In July this year, the Left of UK Politics was rightly impressed with Mhairi Black’s maiden speech to the House of Commons. One part of that which particularly resonated on social media was her reference to Tony Benn’s “weathercocks and signposts” (6:20 in her speech)
“In politics there are weathercocks and signposts – weathercocks will spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them, no matter what principle they may have to compromise.
And there are signposts, signposts which stand true and tall and principled.
Tony Benn was right when he said the only people worth remembering in politics were signposts.”
A round condemnation of MPs who vote according to whatever happens to be popular instead of what they believe to be right – and in particular a condemnation of those Labour MPs who abstained on key issues (as the party whip dictated).
Fast forward to the last few weeks, and many of those same people who celebrated Mhairi Black’s speech, who themselves shared Tony Benn’s words as an example of how an MP should be, are now condemning Labour MPs who disagree with Jeremy Corbyn on a number of divisive issues.
(most notably ISIS / Syria, and what our response should be)
This strikes me as hypocrisy of a rather extreme sort. Even more so when we remember just how incredibly rebellious Jeremy Corbyn himself was as a backbench MP.
For people who four months ago demanded that our MPs stand up and be counted to disparagingly label these MPs ‘Blairites’ and even ‘red Tories’ for doing just that – for, in a word, being signposts – shows a breathtaking lack of self-awareness.
Particularly as the chief argument for why these MPs should be forced to vote against their principles is “most members agree with Corbyn”. Isn’t that ‘being a weathercock’? That was a terrible crime in July.
Either you want our MPs to stand by their principles, or you don’t. It doesn’t magically become okay for them to lack a backbone when their principles clash with yours.
(and let’s be clear – military action is a very serious matter of conscience issue. It would be expected for this to be a free vote – for Corbyn to threaten a three-line whip for as long as he did & only allow the free vote under sufferance (following several threats of resignation) is not the ‘more democratic’ party we were promised – nor would it allow for the principled MPs that we all claimed we wanted back in July)
This is not an isolated example. It seems increasingly the case that anything other than full-throated obedience to Jeremy Corbyn and his exact political outlook will see one labelled a Tory, and start people crying for a ‘purge’ (not, I should point out, by senior aides in the party, but by those would label themselves Corbyn supporters)
This is not even vaguely approaching party democracy. This is a shouting down of dissent.
I’m firmly on the left of our party. If I had to vote on air strikes, I’d probably vote ‘no’ (although my position on military action is more complex). But this sort of totalitarian “you’re with Corbyn or against him” attitude that many of his supporters publicly express is astonishingly toxic, and it doesn’t belong in our party.
The Labour Party works only because it has members from across the spectrum of the left; our ‘broad church’ synthesises and moderates ideology (from the left and the right of the party) into policies which make us electable while still achieving our core goals.
Or at least, that’s what meant to happen. Talking of purging party members and MPs who don’t obey every command from on high is horrifyingly authoritarian – and frankly does not make me hopeful for what our party would look like if such attitudes became normal practice.
If your position is good enough, then you can persuade dissenters of its merits. If you have to deny them a voice then you’re half-way to admitting just how weak your argument is.
If you’re purging everyone who disagrees with you, if you’re demanding that all party members think and behave exactly the same way, and that any & all dissent be punished with exile from the party… then you don’t want (and have never wanted) ‘signpost’ MPs.
You want a politburo.
Edit: this post was originally written on the morning of the 30th, when Jeremy Corbyn had yet to concede on allowing the free vote on Syria. I have updated this post to reflect the change in party policy.