This is a story about Oxfordshire and also about political tunnel vision. In June 2023, Neal Lawson, former speech writer for Gordon Brown, Labour member for 44 years and founder of Compass, was threatened with expulsion from the Labour Party. Compass is a pluralist political movement that advocates cross-party co-operation to promote a change of government, proportional representation and progressive, non-adversarial politics for ‘the good society’.
So, what happened? In 2021, the Lib Dems stood down their candidate for the Oxford City ward of Osney and St Thomas to endorse the Green candidate. This Lib Dem gesture was a tactical move, unusually to prevent the Labour candidate from winning. Progressive cross-party co-operation more often targets Conservative candidates, an activity in which Labour has also participated.
Lawson responded to Layla Moran’s support for the Greens with a tweet saying “This is proper grown-up progressive politics”.
But in June 2023, Lawson received a ‘notice of allegation’ from Labour’s disciplinary body saying his tweet supported a non-Labour party and therefore broke the Labour rule that members cannot endorse parties other than Labour. Presumably the charge would hold even if the pact had been to oust a Conservative instead since the offence – endorsing a non-Labour party – remains the same.
Lawson’s threatened expulsion follows a recent run of diktats from the Labour executive. One prominent example is Jamie Driscoll, banned from re-standing as North of Tyne mayor for once sharing a platform with the Left-wing film director, Ken Loach. Meanwhile, in the 2023 local elections, the national executive barred Labour in Cherwell District Council, Oxfordshire, from forming an alliance with the Lib Dems and Greens, despite their collectively winning enough votes to oust the Conservatives.
Acts of self-harm
Decisions like these have caused widespread anger, but the charge against Lawson is a new low. Why? Firstly, the principle of cross-party co-operation (formal or informal) that Lawson advocates, would help Labour win. The principle can sound counter-intuitive, if not downright self-contradictory, where it embeds the idea that Labour sometimes needs to ‘lose in order to win’. Perhaps this is a paradox too far for some.
But it arises from the distortions of our first past the post voting system. To maximise the number of seats taken from the Conservatives, Labour, in some instances, needs to let another better-placed party win the seat. This co-operation increases Labour success overall by reducing the vote-splitting that preserves Conservative seats. So, whilst cross-party co-operation might challenge the Labour rulebook, it is a key strategic player in securing Labour victory. Hence, by threatening to expel Lawson, Labour is perversely attacking a champion of its own aims.
Lawson knows that the only hope for ‘the better society’ is a change of government. So, why would he want to undermine the prospects of the only party that can achieve this goal? He is on Labour’s side. They simply choose not to see it. And the Labour executive’s willingness to perform acts of self-harm isn’t confined to Lawson. Their ban in Cherwell, for example, meant that council control was handed back to the Conservatives.
If you are especially blinkered and unable to see the bigger picture, you might say “no matter what Neal’s ultimate intentions are, his tweet nevertheless endorsed a non-Labour candidate. And we can’t have that because ‘rule book says no’”. But is this all there is to it?
In his defence of Labour’s charge, Daniel Finkelstein tells us authoritatively that Lawson’s expulsion proceedings were triggered by his supporting “someone other than the Labour candidate … That is what has happened“.
But is it? Lawson pointed out that his tweet simply endorsed “the principle of progressive politics” (BBC Newsnight.) He wasn’t supporting a non-Labour candidate and also admitted that he “didn’t know” the pact was against Labour. Perhaps Lawson should have known, and perhaps he could be accused of tweeting without doing his homework. But it does clarify that his intention in the tweet was only to endorse a principle, without implying anything further.
If they come for me, who is safe?Neal Lawson
So, if the Labour executive pursues its expulsion, this is either because they choose, implausibly, to doubt Lawson’s honesty, or because they see the principle he’s endorsing as inimical to Labour values. Which is it?
Finkelstein implies that Labour’s underlying motive is the second one where he goes on to describe alliances as “an encumbrance” that would “weaken the party”, prevent it “controlling its message” and “risk the possibility of strong competition from the Left”. Finkelstein’s anxieties indicate that Labour isn’t simply ‘sticking to the rule book’ but performing a cull on pluralism.
Progressives have endured Labour’s recent cull of the Left, with varying degrees of unhappiness, because they recognise the rationale behind Labour cutting its association with a faction that lost the 2019 election so badly. But Lawson’s ‘crime’ here isn’t about being ‘too Left’; it’s about being a pluralist. As John McDonnell notes, Tony Blair’s premiership was characterised by tolerance and respect, not by mass expulsions. However, the pluralist call for cross-party co-operation is evidently being silenced because Labour is now dominated by a single “right wing faction drunk with power” who perceive the project as a threat to its hegemony.
Hypocrisy and gaslighting
Some defences of Labour’s charge against Lawson are simultaneously ridiculous and chilling. Director of Labour Together, Josh Simons, tells us soothingly that:
“It’s not a purge, just a way of getting people with talent, energy, vigour and commitment into parliament to serve us”.
This gaslighting isn’t persuasive since progressives like Lawson are some of the most talented, energetic and committed activists in Labour and therefore, according to Simons’ own reasoning, ought to be at the centre of the Labour conversation.
In 2022, when Labour was polling poorly they were happy to endorse cross-party co-operation. Now Labour is polling well, their executive has chosen to punish advocates of this approach because they presume it can now be safely jettisoned. As we near the general election and the polling gap between Labour and the Conservatives narrows, they may regret this isolationist stance.
Furthermore, Labour knows that many people will vote tactically at the next general election anyway, including for non-Labour parties, to get a change of government. So, Labour is quietly taking advantage of the benefits to themselves of endorsing other parties whilst publicly denouncing those who advocate it. Alastair Campbell, in The Rest Is Politics, gave the feeblest defence of Lawson but, in the same breath, said he plans to vote tactically at next election. If so, then he should fully support campaigners like Lawson who are putting themselves on the line to fight for a system where such voting games are no longer needed.
Time to change the wheel
Labour now, in a sense, has its own internal ‘winner takes all’ system. Historically, Labour was a coalition of groups working for a common purpose. But increasingly, it has become factionalised with centre, hard left, soft left, etc groups each grappling for control. Factionalism is now a deeply institutionalised part of Labour culture, generating perpetual macho fights for supremacy. Blair’s success afforded him a reprieve. But the current centre-right leadership is highly insecure, in desperate economic times, with a seriously rocky post-election road ahead. They know their current polling success isn’t a result of their leader’s charisma and policy vision but scrambled by default and luck from the ashes of the Conservatives’ reputational collapse.
Labour’s hyper-authoritarian moves signify an attempt to overcome its weaknesses by quashing dissent, not just from the Left, but from any outward-looking movement, however wise or well-intended. The “laser focus” Starmer continually reminds us of is partly about maintaining his nervous grip by sheer force, like the driver gripping the steering-wheel ever tighter to correct his wobbling tyres.
Labour, it seems, wants to continue a toxic, monistic political culture where it wins by the brute achievement of ‘conquering enemies’. It wants to hide meaningful areas of value-overlap between itself and other parties of the left and centre-left and instead present them as adversaries with hostile intentions. But swathes of expulsions of key Labour figures will deplete the strong, diverse base Labour needs to see it through difficult times ahead and also nurture an army of alienated activists, ready to come for Starmer when he stumbles.
If Labour expels Neal, appeals to the rule book will be their ‘go to’ excuse. But we should ‘think beyond’ this to the sorry picture of a paranoid party still doing politics the old, anti-democratic, self-defeating way. Rejecting pluralism is a weakness, not a strength. Labour should listen to their thinkers rather than expelling them. The party might then grasp how pluralist projects such as cross-party co-operation benefit us all and present a vital opportunity for Labour policy to change before it’s too late.