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Longing for Lavery: From the Labour Party to the Party of Labour

With Jeremy Corbyn stepping down as leader of the Labour Party, and deputy leader Tom Watson resigning, the biggest question facing the party is how will take its top two jobs and lead its renewal after the recent election defeat? Here, Philip Proudfoot and Ashok Kumar argue that only by having Ian Lavery as deputy leader can Labour win back the North.

Ashok Kumar, Philip Proudfoot20 December 2019

Longing for Lavery: From the Labour Party to the Party of Labour

The evidence is clear. The Labour Party – once the party of the working class – is now seen as the party of the establishment. For many of us, the driving force behind that shift is blindingly obvious: we told 17.4 million people to get lost. What they heard from our party is that – in our supposedly democratic society – some voters count, and others don’t. It is surely time to heed a clear and simple warning: “ignore democracy at your peril.” We believe that the man who made that remark must become our new deputy leader. His name: Ian Lavery.

Lavery has remained loyal to the transformative policies of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, all while warning that the party must respect the decision of the people. In the minds of the many, Brexit became not just a referendum on the European Union but a referendum on the state of our democracy. And the people found it lacking.

Lavery gets that anger. He understands better than most that when people walked into the polling station, on 23 June 2016, many for the first time in their lives, they did not vote for ‘more of the same,’ but for ‘radical change.’ In 2019, when those communities felt they were being told to think again, we left them hurt and betrayed.

If you doubt this then why, out of 54 seats, did we give 51 away in areas that overwhelmingly voted to leave? Our manifesto should have been sold as a vision of what a labour leave can look like: investment in our public services, decent wages, better transport, a green industrial revolution and, yes, even free broadband. But rather than hope for the future all people heard was “no, sorry, you made a mistake.”

This is the situation we now face and there is no getting around it. We cannot allow a vocal remain candidate – backed by whatever remnants remain of the People’s Vote Brigade – anywhere near the leadership. It is time for a woman to lead the Labour Party, but we also need Ian’s voice echoing across the dispatch box. For the battles to come we need a fighter with fire in their belly. And so we ask Ian: please run for deputy. 

If Boris Johnson foolishly thinks he can represent the people of Sedgefield, North West Durham, and Blyth Valley, why don’t we put that to the test? Let’s place the strongest defender of those communities’ front and centre of our party.

Ian was born and raised in Wansbeck, the seat he now represents. A former miner, he rose through the ranks of his union and the party on the basis of his sharp intellect and sheer force of personality. What better spectacle than a working-class ex-miner speaking truth to a gaggle of upper-class Etonians and millionaire financiers. The contradictions could not be clearer. Each and every time Boris and his ilk chortle at Ian, it will be the establishment laughing back at us.

We already have a preview of things to come in that memorable 2017 confrontation between Lavery and de Pfeffel Johnson, with our man bellowing at the posh buffoon “ya divvint understand ordinary people!” and “you’ve never been to a food bank!” In 2015, Ian defied Harriet Harman’s whip and voted against welfare cuts, while others suggesting a run at leadership complied willingly.

But won’t the press barons come for Ian?

Of course they will. They came for Jeremy Corbyn, one of the kindest jam-making humans anyone can imagine. And they dog-whistled around Dianne Abbott, precisely because she is a black woman leading the fight for racial equality and social justice. The intensity of the demonization they faced in the press, if it teaches us anything, it is that a radical agenda for economic equality terrifies the beneficiaries of the status quo.    

The Labour Party’s message of hope and solidarity is more urgent now than ever before. But, we face the troubling re-emergence of a tendency within the party many thought long buried. It calls itself ‘Blue Labour.’ And what it stands for is economic nationalism and social conservatism. As a movement it forwards a wholly inaccurate and performed version of working-class culture, it paints the North as an unchanging landscape peopled with racists and homophobes. Ian is neither. In the grand tradition of Dennis Skinner, he understands that the working class contains multitudes – people of colour, LGBT+ communities, migrants, and asylum seekers.

We do not win on culture. Look no further than 2010 when the socially conservative approach deployed by Gordon Brown resulted in a 29% vote share for Labour. We win when we highlight what binds us not what divides us. It is certainly true that the labour party is a big tent and we must unite and shelter all our constituents from the coming storm. That includes rural, urban, northern, and southern workers alike. When our movement splits, they win.

Other formally lifeless tendencies within the Labour movement are also reanimating. Not least “the third way” via Tony Blair. This too is a dead end. This ideology attempted to synthesise left and right. It prioritised the City of London over the streets of Bolsover. And under Blair’s leadership it dragged our country into wars that have destabilised the Middle East and resulted in untold numbers of deaths and levels of misery.

Parties that adopted this strategy have now all but collapsed in Western Europe. Fence sitting is the path to electoral oblivion. The Labour Party, precisely because we changed direction and adopted a vision of a more equal society, has become the largest political party in Western Europe. Going forward into the dark years of Tory rule this membership base must be nurtured and mobilised. We need to be present in the communities Boris Johnson will seek to destroy. The Labour Party must become a genuine social movement. 

What we need now is, as Ian wrote, “not more conservatism or more liberalism; it is more socialism, a socialism that revives the spirit of solidarity and community.”

True, we lost the election but the battle for the soul of the Labour party is about to begin.

Philip Proudfoot is an anthropologist and LGBT rights campaigner from County Durham

Ashok Kumar is a political economist living in London and is the author ‘Monopsony Capitalism’ (CUP)

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Filed under: uk-general-election-2019, uk-politics