David Blunkett: Democracy at stake in struggle for Labour’s future

David Blunkett said he was "in despair" about the "calamitous" situation as Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected as Labour Party leader.
David Blunkett said he was "in despair" about the "calamitous" situation as Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected as Labour Party leader.
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TODAY is D-Day for the Labour Party. The day the final figures are announced for the leadership contest between Jeremy Corbyn and his challenger Owen Smith.

This is, however, a matter of concern for all those committed to a vibrant and working parliamentary democracy. Underpinned by participation but driven by an understanding of who makes the decisions and for whom.

In the days ahead, it will be critical to avoid knee-jerk reactions. No frenetic pronouncements or ill thought through resolutions. Instead, a time to reflect to think through the implications of the outcome and above all to recognise that we are not just talking about the future of the Labour Party or even of social democracy in this country, but of the operation of our Parliamentary democracy itself.

The outcome of the Labour leadership ballot, and the implications for British politics, is a concern for all those who hold democracy dear and want not just an effective opposition but a real choice for the electorate over who governs Britain.

In other words, this is a moment which should concern all right-thinking people and not just an internal battle inside the Labour Party.

This is not a matter of the Parliamentary Labour Party versus extra parliamentary activity sometimes described as “social movement”. Whoever wins, the existence of the organisation Momentum will remain a reality. The cult and personality, and also the pseudo-religious fervour that goes with it, will not have gone away.

Those who joined Labour not to embrace the broad church will not suddenly abandon their mission to overturn the constitutional imperative of the Labour Party and to win a majority of the British electorate.

There will be, whatever the result, the continuing and extremely disturbing matter of intimidation. Intimidation in person, and significantly on-line. The communication of the same resolutions, the same tweets, the same messages when retweeting, the formulaic approach to top down communication which has been administratively impressive.

New disciples, like the once respected Paul Mason, once of Channel Four News and Newsnight, is instructive in this process. All the pent up contempt for the achievements of Labour from 1997-2010 cascades outwards and is retweeted from articles and blogs.

Anyone with any disagreement is described as a “neo-Liberal” used as a term of abuse to describe what they see as those who have completely sold out to globalisation, market economics and by implication the Tories.

Better in their view to have a Tory government to oppose than to have a Labour government managing the compromises necessary to get elected and to negotiate the minefield of using limited power of national government in a trans-national world.

For it is blindingly obvious that you can’t be in government and in opposition at the same time in the real world. That is why Jeremy Corbyn and the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell were happy to be in opposition, whether against a Labour or a Conservative government.

After all, social movements have historically been about the disadvantaged and dispossessed, the discriminated against and the powerless creating a changed environment in which those who are engaged with the political process will bring about that change. Only in revolutionary situations has the existing architecture of political decision-making been overturned. We are not in a revolutionary phase and the Labour Party is not, or has not been, merely a social movement.

The trade union movement in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries constituted a substantial social movement but they understood better than most the importance of gaining a foothold in the political and constitutional framework and making it work to bring about positive change.

The way in which the present day trade union movement, with some exceptions, has disengaged from its historic role is bewildering.

On behalf of their members, the leadership of unions such as Unite and Unison, of which I remain a member, carry a considerable burden of responsibility for what happens in the weeks and months ahead.

So what is meant by a “clean slate”? If it meant removing the threat to Labour MPs and finding a formula what would allow stability and security in the light of boundary changes, this would go a long way to allowing some sort of peace to break out.

The chances of this are minuscule. It is not only that the Corbynistas want to replace what they see as the “old guard”, but that they actually blame Labour MPs for any drop in the opinion polls. In simple terms, when the polls drop, when by-elections at local level are lost as they were in Sheffield earlier this month, it is not the fault of the leader but rather those who have undermined him. Never mind that his constant attacks on Tony Blair were seen as “principled” and the opposition to Jeremy by sitting MPs is seen as “betrayal”, none of this has any resonance whatsoever with the zealots.

It would suit some to split the Labour Party. Those of us who have been members for over half a century, and therefore have some memory going back further than a year last May, are all too painfully aware of the danger of making the wrong decision for the right reasons. I am old enough to have known people whose lives, family and friendships were broken up in 1931 with the creation of the so-called National Government.

All of us know people who were part of the creation of the Social Democratic Party which then merged to become part of the Liberal Democrats. Those with an ounce of political understanding, grasp of history and appreciation of why the Conservatives have been so successful at holding on to power and appreciate the need for caution and careful deliberation.

To get this wrong would lead to consequences way beyond the falling out of political friends or the demise of a once great political party. The future of Labour is as much about the checks and balances of a functioning democracy as it is about avoiding one party hegemony. The question for us all is this: Is a workable compromise a genuine option?

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former Sheffield MP. He held three Cabinet posts in Tony Blair’s government.