The media seem to be omitting a few important details from their story about Tony Blair refusing to support moves for Jeremy Corbyn to be deselected as a Labour Party candidate, when he was prime minister in 2004.
Baroness Hilary Armstrong, who served as Chief Whip for Mr Blair from 2001-6, has said party members from Mr Corbyn’s Islington North constituency expressed their dissatisfaction with Mr Corbyn’s opposition to some New Labour policies, and suggested that they should try to deselect him.
But she said Mr Blair ruled out the idea, taking the view that the party was “a broad church” and could “tolerate that level of difference”.
He was right – but in a situation that is a far cry from recent rebellions against Mr Corbyn.
Before I explain that, we need to set the record straight.
Baroness Armstrong said Islington North constituents asked for support in deselecting Mr Corbyn, and maybe they did.
We know that she then planned “show trials” for six MPs who were considered serially-disloyal to Mr Blair (not – please note – to the ideals of the Labour Party, as established in more than a century of its prior history), in March 2004.
They were Bob Marshall-Andrews, who by then had voted against the party whip 51 times since the 2001 election; John McDonnell, with 79 votes against; Jeremy Corbyn, 87; Lynne Jones, 57; Diane Abbott 36; and Mike Wood, 25. Lynne Jones is now a member of my local Constituency Labour Party, and I have asked her for her thoughts on the matter.
Mr Blair was quoted at the time as claiming that the six MPs, including Mr Corbyn were part of an “auld alliance” with the Conservatives to defeat Labour governments. In hindsight, this is absurd.
And it casts doubt upon the claim that Mr Blair supported Mr Corbyn at the time. How does this comment square with the Guardian‘s claim that Mr Blair was a “secret benefactor” of Mr Corbyn?
The Telegraph article, quoted above, also claims that “loyal” MPs had complained that their constituents wanted to know why others had been able to rebel and get away with it – which indicates that there was grassroots opposition to Mr Blair’s direction and dissatisfaction with other MPs who had chosen to toe the Blairite line.
In that context, Mr Blair’s response makes sense: With a large Parliamentary majority, Labour could indeed “tolerate that level of difference”.
And, coming back to my point about the current situation being a far cry from 2004, there was no organised attempt to topple the then-Labour leadership. Mr Corbyn’s rebellions, and those of the others, were intended to be democratically-expressed disagreements – no more than that.
Current calls for MPs to face reselection procedures, in which they must justify their candidacy to constituency party members before their names are submitted to Labour’s National Executive Committee for approval, are being made in the wake of an attempted coup against Mr Corbyn, along with countless efforts to undermine his leadership by briefing the press against him.
Baroness Armstrong’s comments, as reported, make it seem that she immediately told the anti-Corbyn Islington constituents that Mr Blair opposed their idea. The Torygraph news report suggests that she prepared detailed plans for the removal of serial rebels before Mr Blair shut her down – and that puts a different complexion on the story.
It seems clear that Tony Blair considered deselecting Mr Corbyn, but opted against it for the sake of party unity. That is a lesson that Baroness Armstrong would do well to learn now.
Her claim that Mr Corbyn should reflect on the fact that Mr Blair supported him, and offer his own clemency to MPs who have rebelled against him, is bizarrely ignorant of the facts.
Mr Corbyn has offered these people the hand of friendship on many occasions, only for them to spit on it. For many in the Labour Party, enough is enough.
The “broad church” argument applies in both directions. If right-wing Labour MPs cannot support the party’s current direction without actively conspiring against it, they should reconsider their desire to sit as MPs representing it.
There are other arguments to support sitting MPs maintaining their claim to a seat in Parliament automatically. Most commonly quoted is the claim that they have a personal mandate from the electorate at large, that should justify their demand for the constituency party to support them, no matter what members’ own opinions might be.
That is clearly nonsense. It has been revealed – recently – that only around six per cent of voters support any Labour MP on a personal level. The vast majority vote for parties and policies, rather than individual people (apart from, ironically, Jeremy Corbyn).
And why should Labour members who don’t support an MP/candidate have to put their resources behind such a person in any case? Surely, if a candidate believes they deserve their place because of the wider electorate, they can rely on the wider electorate to help them campaign?
No. Of course it doesn’t happen that way.
A BBC article quotes Baroness Armstrong as saying, “I know MPs where basically there is a process of harassment, where at every meeting they are criticised, they are challenged, they are told that they don’t represent the people in the room. And all this is meant to do is grind them down, is wear them down, and get them to believe they shouldn’t be in the Labour party any more.”
That seems a mind-bogglingly ignorant comment. Does this Lady not recall, at one meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party after another, right-wing MPs criticising Jeremy Corbyn, challenging him, telling him his leadership did not represent the people in the room? This happened even though he very clearly did represent the vast majority of the wider party membership – the grassroots. Clearly these MPs did not think other members’ views count at all, which is another strong argument for those members to have a stronger say in the selection of their representatives.
What was this intended to do, if not grind down Mr Corbyn, and get him to believe he shouldn’t be leader of the Labour Party any more?
In short, this claim by Baroness Armstrong is extremely hypocritical. Perhaps she did not take party in the bullying but she knows it happened.
Also hypocritical is her comment, in The Guardian about Mr Corbyn leading a “narrow sectarian faction” of the Labour Party.
She said: “The real issue is, can you make sure that sectarianism doesn’t rule? And at the moment, in some areas, it is ruling. Jeremy has the opportunity over the summer and at party conference to make it absolutely clear that he is not going to lead a narrow sectarian faction, he’s going to lead a broad church that is tolerant. And the real test for Jeremy is, is he up to it?”
The real fact is that Mr Corbyn is not leading a “narrow sectarian faction”. He leads with the support of the vast majority of a Labour Party that has expanded massively under him – to something like three times its size before he took over.
The “narrow sectarian faction” is the group of MPs who are still trying to fight Mr Corbyn; still briefing against him; still voting against the party whip. Judging by her words, it includes Baroness Armstrong.
Her intervention is an attempt to tell the wider Labour membership: Do as we say – not as we do. And that is unacceptable.
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