Labour could die if new leader shifts party to centre, deputy leadership contender warns
Exclusive: A ‘softly, softly, safely, safely, middle of the road, managerialist approach’ will doom party to failure, says Richard Burgon
Labour could die if a new leader shifts it towards the political centre ground, one of the party’s deputy leadership contenders has said.
Richard Burgon said a “softly, softly, safely, safely, middle of the road, managerialist approach” would doom the party to failure at the next election, in a veiled swipe at Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, who has built a commanding early lead in the race.
The left winger, who bases his campaign pitch on “protecting the policy gains of Corbyn”, insisted that the next leader “will not have a mandate to ditch a single socialist policy” from the past two manifestos without express permission from members.
Despite Labour’s disastrous election showing, Mr Burgon is bullish in his defence of Mr Corbyn, saying he will be remembered as “one of the great figures in Labour movement history”.
Speaking in his Commons office, under portraits of Labour founder Keir Hardie and union firebrand Arthur Scargill, the Leeds East MP said the party’s downfall at the election was to allow Boris Johnson to paint it as “part of the establishment”.
He told The Independent: “We need to take the fight to him [Johnson] and we need to not allow him to portray himself as an anti-establishment politician, which he has done.
“And by taking a middle of the road approach, a softly, softly, safely, safely, middle of the road, managerialist approach, I think that would be doomed to failure.”
Mr Burgon believes there is a chance Labour can overturn the prime minister’s 80-strong majority in the 2024 election, saying “we live in very volatile political times”.
However, he warned: “If we return to the days of ‘controls on immigration’ mugs, of supporting or giving support to illegal wars, to only opposing Tory austerity, to supporting cuts as long as they don’t go too far too fast, to treating their members as unpaid postal workers of the Labour movement, sent out to deliver leaflets with no democratic [say] on the policies which end up on those leaflets.
“If we return to those days with Labour leaders not being able to say they support workers on strike, if we try and triangulate our way back to power and stop being an anti-establishment party, then I believe the Labour party could die.
“No party has a right to exist and to flourish.”
The shadow justice secretary remains loyal to the Corbyn project and sets himself apart from his rivals by defending the party’s bumper election manifesto. Since the election, senior figures have expressed disquiet at the offer of free broadband, alongside the cost of renationalising mail, rail and utilities.
“It wasn’t because of our socialist policies that we lost the last general election,” he said, pointing to the party’s Brexit position as the bigger problem.
He said: “I don’t believe we had too many policies in the manifesto at all. I don’t believe in this analysis that people were offered too much and it was beyond them.
“It almost implies that working class people don’t deserve all these policies.”
Disdainful of the right-wing press which “demonised” Mr Corbyn, Mr Burgon said he did not want The Sun or the Daily Mail to support Labour unless the papers overhauled their “rotten values”.
He said: “These are newspapers with a history of writing things about working class people, writing terrible things about migrants, writing terrible things about people on social security, demonising all those groups of people, encouraging people to blame their neighbours for inequality in society rather than those at the top.
“They exhibit, in my view, rotten values so I don’t think it’s impressive that Tony Blair was invited to be the godfather to Rupert Murdoch’s child.”
He suggested setting up a Labour YouTube channel, a podcast or creating a free newspaper as a way of disseminating the party’s message, as well as working with smaller outlets.
Labour members would be given greater power to make policy under Mr Burgon’s plans, which included a controversial pledge to let the party’s grassroots vote on military action in certain circumstances.
He wants the annual party conference to become “sovereign” on making policy, as part of his hopes of creating a million-strong members-led party.
Members would also be able to select their MP at every election under his leadership – a controversial process called open selections which prevents the incumbent MP from automatically fighting the seat at every poll.
He argued the policy would “concentrate Labour MPs’ minds on the job at hand” as he expressed disdain for Corbyn critics who attempted to “steer the Labour party ship towards the rocks” by plotting Owen Smith’s leadership challenge against Mr Corbyn in 2016.
Mr Burgon is backing Rebecca Long-Bailey for the leadership and believes it is “outrageous” that Labour has never had a female leader in its 120-year history.
But he has vowed to work with whoever wins the contest, saying he would be “laser-focused on working to get them into No 10 Downing Street”.
Asked what kind of deputy leader he would be, he said he admired John Prescott’s style but he would be more like Tony Benn – if the left winger had won his challenge against Dennis Healey in 1981.
Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, has a clear lead in the deputy race, with a recent YouGov poll putting her on 47 per cent in the first round, ahead of Mr Burgon on 19 per cent, Rosena Allin-Khan on 13 per cent and Dawn Butler on 12 per cent.
Ian Murray, the party’s only Scottish MP, was on 9 per cent, meaning he would be eliminated in the first round. The survey said Ms Rayner would eventually win enough votes after three rounds of voting.
But Mr Burgon said he was in “touching distance” of the frontrunner. “I think we can win,” he added.
“Will that surprise a lot of people? Yes. But political surprises have occurred before.”
The new leader and deputy leader of the Labour party will be announced on 4 April.
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