots membership of the Labour Party.
The four individuals we have chosen to focus on as indicative of ‘Shameful Labour’ are Tom Watson, deputy Labour Party leader, Owen Smith, Labour leadership challenger & former shadow work and pensions secretary, Andy Slaughter, former shadow justice minister and Hammersmith, London MP and the General Secretary of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Iain McNicol.
The first example dates back to 2015, when 184 Labour MPs decided, under the interim leadership of Harriet Harman following Miliband’s defeat in the 2015 general election, to abstain in the second reading of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.
This bill included cuts to child tax credits, the introduction of a household benefit cap, abolishing child poverty targets and cuts to Employment Support Allowance and Housing Benefit for young(er) people. Tom Watson, Andy Slaughter and Owen Smith all went along with this, alongside other MPs such as Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband. This event was arguably the point at which the grassroots members decided they’d had enough of Labour representatives acting in their own interests (in this case to not be seen as pro ‘scroungers’ & ‘shirkers’, a narrative successfully propagated by George Osbourne in the years leading up to this bill), at the detriment of the Labour members, who overwhelmingly opposed this bill. This was the pivotal moment in the Labour leadership race, where Corbyn burst through as the unexpected front runner, from initially being an outsider candidate with 200/1 odds, and a significant part of the reason he did was as a reaction against this event.
Secondly, scrubbing forward to 2016, and maybe representing the most clear example of ‘Shameful Labour’ behaviour, was following the vote to leave the European Union, the media co-ordinated decision(s) to stage an hour by hour mass resignation of the shadow cabinet, with a view to forcing Corbyn into resigning the position he was elected to, less than a year earlier, lead by Margaret Hodge MP and Hilary Benn MP.
This was seen by many as an affront to Labour member democracy and pitted the parliamentary Labour party against it’s own members at a time when the Conservative Party were very vulnerable following David Cameron’s failure and resignation. Both Owen Smith MP and Andy Slaughter MP were involved in this, along with many others.
Adding to the indignation, when confronted later, both Smith & Slaughter retrospectively denied any involvement and attempted to spin the whole thing away as some kind of free and reasonable leadership election, following Corbyn’s refusal to be bullied and determination to continue as leader.
Thirdly, Labour’s NEC, under the leadership of Iain McNicol, similarly provoked the Labour Members with several widely publicised decisions that seem to fly in the face of democracy and natural justice. Firstly they take the decision to exclude thousands of new, paid up members, who have joined in the first six months of 2016, from participating in the 2016 leadership election, forcing them to pay a £25 ‘democracy tax’ to become registered supporters instead.
This decision was widely seen as an attempt to somewhat ‘rig’ the result and was subsequently challenged in court, (through members crowdsourcing substantial legal costs) where a high court judge ruled in the members’ favour. However still the NEC, with McNicol and Watson being key players, decided to appeal the decision in the higher court of appeal, with a view to shore up the power of the NEC to make decisions, at the expense of new members having their democratic say in the leadership election, something they were explicitly promised, contractually speaking.
Additionally, the NEC, under McNicol, took the decision to suspend all BLP and CLP meetings until after the leadership election, undermining members’ ability to democratically organise in the months leading up to the leadership election. These decisions together show a firm willingness of ‘Shameful Labour’ to abandon the principle of open democracy when it suited them.
A fourth example was when Owen Smith, out on the leadership campaign trail, delivered an answer to a question on Labour committing to bringing in proportional representation for elections at Westminster.
It goes without saying Owen Smith’s campaign was full questionable minor gaffes, including labelling Jeremy Corbyn a “lunatic”, calling for Theresa May to be “smashed back on her heels” and tweeting for a “gobstopper” to put in leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon’s mouth, for putting forward a position he disagreed with, however this example illustrates a calculated move, on a specific policy issue, rising rapidly in popularity across the political spectrum.
Here Smith is shamefully disingenuous by claiming PR destroys the connection between representative and the people, whilst at the same time strangely “fully accepting the intellectual & political case for it”. What he says here only makes sense when we examine the AMS voting system, used in the Welsh Assembly, but this is a mixed system (PR & FPTP), rather than a proportional voting system.
In fact the Single Transferable Vote (STV), being a true PR system, could potentially strengthen this connection, as noted by the independent Electoral Reform Society on a number of occasions, referenced below,
The real reason Smith speaks against PR is because he knows it will potentially empower smaller parties at the expense of Labour and the Tories.
Finally, Tom Watson, in his interview with the Guardian in August 2016, decided to voice his opinions regarding the return of the electoral college system for voting Labour Leaders. If acted upon this would directly disempower Labour members in favour of MPs, who are already the gatekeepers of leadership elections because candidates must seek a certain proportion of MP nominations to even stand for leader or deputy leader, in comparison to the one member, one vote system currently in place.
In conclusion then, these examples highlight the willingness of ‘Shameful Labour’ MPs and elite figures to abandon the fundamentals of democracy, natural justice and fair play, when it may be in their personal or political, careerist interests to do so, at the detriment of the grassroots of the party.
They are echoed elsewhere in the party too, for instance David Lammy MP explicitly calling for Parliament to all out ignore the result of the EU referendum, a slap in the face to the million who voted,
When viewed with hindsight, this ‘Shameful Labour’ trend explains the willingness and determination of many Labour members, affiliates and supporters to fight back, through Momentum and other organisations, online and in person, in a bid to redirect and reclaim what they believe the Labour Party should be about, a party that stands for social justice, solidarity, democracy and the communal spirit.