It’s been a tumultuous period for our country and our party too. I want to write to you directly at this crucial time about some of these issues and also explain why I supported the motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn last week. I’m sorry this is a long note but I want you to have a full account.
Firstly though, can I thank you all for the extraordinary kindness that was shown in the period following the murder of Jo Cox. Jo was a friend and many of you were very kindly in touch to offer condolences and to express your own shock. When the time is right I will be in touch with Brendon, Jo’s husband, on behalf of us all here in Hove and Portslade to offer our thoughts and support.
The referendum result has also left me numb. I’ve been an aid worker, academic, and set up a local business that trades across the continent so I didn’t need to read the overwhelming evidence that said we’d be better on in the EU – I already knew it in my bones from first hand experience.
I was disappointed by the Commons statement last Monday, by the prime minister and, indeed, the response of the House overall. Cameron has given up on the job already and seems disinterested in any of the options that could be taken now to ensure that parliament does its duty to ensure what is in the best interests of our nation whilst at the same time respecting the vote.
Despite all of the other issues raging at this time I have spend considerable time understanding the process of leaving the EU and what practical ways forward there are to bring influence to bear before something irrevocable is done that our nation will regret for generations.
I spoke three times in the Commons last week to point out the gaping uncertainties we face and to offer the prime minister a way forward by allowing the House to debate the ‘terms’ by which the government will begin negotiations with the EU. This will be a key moment because we will be able to see for the first time what government believes is deliverable as opposed to the promises made by the Leave campaign. If these are vastly different then it is incumbent on parliament to take action, to hold relevant people to account, and gauge the mood of the country before allowing government to invoke ‘Article 50’ from which there is no return. I am working tirelessly on this and doing all I can to build support for this approach within the PLP and beyond. My worry is that we are currently embarking on a journey without knowing the destination, and this simply cannot be in the best interests of our community, country, or continent.
I also write to explain my position on the leadership of our party and why I cast a vote of ‘no confidence’ in Jeremy last week.
The first thing I’d like to say is that this was not ideological from my perspective.
Leaders inspire us as the extraordinary individuals that they are, but above all for me it has always been about their ability to deliver a winning vision for Britain and the world. We in the Labour Party have learned at our peril that when we are called to be loyal to a person rather than a winning vision we risk factionalism, division, and failure.
I have spoken out a couple of times in the spirit of the open debate that Jeremy called for when I felt we are drifting away from the purpose of delivering the change our country needs. But I have always maintained amicable relations with Jeremy in person and fought harder than most for Labour, both in my Hove campaign and every week since.
In the last leadership election Jeremy scored a thumping victory which I of course accepted. As I said at the time, I wanted to give Jeremy the time and space to set his stall out and demonstrate his ability to broaden our appeal way beyond our 2015 base which was one of the lowest points in our history.
In recent months I have become increasingly concerned that this has not come to pass. My experience in frontline politics has taught me not to believe one source, but to balance the evidence of how voters are responding. I do read the polling and speak to pollsters just like I read all the correspondence I receive. I hear what experts, academics, and pundits are saying. But paramount is what residents tell me as I canvass, go to community events, and speak to people in the street.
All of this evidence combined leads me to the very firm conviction that rather than advancing on our 2015 position, we are slipping yet further.
If this were our only problem then I would continue to fight for Labour in public, as I do unremittingly, and keep on voicing my deep concerns directly and discreetly to Jeremy and our front bench team in private. However, underlying our overall poor performance I have come to see that Jeremy lacks the core skills MPs, the party, and the country at large needs from someone in such a senior leadership position. In my opinion there is no hope of these skills being acquired fast enough to fill the desperate need that exists for them. I am very keen to stress again that I acted as I did on issues relating to competence, not ideology.
As a backbench departmental chair I meet with Jeremy to discuss policy. As the only Labour MP in the area I’ve spent time with him to discuss issues affecting the southeast and I also attend the weekly PLP meeting where all Labour MP’s and peers come together, at which Jeremy has spoken on occasion.
As time has passed I have become increasingly concerned at the lack of core leadership skills exhibited by Jeremy during these meetings. In several meetings Jeremy has been unable to offer me even basic leadership on key issues that affect us and that I need to communicate with the public and media about very often in my role as member of parliament. Desperate as I am to ensure a united Labour front, I have on occasion been forced to speak publicly without any idea of the leader’s approach to an issue. Sometimes this has been despite having asked him for guidance directly the previous day but for nothing at all to be forthcoming. It is simply not fair to expect MPs to operate in the almost total absence of leadership whilst at the same time expecting us to appear ‘loyal’.
Imagine being in my shoes when I am live on tv or radio and asked about an issue that Jeremy has either refused or been unable to give me guidance on – so I’ve given an answer that is either in line with our 2015 manifesto or our general direction of travel. It’s pretty nerve wracking. But worst of all is when Jeremy gives a different answer to the same question in public and then I’m sent messages, sometimes by members, calling me ‘disloyal’ or a ‘traitor’ for not agreeing with my leader when in truth I have tried my very best to do so. I simply cannot, and will not, continue like this because it is not fair on you and it is not fair on me.
Communicating a vision with clarity and purpose; reaching out to listen and analyse a wide range of opinions; doing the hard work to develop policies across the whole policy spectrum including crime, welfare, immigration, and job creation in addition to those for which there is a pre-existing interest; being decisive and inclusive; and being a steadfast performer in the House and media, not only at rally’s in front of a friendly audience. And above all right now, speaking with clarity, passion, intelligence, and confidence about Britain’s future in finding a way out of the mess left by Brexiteers. These are the things we so desperately need and it pains me to say that Jeremy is simply unable to fulfil these expectations.
During the referendum campaign my concerns were confirmed unequivocally and irrevocably.
As you know I put my heart and soul into the referendum campaign. I got a people-carrier and toured our whole region. From Milton Keynes to Dover; The Medway market towns to Hove; and then the coastal towns right the way along to the Isle of White. I toured with an amazing team and in each stop campaigned with local CLPs who were so excited to be out talking to residents with a Labour MP at their side.
However, underlying all of our positive, energetic campaigning I was struck by two things. The first was that so many of the residents I met who had previously voted Labour had become contemptuous (a word I do not use lightly) of our party. They felt time and again we simply do not understand the realities of living in a town or community in decline, where high street brands disappear monthly, where traditional industries have vanished, and younger generations have disappeared off to study or work elsewhere and don’t return afterwards. Whether right or wrong, many people in these communities feel that we do not speak for them, sympathise with their concerns, or propose solutions to their challenges and desire for a better life. We are simply not earning their faith.
I was utterly devastated to debate Nigel Farage recently in Kent and see people who identified as former Labour voters, mostly the semi and un-skilled workers we exist to serve, cheering his every word and booing the very mention of our great party. I am sure you are wincing at the thought of this so please believe me when I say it was heartbreaking to experience.
Bear in mind that many of these constituencies across our region were Labour until 2010 yet today ours is the only one left. We must retake 12 or 14 (in addition to every Scottish seat) if we are to have any chance of forming a government. Our task is mammoth and every shred of evidence I have seen and experienced across our region points to us sinking further towards defeat and not forwards towards victory.
Jeremy is simply not reaching out beyond people who are committed left-wing or Labour voters and it is simply impossible for us to win back the south if we are not broadening our appeal.
Secondly, activists and members throughout the campaign repeatedly asked me what Jeremy’s stance on Europe was. Why was he not speaking as often as the prime minister? And has he really changed his mind? If this was what activists were thinking, what on earth were the messages being received by the public?! And then there was that moment when Jeremy said he was ‘7.5 out of ten’ on the scale to Remain. The team of 50 I campaigned with the day after that comment were simply crestfallen. I was crestfallen. Put simply, if you answer a conviction question with a fraction you will never win the argument, and we didn’t.
Last week Alan Johnson stood before MPs and apologised for the defeat and said he took his share of responsibility for Labour’s failure to deliver the votes needed for victory. Jeremy then said that he gave the campaign all he could and would not accept responsibility. After this I had no choice but to cast my vote as ‘no confidence’ in last Tuesday’s ballot.
Throughout the campaign I met every week with Alan Johnson because I was the regional lead for the campaign. Each week Jeremy and his whole team were invited to attend, to contribute ideas and strategy, and to participate fully in how it was executed. Neither Jeremy or any of his team attended even one meeting. There is more I would like to say but I believe I have said enough to illustrate to you the extent of my frustration and upset. I did all I could do for my region and to help Alan, but in my heart I always knew that the dysfunctional relationships at the top of our party were damaging our ability to truly inspire the public and show the country what the Labour Party is truly capable of when it campaigns unequivocally, passionately, and harmoniously.
In the last week I’ve seen some of the conspiracy theories popping up as to who and how this revolt against Jeremy started. But you don’t have to believe me when I say they are all nonsense, just look at the vast cross-section of the PLP who signed the motion. MPs from all parts of the party were stunned by the referendum result and knew in their hearts as people who see Jeremy up close every week that he simply cannot offer the leadership our party needs. What happened in the aftermath of the referendum and the subsequent sacking of Hilary Benn was a sequence of events that swept through our parliamentary party from which there is no return.
As I write I do not know how this will play out. I know that the Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, has been in discussions with the leader and other parts of the Labour family in order to break the impasse. If this does not bear fruit I simply cannot see how a leadership contest can be avoided. It is my current position to support whichever person emerges as the ‘unity candidate’ to stand against Jeremy. If the contest is opened further then I will decide which of them represents the best hope for leading Labour towards victory by putting our values and principles into action solving the challenges our country faces and realising the potential of our communities.
We are in rare but not unprecedented times. In 1988 Tony Benn, with Jeremy Corbyn as his campaign manager, challenged Neil Kinnock for the leadership. In that fight Neil was returned with a mandate of 86%. I simply do not know how the battle our party faces will play out but I hope with all my heart it will be looked back upon, as Neil’s was, as a key moment in our party’s journey back to power.
I realise that many people reading this will be supporters of Jeremy and hurt by my actions and that of the PLP. I am incredibly sorry by this. But I turn to you, my local membership, able to say that I have done all I can to support our front bench and deliver everything that has been asked of me by Labour since I became a candidate and later MP. That includes working as part of a parliamentary party that has tried to help and support Jeremy to a place where he is better able to earn the public’s trust and respect.
I simply can do no more and to protect Jeremy from the electoral realities that Labour faces under his leadership and it would be a dereliction of my duty to the very people that you and I joined the Labour Party to serve if I allowed this to go on any further knowing that it is leading us to defeat. These are the very people we must also protect from the vindictiveness of Tory rule. But we cannot do this unless we address the chasm between the party as it currently stands and the people we are asking to vote for us, particularly in our own region where we were so beaten so heavily by the Tories only last year.
Thank you for taking the time to read this long message, I appreciate it hugely. I will read all of the responses you send and I am keen to hear your thoughts both now and as we move forward.
Very best wishes,