I didn’t want to write this piece. I supposed I always hoped that Labour would come back to its roots; back to being a broad-church drawn from diverse backgrounds and cultures united in solidarity with workers and the poor, standing up for free speech and the weakest, most vulnerable in society. But as time has passed the drumbeat of intolerance has only grown louder.
Labour used to be a party where conscience and difference were respected. A party where Jim Dobbin (of fond memory) and Harriet Harman could link arms against economic injustice while being diametrically opposed on matters of social policy. It is a sad irony that, while so many orthodoxies of the Labour tradition fell away in pursuit of electability, certain new dogmas have emerged that never had anything to do with the Labour movement. Dogmas that are policed much more ruthlessly than the principles of economic justice ever were. One dogma above all: the pro-abortion position.
Labour’s abortion lobby was always the noisiest of any party in Westminster. But in recent years I have seen it flip from passionate advocacy to coercion and bullying. Whereas pro-life Labour was tolerated under Blair, now any suggestion that human beings should be afforded some protection before birth is met with almost lynch-mob level opposition. I’m thinking in particular of the two last votes on abortion while I was still an MP.
Votes like this are supposed to be conscience votes. This means there shouldn’t be a whip - no party line. But the last two votes on abortion have witnessed senior figures in the Labour party and the trades union movement telling Labour MPs how to vote and taking careful note of anyone who dared exercise their conscience.
With the current climate as it is, it’s impossible to imagine Ruth Kelly being selected and making cabinet. Shirley Williams, too, one of the two women who voted against the 1967 Abortion Act, which was passed 50 years ago today. She’d never make it. And as for James White - who tried to amend the same Act in the 1970s after realising that it was being interpreted beyond the wildest dreams of the Parliament which passed it - forget it.
The climate of intolerance extends even to questioning the contradictions the pro-abortion position throws up. For example, if it is always a woman’s right to choose, what if the woman chooses not to have a girl? If it is ok for a woman to choose to end the life of a baby after diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome, then how can Labour hold themselves out as the pro-disability Party? If an unborn child is just a clump of cells then why does my Party want more support for those who suffer - and I mean suffer - from the miscarriage of a wanted pregnancy? If it ever became possible to determine sexual orientation before birth, would Labour defend the choice to abort a gay child? None of it makes sense; especially against the backdrop of scientific developments.
Perhaps the most damaging thing for the pro-life movement is that it is so easily characterised as just a faith issue, giving rise to the view that opposition to abortion is based upon religious assumptions. This is the biggest misconception of the whole debate. For example, contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church does not assert that a human being is a human person from conception.
Personhood is a complex philosophical concept, and variously defined. Some argue for personhood at conception, some argue for personhood at the age of reason (infancy). Here there are legitimate disagreements. Where we can no longer disagree is around the science of foetal development, which is clear. With the benefit of embryological breakthroughs of the last 40 years, we know that a new and unique human being comes into existence at ‘conception’. Christopher Hitchens, no friend of the Catholic Church, summed this up: 'As a materialist, I think it has been demonstrated that an embryo is a separate body and entity'. This neatly exposes the illogic of the 'my body, my choice' sloganeering. There are two bodies but seemingly only one gets a choice.
So, if what is growing in the womb is unquestionably a human individual - and scientifically it is - then abortion is the killing of a human being. This is not controversial. Even Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of the abortion provider BPAS, and supporter of sex-selective abortion, agrees that abortion is an 'act of killing'. And if what is growing in the womb is unquestionably a human individual, it is perfectly rational to assert that it ought to be treated as a 'candidate member of the human family' to quote Hitchens again. This, in a nutshell, is the pro-life view.
Even if you don’t take the view that the right to life of the developing child should be paramount, it seems to me absurd to argue that this human being should have no rights at all. From BBC polling last week, this would be the majority view. If there is no place in the modern Labour party for this view, then the party has lost its soul.
I fear that as the next few years pan out we will see more cases of totalitarianism and intolerance in the Labour party. We have seen glimpses of the ugly face of intolerance of those who support Israel, intolerance of those perceived as Blairite, intolerance of anyone who refuses to accept the ludicrous notion that a child has no rights merely because that child happens to be in the womb. That’s unless the party takes a hard look at itself, and deliberately acts to create space for debate around conscience issues. A recent initiative has been started by Mike Kane MP to reclaim the long noble tradition of Catholic Labour. How it is received will be very telling.
Rob Flello was MP for Stoke-on-Trent South until May 2017