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The Wirral shows Labour at risk of losing Latitudinarian logic

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

The 17th century group known as the Latitudinarians sensibly concluded that strictly adhering to doctrine, ritual and organisational convention was not only unnecessary, but probably harmful.

The theories of this band of moderate theologians, clerics and academics based at the University of Cambridge gave rise to the term “broad church”, an oft-used term by mainstream political parties to portray inclusiveness, fairness and internal harmony.

This pluralist principle has underpinned modern British democracy and established the understanding that internal party disagreements, debate and dialogue will balance competing interests and lead to politicians acting in the common good.

Despite their claims to contrary, the intensely factionalised, fractious nature of the two main parties in Westminster has created an often binary and polarised political discourse which has undermined this principle and is proving the Latitudinarians correct.

While the Conservatives rip themselves apart as they adhere to either an extreme or a moderate approach to Brexit, Labour’s internal divisions in Westminster have recently been played out around the issue of anti-Semitism.

But as recent events in the Wirral demonstrate, there is also significant internal friction among the grassroots membership which, if allowed to fester and grow as the issue of anti-Semitism did, could weaken vital public trust in the party and undermine Labour’s electoral chances in both national and local government.

Wirral MBC councillor Mike Sullivan, a self-confessed hardcore socialist (“I tell people I’m to the left of Che Guevara”), a Corbyn supporter and a former Labour dissident, recently resigned from the party claiming Labour locally had become “over-run by a narrow, ideological cult” with long-standing activists suffering abuse and intimidation by members of campaign group Momentum, who are said to consider councillors as “the enemy”.

Cllr Sullivan told LGC the position of Wirral leader Phil Davies and other councillors is under threat and deselections, infighting and calls for the council to refuse to set a balanced budget could hand local power to the Conservatives (Labour currently has 38 seats on the councils, the Conservatives 21).

Cllr Sullivan, a well-connected former member of the Liverpool City Region CA’s overview and scrutiny committee, also told LGC a similar trend was developing across Merseyside.

However, in a statement tellingly issued through Wirral Momentum, Labour’s local campaign forum, which includes delegates from the area’s four constituency parties, branches and the council’s Labour group, countered by saying a formal request had been made for the party’s general secretary Jennie Formby to investigate the “leadership, conduct, bullying culture and finances of Wirral’s Labour group”.

In a series of striking claims, the statement said Mr Sullivan’s criticism was part of a choreographed campaign to “besmirch and undermine local members” and accused him of “dirty politics”.

The Labour mess in the Wirral challenges the perception among some of the party’s councillors that this damaging friction between members and Labour groups has largely been confined to London, where Haringey LBC became a symbol of internal party discord between Momentum-backed activists and elected members. 

Despite the dire developments in Merseyside, this may still largely be the case.

But Momentum and others on the hard left who are emboldened under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership are set to continue to co-ordinate a strategy for gaining and cementing influence at all levels of the party, both nationally and locally.

This will inevitably lead to a growing influence of those for whom a broad church requires too much compromise, flexibility and tolerance.

With the controversial local government element of the democracy review, which Local Government Association Labour group leader Nick Forbes described as “deeply insulting and could give members tight control over Labour councils, now postponed until 2019, some Labour councillors may breathe a sigh of relief.

But events on Merseyside should serve as a warning that Labour in local government, which has achieved a considerable amount in the most difficult circumstances, could still be harmfully re-aligned by narrow requirements to strictly adhere to ideology rather than act for the common good of communities.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Broad-churchism within the main parties is the entirely predictable casualty of a country that has suffered the worst decade of pay stagnation since the Napoleonic Wars. I'd be surprised if there wasn't considerable infighting and upheaval within the parties.

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