Keir Starmer was right to expel Neal Lawson
The news that Neal Lawson, the chair of the centre-left pressure group Compass, faces expulsion from the Labour Party has raised hackles among many concerned about an increasingly authoritarian approach to party management under the leadership of Keir Starmer.
I have previously written about how Starmer’s manoeuvres to block Left-wing candidates and expel his predecessor from the party go further than any previous Labour leader. The excessive use of the party’s “due diligence” process to ensure a phalanx of Starmer loyalists in the next Parliament will do Labour no favours in the long run. It is imperative that Labour embraces a spirit of ecumenicalism within the party, in keeping with its “broad church” tradition.
Lawson’s expulsion, however, is different. The think tank director has not advocated pluralism within Labour but, rather, through pacts between and with opposition parties. His apparent crime is that he tweeted approvingly of a deal between the Greens and Lib Dems in Oxford to turf out incumbent Labour councillors. The move succeeded and, consequently, a long-serving Labour councillor was narrowly defeated in Osney ward by a Green candidate last year. Frankly, this is legitimate grounds for expulsion from the party. While Labour members should be able to disagree among themselves, support for the party electorally, at every level, should be a basic expectation of membership.
A longtime advocate for a “progressive alliance”, Lawson has called for Labour to do deals with the SNP, a party whose core mission is the destruction of the country Starmer proposes to lead. In Mid-Bedfordshire, where polls show Labour on course to win the historically Conservative seat, Lawson recently instructed his party to “get out of the way by standing the thinnest of paper candidates” and hand the fight to the Lib Dems, currently polling fourth in the seat. Last month, he eulogised the Green MP Caroline Lucas as “the best prime minister we never had”.
Lawson makes the fundamental error in seeing the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens, and Labour as varying shades of the same so-called “progressive alliance” against the Conservatives. Really, these parties’ interests are entirely different from Labour’s. Their anti-development, anti-growth, anti-trade union, and (in the SNP’s case) anti-UK politics run diametrically against the kinds of politics for which the Labour Party stands.
Practically, these parties need Labour more than Labour needs them. For Starmer’s party to do what Lawson wishes — effectively to give up on competing electorally in large parts of the country — involves the kind of politics only contemplated in a position of extreme weakness. The Labour Party, blessed by both its historic strength in the electorate and an electoral system which is favourable to it, can form a majority government. Since Labour first overtook the Liberals to become the Official Opposition in 1922, it has been the only non-Conservative party in such a position. This would be foolish to squander.
One of Lawson’s defenders this week was the Labour MP Jon Cruddas. The MP for Dagenham is one of the party’s few intellectuals and will be missed when he retires at the next election. However, his intervention this week was misplaced. Cruddas, who is writing a book about the first Labour government of 1924, argues that “Labour was created as an alliance of interests and traditions to oppose the Tories”, emphasising that Keir Hardie stood in West Ham in 1892 with Liberal support.
This is true, but it is a rather partial rendering of the history, especially for someone writing about Labour in the 1920s. Although the very early labour movement relied partly on Liberal compliance to make its first electoral breakthroughs, the Labour Party soon decided that it needed to carve its own distinctive path and put an end to these pacts.
Labour recognised that it needed to defeat the Liberals, as much as it did Conservatives, if it wanted to win power. David Lloyd George, after all, had been propped up in office by the Conservative Party from 1918-22. The Liberals were no natural friends of Labour and liberalism was a separate political tradition, not one interchangeable with socialism and trade union power. This remains as true today as it was a century ago.
The Labour Cabinet minister Peter Shore once said that the Labour Party holds the “title deeds” to democratic socialism in Britain. There is responsibility on Starmer and his inner circle to protect this position by embracing a spirit of pluralism within the party. However, this should not extend to tolerating members who advocate for the defeat of Labour candidates and celebrate opposition parties.