When, a little over eighteen months ago, I moved from Brighton to Cardiff, I decided that I wouldn’t comment on Brighton and Hove politics any more; for all the attachements and friendships formed in my time as a Labour activist and council candidate in the city, the time had come to move on.
However, I have just seen this blog post from a member of the Brighton and Hove Labour Party, Daniel Harris, claiming that it is time for Council Leader Warren Morgan to step down. I think it’s worth commenting on, not because it says anything politically profound, but because it is deeply illustrative of so many of the problems facing the Labour Party today, and of the mindset that is damaging Labour so badly from within.
As a Labour council candidate I worked closely with Warren Morgan. I think it’s fair to say that we occupied different pews in Labour’s broad church; and, equally, that in the context of crafting policies for the city and campaigning to win the election, it just didn’t matter. Above all, the most important lesson I learned from Warren was, quite simply, don’t promise what you can’t deliver; a hugely important lesson against the background of a Green administration that had promised the earth, manifestly failed to deliver it, and had dissolved into brutal internal acrimony; an administration that was heartily despised across much of the city (especially the poorer areas most dependent on council services) because it appeared to prefer preaching and grandstanding to delivery. We all hoped – and worked for – a Labour victory in 2015; even had that happened, we knew that resources would have been tight. When we look at Labour’s record in Brighton and Hove, it is worth remembering that the Tory victory has led to the evisceration of local government finances; whether Daniel Harris likes it or not, that is the background.
The very first sentence of Harris’ piece tells us much of what we need to know: “Having been a member of the Labour Party for well over a year now…” Harris goes on to describe how he was inspired to join by Jeremy Corbyn’s vision. In other words, this is not one of the footsoldiers who slogged their way around the streets of Brighton and Hove to deliver a Labour victory; who spent day after day listening to the concerns of residents, and who, incidentally, took earfuls of abuse from affluent Green Party members and supporters who called us child murderers and warmongers while describing 40% child poverty in Warren’s East Brighton as “on target” and the use of foodbanks of a “lifestyle choice”.
At this point, the mythmaking begins. The lines are those of pure Corbynism; the largest political party in Europe – no mention of the humiliating opinion poll figures, the disastrous local by-election performances, the chaotic absence of leadership. The point is illustrated by the extraordinary claim that by backing Brexit, Corbyn has taken the fight to the Tories. As I have argued before, Corbyn’s position on Europe – that of not opposiing Article 50 – is just giving the Tories a free run. In recent days, the resignation of Britain’s Permanent Representative to the EU has shown that Brexit policy is in tatters; yet Corbyn has not just been out of the headlines, he’s been out of the country, apparently on holiday. Labour has had nothing to say. Is that what Daniel Harris regards as opposing the Tories?
Harris goes on to mention Warren’s membership of Progress. Now I am no sympathiser with Progress, whose economic position has in my view been badly overtaken by events, but, as I mentioned, Labour is a broad church. Harris says that as a Progress member, Warren’s views contradict his local party and his national leader. But what of the views of the people who elected him and his team? Harris’ position seems to be all at one with the Leninist model of Party structure that is currently being deployed by the ultra-left within Momentum; a group that is even describing Jon Lansman as Blairite. When Harris talks about a council that works for “us” we are entitled to ask who “we” is, and whether that “we” is actually a party structure whose discipline is rigorous and founded on a belief that ordinary electors are not capable of speaking for themselves. And one has to ask – in what way are such beliefs compatible with Clause 1 of the Labour Party constitution that talks about maintaining a Parliamentary road to social democracy, which in turn involves building popular support, not hiding in ideological bunkers? There is rich paradox in that much of Momentum adopts a Leninist approach to party organisation, without realising the extent to which Lenin’s description of left-wing Communism as “an infantile disorder” applies so precisely to them.
Finally, the old nostrum about opposing all cuts. How? Successive Green administrations played the game of flirting with illegal budgets; as I argued at the time, these games had nothing to do with progressive politics, as they would mean that decisions would be taken by Whitehall commissioners without any democratic accountability, and would inevitably hit the poorest hardest. Are the Momentum Left in Brighton still running these tired, disreputable arguments, which were decisively rejected by Brighton and Hove voters at the ballot box in 2015? Even Jeremy Corbyn, in a rare moment of political realism, has come out against setting illegal budgets. And the trouble with the quasi-Trotskyite politics of transitional demands is that it always involves hurting the poorest and most vulnerable as its collateral damage.
Warren Morgan should stay because – unlike the Corbyn insurgents who briefly controlled the Brighton and Hove Labour party – he and his party were elected on a manifesto that clearly recognised that there were limits to what they could do, and that hard choices had to be made. Warren should stay because he has always worked tirelessly in what he regards as the best interests of his home City. Warren should stay because, although the Tory cuts inevitably hurt, his way is the only way of mitigating the impacts; and because the alternatives will simply damage the people who need a Labour most. You do not house, educate and support the vulnerable by chanting warmed-over 1980s slogans. A better way is needed, and that way is Warren Morgan’s.