Labour’s job is to get elected, not be the guardian of a pure and holy socialist flame

Hugo Collingridge tells us why he joined Progress – and why he spurned his youthful flirtation with the hard left.

As any member can attest, the Labour party can certainly be an unharmonious place. Meetings can be fractious and unpleasant events. However, rebuilding the party might well require reaching out to people from different internal positions to us. I wanted to write about my own political journey to illustrate that people’s politics can change, sometimes dramatically.

For a spell in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Fast forward twenty years, and now I’m a moderate member of the Labour party. There would have been very little that the Hugo of 1999 and the Hugo of 2020 would have agreed with each other about. 

I joined the SWP because I had read lots of books about socialism and had very little discussion about it with anyone who wasn’t either related to me or on my university politics course. No real people, in other words. 

I stayed with the SWP for two main reasons. Partly because all of my social life revolved around the SWP and leaving it would have meant leaving my friends. Partly because the meetings, paper sales, demonstrations and so on took up so much of my time that I never really stopped to think about whether I was doing the right thing or not. Also, if I’m honest, it was fun and exciting. 

I’d like to be able to say that I eventually left because I saw through their nonsense, but the reality was that it was taking up too much of my spare time and I drifted away. It was only after leaving that I started to think about all of the things that were wrong with revolutionary politics. A few years later, the SWP were involved in a scandal that convinced me to sever my connections once and for all.

After about a decade when my only engagement with politics was talking about it in the pub and not much else, Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party. I was excited and saw what I thought was an opportunity to get involved and change things. So, I ignored the tiny bit of my brain that was asking ‘is he electable?’ and joined the Labour Party. 

From 2015 up until not long after the 2017 election I was a relatively enthusiastic Corbyn supporter. Just like during my SWP days, I was carried along by the excitement and the activity. The leadership election of 2016 seemed to me at the time to confirm that I was right. Also, the 2017 election almost felt like a success (at least until a few weeks afterwards), mainly because my expectations had been so low to start with.

But the part of me that doubted it all was becoming harder to ignore. There were three main reasons why. 

The first was the awful scandal of contemporary left antisemitism inside the Labour party. It became more and more obvious to me that it was real, and I became more and more aware of the part that the leadership of the party and their outriders had played in it.

The second was the state of social media. I am someone who spends a lot of time on Twitter and the sheer nastiness and toxicity of the hard left on social media became more and more apparent. There were certain vocal and high profile hard left Twitter users that I did not want to associate myself with. I’m sure I don’t need to name names.

The third was a growing concern for what was best for the Labour party. Being actively involved in the party meant caring about it and wanting it to succeed. After the 2017 election, I took some time out to think. It occurred to me that, if you ditch revolutionary politics but still have a desire to make life fairer for people, then automatically that means wanting a Labour party that is more electable and more appealing to ordinary people. And it became clear to me that Corbynite politics was not the route towards that sort of Labour party. Also, I was very lucky to be in the branch and the constituency that I was, with a group of decent and moderate members with whom I had become friends.

So, I joined Progress because they seemed to represent a route towards the electable Labour party that I had come to realise we needed. And now we have a leader and shadow cabinet who are streets ahead of the previous incumbents and I finally feel optimistic about our future.

In conclusion, I now believe that what I really need to avoid is certainty. Never trust anyone who is certain about their opinions, as I used to be, and always listen to the bit of your brain that is asking ‘what if I’m wrong?’. The job of the Labour Party is not to be the guardian of some sort of pure and holy socialist flame but to get elected to government in order to help people. And I hope that I can do my bit to make Labour into that sort of party again.

Hugo Collingridge is a member of Manchester Withington CLP. He tweets at @Chorltonian

5 Comments

  1. Andrea Baines on May 12, 2020 at 7:19 pm

    As someone who has been a member of the party for the same period of time I completely identify with your three concerns about the party and share your relief and hopes that we can once again aspire to be a party of government

  2. Alan Thomson on May 18, 2020 at 12:50 pm

    Interesting piece Hugo, thanks! That’s quite a journey. I think a lot of us were further left in our youth, lured by appealing ideologies that suggested that a socialist utopia lay just around the corner. And that, conversely, nothing good can ever come of capitalism. But experience is a great teacher, and amid all the open-ended promises and overblown rhetoric emanating from the hard left during the 50-odd years of my life, it turned out to be the centre-left New Labour governments of 1997 to 2010 that made the biggest material difference to people’s lives and prospects. Labour made plenty of mistakes during those years in government and, arguably, played some things a little too safe in terms of what they might have achieved. But what the party did achieve in terms of investing in public services made real and lasting differences to people’s health, wellbeing and their life opportunities. The Labour governments of 1997 to 2010 also made progressive and far-reaching reforms in terms of employee rights and the rights of people from BAME and LGBT+ communities. It seems to me that some on the far left cannot stomach the fact that the ‘soft’ left achieved so much for people in practical terms without the need to declare a revolution and overthrow capitalism. I expect it falls into some ‘doesn’t not compute’ loop in far left thinking – a mindset that tends to invalidate any successes, however beneficial to the lives of people, if achieved within the existing (capitalist) system. It’s an all or nothing mentality that always delivers nothing. The ‘pure and holy socialist flame’ you mention is an illusion. The only examples we have of socialism in action were very far from pure or holy. In reality politics always involves compromise because life and people don’t fit into neat boxes. In fact, I automatically suspect anyone who proclaims that their ideology (left or right) has all the answers and is the only ‘true’ way. When this happens the self-proclaimed guardians tend to put ideology before people, and history is littered with the corpses of those who fell foul of rigid ideology.

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  4. Ross Armour on June 9, 2020 at 11:45 pm

    Since we have elected Keir Starmer has been elected leader I like thousands of other Labour Party members feel reinvigorated with a new found energy, optimistic about our future. We can’t do anything without power. That has to be our primary focus and No.1 aim

    Enjoyed reading about your journey, Hugo

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