Once the British left fought for civil rights, social justice and the brotherhood of man. But now such high principles have been discarded in favour of less grandiose battles, judging by the shenanigans of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs. The group, established by Tony Benn’s supporters in 1982, boasts the backing of 33 Labour MPs with more comrades in the House of Lords.
Members spent the weekend organising a letter in defence of filmmaker Ken Loach, who revealed on Saturday that he has been expelled from the party. The group lionised Loach as ‘an outstanding socialist and a fierce opponent of discrimination’ and decried how ‘Ken is expelled while Islamophobes are welcomed.’
Yet the letter also serves to illustrate the SCG’s own divides on this issue, with only 18 of the 33 Labour MPs co-signing the declaration. Signatories included John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Richard Burgon; among those who did not sign were Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Nadia Whittome and Sam Tarry. Such a divide could be crucial if there were to be a leadership challenge to Keir Starmer, for which 40 MPs would be required.
The divide is all the more interesting, given the group set up its own policy unit just last October. The Socialist Parliamentary Research Group (SPRG) is part of a new trend towards partisan units which are funded by parliamentary office expenses and work towards specific goals like the Northern Research Group or the ERG.
Despite claiming on its website to be a ‘a pooled research and writing service for Labour Members of Parliament’ the SPRG is also used by Claudia Webbe and Jeremy Corbyn, according to IPSA records. Both have paid subscriptions to the SPRG after their suspensions from Labour's parliamentary party. Neither MP currently hold the Labour whip in the Commons. After Mr S got in touch to ask about this, the SPRG removed the reference to ‘Labour’ from its website.
Webbe of course still has Labour branding emblazoned on her website, despite having had the whip suspended since September last year. Eleven months on, there seems to be little sign of the Leicester East MP acknowledging this on her site. Both she and Corbyn remain members of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, despite their suspensions.
Fellow comrade Apsana Begum, elected in 2019, did co-sign the Ken Loach letter, having been cleared of making fraudulent housing claims three weeks ago. A quick check of her IPSA expense claims shows she spent £3,375 between November and March on media consultant, Andrew Whitaker – John McDonnell's former head of strategic communications.
First term backbenchers do not normally require specialist media advisers like Whitaker, suggesting Begum's ambitions remain undimmed by her recent controversy. McDonnell himself provided a character witness at Begum's trial, telling the court he would have made her his Treasury parliamentary private secretary, had Labour won the election. Such left-wingers, elected in the 2017 and 2019 contests, are likely the 'new generation' of socialist leaders McDonnell has previously suggested will take his party's faction forward.
Steerpike looks forward to covering their antics in the months ahead, in the run up to Labour's autumn conference where potential rule changes could have a major impact on the leadership ambitions of certain MPs.