Erith and Thamesmead is a microcosm of everything that is currently wrong with the Labour Party. The Blairites have used every underhand trick in the book to parachute into a safe Labour seat the 22-year old daughter of Lord Gould, Blair’s pollster whom he rewarded with a peerage. She has no connection with the constituency, but postal votes in her favour have been sought in disproportionate numbers by canvassers who conceal that they are her supporters. All the Blairite big names have been lined up to give endorsements of this unknown, prompting an official complaint from the sitting MP about inappropriate interference. If it is like other notorious selection contests, party officials may well have been suborned to go out of their way to give support to the preferred candidate, whether by facilitating access to membership lists or by using their influence to sway votes or by other means. And now postal ballot boxes have been tampered with. It stinks, and every decent member of the Labour Party will be ashamed.
If this were an isolated incident, it would be bad enough. But it is part of a long-term pattern. It is by machinations of this kind relentlessly pursued at most parliamentary vacancies over the last 15 years that the Blairite machine spectacularly succeeded in transforming the balance of power within the PLP in favour of the Blairite caucus, providing Tony Blair with a thumping majority within his own party on which he could unfailingly rely for whatever policies he chose.
In one respect however this was a slightly different contest. There was a Brownite candidate too, and what we are now seeing being played out at the constituency level is the same struggle between the Blairite and Brownite factions as that which consumed the party at the parliamentary level for so long. The Labour Party has had drained out of it its distinctive ideological vision and what is left is a struggle for power between the two main factions in which other voices in what has always been the rich and vibrant diversity of the Labour tradition (including 6 other candidates in Erith and Thamesmead) have simply been drowned out.
There is one other striking aspect of the current state of affairs which this whole episode shows up so clearly. Twenty years ago the party high command could not have got away with it to anything like the same degree. Of course shenanigans of this kind have always existed – and in all political parties from time to time – but previously there were checks and balances that kept them under control. Now the checks and balances within the PLP, the NEC and within Parliament itself have been whittled down to the point where resistance has all but disappeared. Power has been centralised dangerously at the top, and the consequences are there for all to see, not only at Erith and Thamesmead, but in the ever more depressing revelations of the skulduggery and in-fighting within No.10 itself.
If Labour is to win the next election, there has to be fundamental rebalancing of power between the leadership and the party which allows both members and the general public to feel that they have ownership of the Labour project, that they are trusted and respected and listened to, and that they’re not just pawns to be manipulated. That’s why Erith and Thamesmead sends out all the wrong signals.