Chris Williamson, Labour MP for Derby North and amongst Corbyn’s biggest supporters, is one of the major cheerleaders for the mandatory re-selection of all sitting Labour MPs as well as deselection of MPs critical of the leadership. He is now apparently under threat of being deselected by his own CLP. This is most likely a direct result of Williamson trying to cut the unions out of the whole process, which has gone down rather badly.
It is easy to enjoy the schadenfreude involved in this news. But watchers of the Labour Party should note that something very serious lies underneath all this, something I saw at Labour conference that wasn’t widely reported on: the fraying of the very basis of the Labour Party itself. For over a hundred years the party has managed to keep a big tent together; middle-class Marxists and working-class trade unionists have managed to put their differences to one side enough to keep the show on the road. Now, that really does seem to be coming apart. Deselections are one way that split could run out of control pretty quickly.
The fact that the hard left and the unions should clash is not much of a surprise to anyone familiar with the cultures in question here. I recall several years ago walking into Unite HQ with someone I worked with having drawn up an “alternative to Trident plan” that they wanted to discuss. We soon enough found ourselves being verbally attacked by guys who very were much interested in preserving the nuclear deterrent just as it was, thank you very much. Not just because of the union jobs on the line, but because they saw it as a patriotic duty to stand up for Britain’s place as a nuclear power. Not enough is made of this: the political gap between middle-class lefties, with their cosmopolitan tastes and dream of a stateless world and the working-class patriotic, socially conservative trade unionists might actually be the biggest in the entire country. It would be hard enough to keep them under the same tent even if you weren’t jumping all over the fissure – which is precisely what the hard left have done. For early results, watch what happens in Derby North.
The idea of re-selections/deselections of sitting Labour MPs started off as a relatively easy to understand concept: purge the party of those not on the hard left or at least willing to be subservient to the hard left. It has led to some strange places already, the Williamson issue being the latest and most unexpected. It won’t be the last or the weirdest though, that I feel confident of. All of this matters a lot to the Labour Party’s fortunes: assuming that the Tories being in disarray will lead to a Labour government has led to failure many, many times in the past. You only have to go back to 2015 for the most recent example.