Those Labour MPs plunging their party into an unwanted crisis are betraying not only the party itself but also our national interest at one of the most critical moments any of us can recall.
The Tories are reaping what they have sown and are going to be consumed with divisions for the rest of the year and beyond.
The other EU states are pushing for the British government to give effect to Thursday’s vote to leave as rapidly as possible. Great decisions need to be made by a government that is effectively paralysed.
Surely Labour’s priorities are first of all to ensure that Brexit is not at the expense of working people, that employment rights are secured and jobs protected. We need to fight might and main against those Conservatives who see Brexit as a mandate to introduce a free-market utopia at the expense of working people.
Hilary Benn and others have decided this is the moment to let the Tories off the hook and turn Labour inwards.
We also have a responsibility to speak out against racism and offer reassurance and support to people of all races and nations living in Britain today.
And we need a clear Labour perspective for life outside the EU in the years ahead, looking to the opportunities as well as the very real threats, including the opportunity for a more interventionist state acting to prevent jobs losses, acting to use public investment to shape the economy of the future and prevent jobs losses, like those looming over Tata Steel.
Canary in the coalmine
Instead, Hilary Benn and others have decided this is the moment to let the Tories off the hook, turn Labour inwards and try to set aside the overwhelming result of a party leadership election held less than 10 months ago.
It seems clear that this coup would have been launched irrespective of the referendum result. Anyone who thinks remain would have won the vote if Jeremy Corbyn had told traditional Labour areas that all was well with the EU and with globalisation is living in a dream world. It is easier to do that from an oligarch’s yacht or a bank boardroom than it is in our de-industrialised cities and towns.
In fact, Corbyn was honest and straightforward about a complex question. There is no more sense in blaming him than there is in blaming Margaret Hodge for the fact that her constituency was one of the very few in London to vote to leave the EU.
And while I would agree that Labour needs a very different message concerning the free movement of labour, criticising Corbyn for this comes ill from those who have always argued that Tony Blair’s open door policy was a progressive one.
Unite has been warning about working-class alienation from politics all this century. There was the plummeting turnout in 2001 general election, the further Labour core vote losses in 2005 and 2010, followed by the growth of Ukip. How many canaries did this coalmine need?
Divisive and unnecessary
Corbyn is a brave and principled man, better placed to address this crisis in Labour’s heartlands than any of his critics. Of course he needs to broaden his message so Labour can reach out with a radical message of change for all working people, including those “left behind”. But does anyone believe that refried “new Labour” will work better?
I would like to see all Labour MPs playing a full and constructive part in this urgent work of communication. However, if people want to resign, so be it. Labour has plenty of talent to bring forward, women and men committed to the sort of alternative the party voted for last year. The truth is that some of those trumpeting their resignations owe their stature to being in the shadow cabinet, not the other way around.
A new leadership election is divisive and unnecessary. But if enough MPs want one, then bring it on. I am sure that Corbyn will secure a fresh mandate. But let me make two things clear.
First, if anyone is undemocratic enough to think that there can be a new leadership election with the existing leader kept off the ballot, then they are setting the Labour party on course for a split.
And second, Unite has hitherto opposed any plans to change the party rules governing mandatory re-selection of Labour MPs. That, too, we have looked on as a divisive distraction.
But those MPs who have missed no opportunity to tweet and brief against the party’s elected leader over the last 10 months will find that their disloyalty finds no favour with party members and will make this an increasingly difficult line to hold.
- This piece first appeared in the Guardian on Sunday (June 26)