Our country faces dramatic times. It stands broken after a decade of austerity and 40 years of neoliberalism. To our monumental shame, a United Nations special rapporteur has described Britain as a “social calamity and an economic disaster” with half of our children born into poverty.
Our society has already had the stuffing knocked out of it. Another five years of Conservative government could fracture it in ways that would be hard to repair – and a Tory Brexit will only make things worse.
But prolonged Tory rule is the only likely consequence of any breakaway from the Labour Party as, according to the media, a handful of my colleagues are said to be contemplating.
It is imperative that at a time such as this that the Labour Party does not allow internal disputes to distract us from our goal of rebuilding and transforming Britain in a fairer and more equal mould.
Any splinter from the party at this crucial moment would cause potential damage to our country and the people who have been brutalised by Tory austerity since 2010.
Let us learn from history. The last breakaway from Labour, in the early 1980s, achieved nothing beyond ensuring three more victories for the Tories. The poorest and the most vulnerable paid the heaviest price for the self-indulgence of the “gang of four”, including in the mining communities I come from.
The SDP played no positive role at the time – and when its descendants finally entered government in 2010 it was only to help the Tories implement savage austerity.
As chair of the party I would urge those flirting with this idea in 2019 to think again. To quote Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
And I believe that, as in the 1980s, any splinter or breakaway would be supported by no affiliated trade unions or constituency parties. Any MP quitting the Party – all of whom stood on Labour’s manifesto at the last election and benefited from the largest surge in Labour support since 1945 under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership - would be almost certain to lose their seats at the next election.
But any splinter from Labour, however marginal, can only embolden a Tory Party being held hostage by its hard right and make the disaster of a no-deal Brexit more likely not less. Only the likes of Boris Johnson and Liam Fox would be cheering – it would untie their hands to impose their ideological fantasies unimpeded by a strong and united opposition.
In every family there are differences, and as long as there has been a Labour Party there have been opposing views, held together by a determination to build a more equal society. There has to be room for reasonable and respectful disagreement within the party. Labour is and will remain a coalition of different progressive views, from the parliamentary party down to local ward branches.
When Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party he promised to make the party more democratic. It is something that last year’s conference started to put into practice and something we should be immensely proud of.
After years of suspensions and special measures, all our constituency parties are back in action, working to elect a Labour government to transform the country. Our members are the lifeblood of our movement. They are the ones who pound the streets delivering leaflets, knocking doors and running street stalls. It is through these activists that we will elect a Labour government for the many, not the few – multi-millionaire funders of a new self-styled “centre” party will be nowhere to be seen.
The wealthy elite are using their cash to prop up a system they have done well out of, but which has let the people of this country down. People want change, not an establishment-backed party propping up a failing status quo.
I have no problem, as a Labour MP, with being held to account by the members who do the work to elect me. That is party democracy.
But there has to be tolerance and respect. No one, including MPs, should be bullied, least of all women members of parliament, some of whom, like Diane Abbott and Luciana Berger, have been subject to horrible abuse.
Very little of that comes from party members, but those members who do not express their opinions in a way consistent with the values of our movement should expect to be dealt with under our strengthened disciplinary processes – as they are being dealt with now.
The small minority of people expressing antisemitic views must and are being rooted out. We have a wider role to play in educating our party and the wider country about the evil of anti-Semitism, and I urge Jewish community organisations to join us in this work. More needs to be done.
It is unacceptable for either MPs or whole constituency parties to be subject to trial by social media, as happens too often in the current climate.
We all have a duty as members of the Labour family to be more tolerant and to listen to one another. We owe that to our suffering country.
A united party is the only way we will be able to make the changes our country needs, give our children better chances and stop a race-to-the-bottom Tory Brexit.
Unity is strength, but it must be unity for a purpose. I urge any MP thinking of leaving Labour to remember that, and stick with us – and stick by the people Labour exists to serve.
Ian Lavery is chair of the Labour Party and MP for Wansbeck