Now they’re all at it. Tory ‘I’m human, really’ flavour of the month Heidi Allen pops her head above the parapet to say that she is ashamed of the Tory’s grubby deal and suddenly every Blue Meanie and her or his dog is saying the public sector pay cap must be relaxed. First there is Philip Hammond, fresh from his post-election reprieve. Then it is Michael Gove, still shaking the soil from his shroud after rising from the political dead. Now, it is tousle-haired bluster boy Boris Johnson, undergoing his latest Damascene conversion. Most comically, we have self-appointed Conscience of the Nation, Sarah Wollaston saying we need a cross-party national conversation about health. In classic Goldilock terms she says we can’t be too fiscally tight, can’t be too fiscally loose and wants Labour to tie itself ideologically to a form of Tory-lite neo-Blairism. Labour’s front bench will quietly decline her soft-spoken, but dishonest entrapment strategy.
Why are we here? Quite simply, it is not because the Daughters and Sons of Austerity have suddenly discovered their consciences at the bottom of the sock drawer. It is because Labour made itself electable again on June 8th and because a buoyant leadership team exposed Tory contempt for ordinary people by pressing the vote on public sector pay. Shocked by the election result and wrong-footed by Labour’s parliamentary tactics, a section of the Tory party is now scrambling to position itself on Labour’s turf. The problem, of course, is that Labour is better at promoting the interests of public sector workers than the Tories and is far more likely to be the beneficiary of the current mood.
It is in this context surely, that we should see the ‘rebellion’ by 49 Labour MPs. When the public sector pay and Creasey amendments had thoroughly exposed the Tories, insisting on ‘membership of the single market and customs union’ instead of ‘fighting for the benefits of the single market and customs union’ gave the Tories’ succour. Such a fine line led Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, hardly central to the Corbyn project thus far, to criticise the rebels as inept.
Little wonder. There was little principle on show here. Some, who really should know better, thought this might defend migrant workers’ interests. Well hardly. Chuka Umunna is on the record saying he would give up freedom of movement to keep membership of the single market and would support regional immigration controls, measures that would surely result in grotesque chaos.
Labour and Tory have their respective problems with Brexit and the negotiations will test both parties, but it is the party in power most subject to pressure. Labour’s left leadership has every right, given the high stakes and the weakness of the Tories’ arrangement with the Democratic Unionists, to expect a degree of political nous from the Parliamentary Labour Party. Sadly, some sections of the party still seem obsessed with parliamentary moves calculated to undermine Corbyn and resistance to the democratisation of its procedures at its annual conference. Labour’s membership must be as active as possible both in CLPs, pursuing left policies and on the stump and in communities, unions and workplaces. We should not wait until the next election to engage with the public. The battle lines are already drawn.