A chill wind is blowing fiercely through the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) right now. And its name is “reselection”.
If you doubted just how much of an impact the threat of trigger ballots would have on Labour MPs, you only have to have watched Ian Austin’s speech during a debate in the House of Commons last night, a debate called in order to attack the prime minister. But Austin, who resigned the Labour whip earlier this year, was focused on an entirely different target.
In an excoriating and passionate display, the Dudley North MP recited the significant occasions when his former party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, appeared to enjoy a less robust relationship with the rule of law than he currently espouses. From inviting suspected IRA terrorists into the Commons just days after that terrorist organisation had murdered five people in their beds at the Brighton Grand Hotel in 1984, to being arrested while taking part in a IRA demonstration against the trial of the man who actually planted the bomb, Corbyn’s record was laid out to the Commons in stark terms.
But as he broadened his attack to include shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who famously praised the IRA for using “bombs and bullets” to bring Britain to the negotiating table and who then wanted those same gunmen honoured, Austin was subjected to a significant series of heckles from a parliamentary colleague.
Liz McInnes has been the MP for Heywood and Middleton for five years and is generally regarded as quiet but moderate. She was presumed by colleagues to have voted with the majority of her colleagues against the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn during the infamous vote of confidence in June 2016. But last night she was Corbyn’s stoutest defender. “Why don’t you go and sit over there?” she shouted at Austin, pointing across the chamber.
What McInnes seemed to be saying is that because Austin objects to the use of violence against his political opponents, he does not belong on the Labour benches. Because he believes that political activists and democratically elected governments should be able to attend their party conferences without the threat of explosions while they sleep, he should go and sit with the Conservatives.
You don’t believe that IRA terrorists should be praised for their “armed struggle” or given honours to commemorate their actions? Then the Labour Party is not the place for you, McInnes seems to believe.
Even in today’s Labour Party, run by Corbyn and his acolytes and every day being shaped in their political image, that is a startling view. So startling, in fact, that I don’t believe McInnes actually believes it. I believe she was currying favour with her boss (sitting on the front bench just a few feet away) and the many supporters he has in every local constituency party in the country. I believe she was saying what her party leadership wanted to hear because that would find favour with activists that might otherwise remove her and replace her with a more Corbyn-friendly candidate.
The fact that no other Labour MP expressed support for the obvious truths Austin was espousing suggests that McInnes is not the only comrade determined to be helpful to the regime in return for another four or five years on the green benches.
And somehow this makes it even worse. Had McInnes really been a full-throated advocate of armed struggle, if she really did think the terrorism was in any way justified, if she thought that as well as being released from prison early, Provos should have been given knighthoods too, then at worst that would put her in the same category as McDonnell, Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott and Corbyn.
But how much worse is it, to what levels of cynicism must an individual fall, if she is declaring that her party should be free of IRA critics simply in order to make her life a bit more comfortable up in Manchester?
Although the ill-named “moderates” in the PLP will privately claim that the proximity of a general election is the only thing that stops them from criticising their party’s leadership, the start of a programme of trigger ballots – in which local activists and trade union officials decide if the local MP should have to go through a full, open selection in order to be a candidate at the next election – has surely concentrated minds. Democratic principles in opposition to political violence are all very well, but arguments in their defence will have to wait until after their political careers have been secured.
The irony is that the motion before the House last night, and the debate in which Austin spoke, was aimed at exposing Boris Johnson as having no respect for the rule of law. Austin was merely paraphrasing the Biblical command that, before pointing out the mote in your brother’s eye, first do something about the mote in your own.
The lesson from the Gospel of Matthew was about hypocrisy. How appropriate.