Chuka Umunna, a leading Labour moderniser, has urged his wing of the party to work with a Jeremy Corbyn leadership and not to make the mistake of giving the impression that electability requires the party to ditch its principles.
He said the party should celebrate the influx of new supporters and weld them into a community army with the help of Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser hired by Labour but sent back to America by former leader Ed Miliband.
Umunna’s remarks are likely to be taken as an olive branch, if not a white flag, to the Corbyn side although there may also be a calculation that if Corbyn, the clear frontrunner, is to fail, Umunna’s wing of the party must not have done anything to make it responsible.
Umunna has not yet said if he will accept a post in a Corbyn-led shadow cabinet, if offered, or if Labour MPs should press for a return to shadow cabinet elections. His decision is likely to turn on the extent to which Corbyn is willing to show flexibility on key issues such as EU and Nato membership, nuclear disarmament and tax.
The issue of re-selection of MPs and unilateral nuclear disarmament could feature at the Labour conference, scheduled to begin a fortnight after Corbyn’s expected election.
In a speech made in the Netherlands on Tuesday night, Umunna said: “Solidarity is key, which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.
“I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes – it could and should have achieved more and done more to challenge the right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world”.
Umunna said there was “a profound rage” in sections of the party, fuelled by the belief that the third way principles of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton amounted to a fundamental rejection of Labour values.
He said there need not be a division between principle and the search for power, warning: “In order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.
“The first is prerequisite to the second, and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent: you cannot do one without the other.”
Asked whether Corbyn’s election would help Labour, Umunna said: “It entirely depends on the programme he prosecutes. There are a number of things that I personally would have a problem in promoting in my own community which he has advocated in the past, such as the UK’s withdrawal from Nato, Britain unilaterally doing away with its nuclear weapons, increasing taxes on small businesses significantly and, most importantly, whether he will continue with our position that – whatever the outcome of a renegotiation with its EU partners – we will be arguing for the UK to stay in the EU.
“I think it is utterly essential that we stay in the EU and it is not clear that as leader he would maintain that position, so it entirely depends on the programme that he chooses to pursue if he becomes leader. It will be that determines whether or not he succeeds in the eyes of the public.”
Umunna rejected a Labour party split, saying: “We did the whole break-up thing in the 80s with the establishment of the SDP and it just meant we were fragmented on the left and it provided for a degree of Conservative party hegemony for a long period.”
Ummuna said he believed the vast majority of party members who have joined Labour in recent weeks have done so because they are animated by Labour values, not because they are entryists. “At a time when so many are walking away from centre-left parties across the western world and many young people do not vote, let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.
“One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre, rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics”.
Ummuna urged Labour to bring back Graf to channel the enthusiasm of the new recruits and engage with the electorate.
His intervention came as Corbyn, in a Channel 4 hustings, was accused by his leadership rival Andy Burnham of sounding like he was making excuses for Vladimir Putin, a charge Corbyn strongly rejected.
Corbyn had accused Nato of being an expansionist body that should have been disbanded at the end of the cold war. He warned that “we could end up with a new cold war”, and that it was “a bit of a problem” that Ukraine had accepted a Nato presence.
Calling for Labour to hold a strategic defence review, he said his concern with Nato was that it required member states to spend 2% of GDP on defence and it was seeking to expand with affiliated members who could drag Britain into other conflicts.
Meanwhile, Yvette Cooper claimed Corbyn’s economic plans for quantitative easing were not realistic. She said: “This idea that you can just print money when the economy is growing in order to pay for infrastructure – you are pushing up borrowing and inflation, and it has a big impact on the currency. We have to have an alternative but if it is not credible and it is not real, it falls apart between your fingers, and you are letting people down. It is the private finance initiative on steroids”.
Corbyn pointed to the successful use of quantitative easing in Japan.
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