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Labour’s crackdown on free thinkers: it’s bad for the party and politics

The Guardian on the growing purge in the Labour Party- which has serious implications for our ability to develop a serious environmental policy.

The Labour party’s decision to threaten to expel one of its leading thinkers after 44 years of membership is a political miscalculation. Neal Lawson is the director of the progressive thinktank Compass, who previously worked as an adviser to Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. Mr Lawson is no leftwinger, some of whom are being purged by Sir Keir Starmer on ideological grounds. Instead he championed the liberal tradition of political and democratic pluralism and was a prime mover in making sure such ideas gained currency in the party. For his efforts, Mr Lawson is being shown the door – and there are determined efforts to bundle him through it.

The charges of disloyalty against Mr Lawson should be dropped. They, unfortunately, illuminate a wider strategy to march Labour ever rightwards under the cover of big poll leads. Mr Lawson’s argument for a progressive alliance – either a formal pact or a tacit one – to save the country from Conservative domination, is a good one. But Sir Keir wants the progressive tent to be big enough only for Labour and the Lib Dems, who face off against the Tories – not each other – in almost every English seat. To defeat a common enemy doesn’t need an explicit pact between these parties when their voters lending support will do. Crucially, Sir Keir seemingly wants to win through bland policies, and paint his opponents on the left – the Greens and the SNP – as equally radical and as bad as those to his right.

Mr Lawson’s error was to win the argument in Labour over proportional representation. He is right to want to broaden political debate and better reflect voting intentions. In every postwar election except 2015, more voters supported centre-left parties than centre-right ones, but Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system brings mostly Tory governments. Mr Lawson wants to end that. His campaign had won over Labour party supporters – and saw a majority of the public support changing the voting system for the first time since pollsters began asking about electoral reform in the 1980s. Moving to expel Mr Lawson before the party conference helps prevent Sir Keir looking out of step with popular sentiment. His possible defenestration from the party could be an appetiser offered as a prelude to dinner. Soft-left MPs are likely casualties in an expected shadow cabinet reshuffle this month.

Britain’s political status quo is not working well. Mr Lawson’s analysis about why this was the case has cost him. But since 2010 Labour leaders have been elected on ideas about economic and social reform aimed at transforming the country. Sir Keir was no different. Upon winning power, however, he ditched this programme. Apart from Ed Miliband’s green agenda, very little of substance has emerged since. Taxing private schools to fund £56m of bonuses to keep teachers in the profession is like painting a house that is about to collapse. Sir Keir talks about who he is and what he identifies with, but says very little about the causes of the present crises that need to be tackled. Reality will catch up with whoever is in power. All politicians should be an enigma, on whom voters project their own views. But people believe in people who believe in something. Sir Keir is yet to say he believes in anything much beyond himself. That is a mistake.

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