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From Jiri to Jerry

05/08/2016 13:02 | Updated 05 August 2016
Reuters Photographer / Reuters

British politics has undergone a sort of revolution in the past two months. The surprise Brexit vote was intended by many as a kick in the pants for an out of touch elite. Just keeping up with the news has been difficult and at times chaos has seemed close. It has produced a new Prime Minister and a government with a new set of problems and direction for its work. Meanwhile the Labour Party, in part responding to the same pressures from the differential impact of globalisation, is undergoing its own once in a generation struggle for its soul and direction.

This has reminded me of the winter of 1990 when I worked in the Czechoslovak Prime Minister's office following the Velvet Revolution. Vaclav Havel had been elected President and was in the Castle, but the old Communist order was still in many of the Ministers. To be young was "very heaven" and trendy idealism was mixed with downright chaos.

One of the key figures was the Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier, an exceptionally scruffy figure who couldn't appear on Czech TV without his tie askew or his hair unkempt. After the long years of the stuffy communist bureaucrats, the Czech people loved him. So when I saw crowds of young people cheering on Jeremy Corbyn (known to his close friends as Jerry) I could see why. He seems like a breath of fresh air.

But apart from a shared sartorial style I think Jiri and Jerry are quite different. I am increasingly worried by the cult of personality around Jeremy Corbyn. Some people seem to think with Jeremy Corbyn socialism is guaranteed; without him it is doomed.

Any fantasy that Jeremy Corbyn is some sort of dissident martyr hero is totally misplaced. Let's look at the facts.

Jiri Dienstbier worked as a radio journalist and his support for the Prague Spring saw him silenced; kicked out of his job; expelled from the Communist Party; imprisoned with Havel for three years and forced to work as a road sweeper for twenty.

Jeremy Corbyn has spent the last 30 years as a Labour MP - a stimulating, well-paid job, with ample opportunities for travel which he has taken up. Jeremy Corbyn has used the parliamentary privilege of free speech to the full - sometimes advocating for the victims of the tyrannical regimes in Latin America or the Middle East; sometimes appearing to give succour to terrorists like the IRA. Famously he rebelled over 500 times against the Labour government/whip, often voting with the Tories. And what happened as a result? Nothing. Was he kicked out of his comfortable job? No. Did the party hierarchy seek to have him deselected? No. On the contrary, MPs who didn't even share his views co-operated to give him a platform in the leadership election in 2015.

This context I think explains the fury many MPs feel when Jeremy Corbyn is buoyed and supported by people who routinely abuse MPs verbally, some of whom even threaten violence, which in the wake of Jo Cox's horrific murder cannot be ignored.

Loyalty is a two way street. And loyalty is not about individuals, it's about values and institutions.

Let's look at some other things with a greater call on our loyalty then loyalty to one person:

  • Loyalty to free speech - Jeremy Corbyn has been speaking freely for 30 years - so why the intolerance shown to colleagues now?

  • Loyalty to parliament - the most important institution in Britain guaranteeing citizens' rights against unaccountable power. It is now 110 years since the Labour Representation Committee was established and we chose the parliamentary road to socialism
  • Loyalty to our constituents who elect us and whose welfare must be our priority - six years ago there were no food banks in my constituency, today there are seven. I want to end this as fast as possible
  • Loyalty to the Labour Party, the working class, the broad mass of the British public who want and need Labour government.
  • Others have criticised Jeremy Corbyn's performance in the Chamber and competence as a team leader, but the thing I really don't understand is what his political strategy?

    Shifting the party to the left is understandable and on this he has succeeded; building a social movement like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain is understandable, but promoting conflict between the parliamentary party and the new members just does not make sense. It is wholly irrational.

    Here's why:

    Labour has been a coalition of social democrats and more left wing socialists throughout its history and sometimes we have scored tremendous successes. The governments of 1945; 1964 and 1997 all brought massive social reform. The split about which John McDonnell seems relaxed would crucify us at the polls because of the First Past the Post voting system. This is a crucial difference between Britain and Southern Europeans. In a system with Proportional Representation as they have, both groups can win seats and the coalition occurs subsequently and explicitly. This is what Robin Cook used to argue and it's why some of us in the PLP support Proportional Representation.

    But to promote a split in the party in the absence of constitutional reform is a kamikaze policy.

    Some around Jeremy Corbyn seem to think Labour MPs would lose their seats to Liberal Democrats or Greens. We wouldn't - we'd lose to Ukip. And I fail to see how having a group of 30-50 Ukip MPs will help in any way to bring social and economic progress to this country.

    I'm not a "Blairite" but I do want a leader who can win.

    Helen Goodman is the Labour MP for Bishop Auckland

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