Labour needs to Forge a New Consensus within the Party and Country

I am a Labour member living in Hungary but still able to participate in the party through Labour International, a constituency Labour Party set up for members living abroad. I have watched from a distance with astonishment the current tailspin the UK economy is in, induced by the incompetence of the Truss premiership but more generally the arrogance of the neoliberal right that felt tax cuts for the rich could be balanced with increasing debt and hardship for the most vulnerable.

It has been the same hard right clique that has clamoured for a hard Brexit and brought the UK’s relations with Europe perilously close to a serious rupture by challenging the validity of earlier trade agreements reached with the EU.

The poll leads that Labour currently enjoys are staggering, and the possibility of a Labour victory under Keir Starmer looks probable. However, the Tories still have potentially two years in which they could hang on, and no doubt they will fight dirty or try to remarket themselves to save their skins. Labour is in a much better position than it was a few years ago, when it appeared divided and riven by factionalism.

In many local parties, it seems factions have been able to put differences aside and find a sense of unity because of the overwhelming importance of ejecting this Tory government. Many constituency Labour parties are coming to grips with the uncomfortable truths of the Forde Inquiry, set up in response to allegations that the Party has failed to deal appropriately with accusations relating to antisemitism, and by extension other forms of racism and offensive or inappropriate behaviour.

Tackling serious problems

The Forde report argues that the outrage rightly directed in recent years at the scourge of antisemitism should also be matched by equally strong measures against all forms of discrimination, within party workplaces as well as within the membership. The leadership has apologised to all affected by the issues raised in the Forde report and the national executive committee is deliberating on how the Party should further respond to the report.

Some have dismissed the relevance of the Forde report arguing that all these things happened under a different leader and things are different now but we should not forget that the report reveals appalling behaviour from factional groups on both the Left and Right of the Labour Party.

Open Labour argues that the Forde report is an important opportunity for serious self-reflection, so that we can get our own house in order, rather than continue to allow internal crises to threaten to implode our party and rupture the labour movement. We have called for an updated Code of Conduct, a wider programme of anti-racism training and education, staff diversity audits and targets. New measures such as those proposed by the Labour North Black, Asian Minority Ethnic Network calling for regional executive committees to devise tailored plans for their region to tackle all forms of institutional and systemic racism could assist.

It should also be noted that in the apology the Party issued in the wake of the Forde report there was a pledge to establish new ways of tackling the problems it highlights. These include an independent complaints process (to ensure that complaints involving all protected characteristics will be decided impartially, fairly and rationally), a new code of conduct on Afrophobia and anti-Black racism, and the creation of a diversity and inclusion board with union and staff networks (chaired by the General Secretary), with a work plan in place and has appointed an external expert to support the board.

All of these measures will be of great value in re-establishing Labour’s record as a champion of anti-racism and anti-discrimination that sadly was tarnished by the antisemitism and other discriminatory behaviour highlighted by Forde.

However, beyond these institutional measures the membership will need to look at itself and ask how we can nurture more fraternal and comradely relations that avoid the hyper factionalism and polarization of recent years, the different strands and traditions of the Party need to find a way to work together more. This will require patience and trust building.

On one side some will need to come to accept that to demonstrate a tough line on antisemitism that tough actions were needed and proscribing groups that claimed accusations of antisemitism were exaggerated or engineered by Israel to discredit Labour were merited and justifiable. The Forde report also makes us realise that in other areas unacceptable levels of discriminatory behaviour have been displayed within the Party, including its bureaucracy, and that there should be no hierarchy of discrimination, in other words all forms of discrimination must be robustly challenged.

Facing the country

Keir Starmer has done much to restore Labour’s credibility, and has been accused by some of being overly cautious. Starmer may well be right to place a strong emphasis on Labour appearing safe and trustworthy, and if we attain power in the short term we may have limited room for manoeuvre and the emphasis will rightly be on creating order and stability for the economy in particular.

Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, and her recent comments that referred to asylum seekers as an “invasion” indicate just how torrid and cruel British politics will become in the run up to the next election.

Labour must hold the moral high ground and stand firm against such hate fuelled campaigns. Labour frontbenchers will need to ensure they challenge rather than surf hysteria and prejudice directed at immigrants, transexuals and other highly demonised groups and do not buy into the politics of division and resentment that the Conservatives will generate to distract from their woeful record.

Despite the huge economic challenges facing the UK, many in the Labour Party hope and expect a Starmer led government will address the wider crisis facing the country as evidenced by the Tories drift into authoritarian populism and the stoking of culture war narratives, as reflected through their shameful policy on sending refugees to Rwanda and threats to sweep aside the UK’s commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights.

A Labour government will need to legislate to strengthen the checks and balances within the UK democratic system and make our democracy fairer and more balanced. In this sense Labour needs to reach out and forge a new consensus with other parties as to how our democracy functions and how we reach decisions, a more respectful, deliberative and consensual politics should be our aim, moving away from the orchestrated politics of division and extremes that the public are so deeply tired of and which has brought the UK to the pitiful state it is in today.

This new radical consensus that could construct popular support for democratic renewal, social justice and ultimately much closer relations with the European Union can only come about when the factions of the Labour Party themselves set an example and form an internal consensus and work together. I believe many members are and will move in this direction. I know in Hungary, my adopted home, that a weak and fractured centre-left opposition created a political vacuum over a decade ago that enabled Viktor Orbán to unleash a politics of radical right demagoguery in Hungary, the British Left has a chance to avoid the same fate happening to the UK, we must not fail.

Andrew Ryder is an academic based in Hungary, member of Open Labour and is the author of Britain and Europe at a Crossroads: The Politics of Anxiety and Transformation. Comment articles do not necessarily represent the opinion of Open Labour.

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