Reflecting on Where We Are


Yesterday I sent out an email to local Labour members and supporters in the constituency. You can read my thoughts below:


Dear Friend,

As a local Labour member, I am sure you will want to know the latest on arrangements for Labour’s leadership election. You may have heard that most Party meetings have been put on hold by Labour’s National Executive Committee so I want to let you know about a special page that has been established on the Party’s website nationally to keep people informed. You can access the page here. You will also see the page contains an e-mail address if you have any questions.

As an MP, I am not involved in the organisational decisions which have been made surrounding the leadership election. However, I had hoped to be able discuss the overall political situation with you and other local members at the Members meeting which Northfield CLP was in the process of arranging for next week. Therefore, in the light of the NEC’s decision to suspend such meetings, I am writing to share some of my thoughts with you. Please note that these are my personal thoughts and they do not reflect any official Party position. This follows up the other letters I have sent you in the past fortnight reflecting on the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote and then setting out the reasons for my resignation as Shadow Transport Minister . Some people have written to me supporting my decision, while others have written taking the opposite view. I have replied directly to as many as I have been able to in the time available and I also want to say a few words in this e-mail about some of the concerns which have come forward from members and constituents in the last fortnight.

The situation we face and my decision to speak out
Six years of Tory-led Government and the aftermath of the referendum mean the challenges we face as a country are on a scale that is unprecedented for generations.  I hope you received the e-mail I sent out on the Sunday after the Referendum setting out some thoughts on the issues Labour – and indeed all political parties  – need to face up to in the light of the vote. Whatever Theresa May is now saying, we still do not know for sure if we will face a General Election within months, rather than years. The stakes for our country are very high indeed.

In light of all that, these are therefore heart-breaking times for all of us who care about the future of the Labour Party and whose priority has always been to work for a fairer society. People ask how we can have ended up turning in on ourselves when we should be confronting the huge challenges outside. As you will see from the letter I sent out after the referendum, I share those concerns. I did not support those who responded to the result by immediately and publicly launching an attacks on Jeremy Corbyn as our Leader. Those attacks and indeed some of the responses to them – made a bad situation worse. But, despite the efforts of me and many others, those things happened, and by the start of the following week I was one of those who concluded the at the situation had become untenable.

Some have said that, however bad the situation, the role of Labour MPs like me is to support the Leader; that he has a democratic mandate have as MPs and that this must trump any concerns MPs may have. My record as a Labour MP shows I have always taken loyalty seriously.   Sometimes, though, the circumstances are so serious that I think you need to speak up. That is why I felt I had to speak out against the dangers I saw in a centralisation of power around the Party Leader in the 1990s. Warning about the consequences of that centralisation and then publicly opposing the Iraq War in 2003 got me into big trouble with the (then) Labour leadership. Some Party members at that time also told me that I should not speak out, however genuine my concerns may have been. They told me that Tony Blair’s election as Leader by Labour’s membership gave him a democratic mandate and that my role as a Labour MP was to back him – whatever.

The paradox today is that Jeremy Corbyn was also one of those who would speak out during those years – and a lot more frequently than I have ever done. In so many ways, Jeremy’s election last year seemed to be a breath of fresh air after the controlling and top-down culture in previous years. I respect his mandate as I respected Tony Blair’s.  But I believed it was my responsibility to speak my mind when it was necessary during the Blair years and I believe it is my responsibility to do so again today.

The leadership we need
Speaking plainly, on the evidence of the last year, I do not believe Jeremy is the person that can provide the leadership needed to unify the Party, to lead an effective opposition in Parliament and win the next election. I have known Jeremy for years and he has always been a principled campaigner for causes close to his heart. But being an effective Leader requires different skills and my honest assessment, after countless discussions on the doorstep and elsewhere, is that he is not cutting it with very large numbers of people up and down the country. These are people who rely on Labour to defend them, whose support we need. Many have voted Labour in the past but now feel disconnected from us. Some have voted for other parties or not voted at all. Winning them over and keeping them with us requires a great deal more than holding demonstrations with people who already oppose the Conservatives – yes even when there are thousands on these demonstrations.

Don’t get me wrong, motivating people to take to the streets who are already opposed to what the Tories are doing to this country is important. Protest is important. But it is not enough and – on its own – it is not a strategy to achieve real change. And it is not enough to simply declare ourselves to be anti-austerity. We need to be crafting the practical policies that can demonstrate this in practice and convince people that another way is possible. Yes, we have won Council and other elections in Northfield and elsewhere in the last year. Yes, we have also won Parliamentary by-elections – as opposition parties should and almost always do. We can use these to convince ourselves that we are making progress. But look deeper into the figures in Birmingham and beyond and the reality is that they paint a far from optimistic picture for the next election.

I know a lot of Labour members who take a similar view to mine – including some who voted for Jeremy last year. Many of the same people have also told me that they do not like what has been happening in the PLP in recent weeks. Neither do I. That is why I appealed to Jeremy not to put members in a position of having to choose between personal loyalty to him and acting in the best interests of Labour and of progressive socialist politics as a whole. But he took a different view and the result is now a leadership election in which members are faced with that choice.

What has been going on in the PLP?
I want to underline that the events of the last two weeks are not about the ‘factions’ in Labour. Jeremy has his enemies for sure – some have even been sniping at him in a destructive and self-indulgent way. But there are many others, myself included, who respected last year’s leadership result, who have not joined in the sniping and who have done our best to make things work, serving under Jeremy’s leadership and pressing the Tory government. The reality is that we are people who have seen the situation up close and have tried to make Jeremy’s leadership work for the last ten months and who now genuinely believe that his position has become untenable.

The 172 Labour MPs who voted in a secret ballot against Jeremy’s leadership include people of the Right, Left and Centre of the Party. Therefore, whatever decisions you make about who to support in the coming Leadership election, my appeal to you is not to be taken in by claims that this is all about a small group of factional plotters. It is not. We are talking about 172 people – 80 per cent of the PLP. We have different views and different political outlooks. Some of those will be clear during the leadership contest. We come at it from different perspectives but we have all been through elections ourselves and we are all in daily contact with our constituents.

Being True to Ourselves
I would much rather it had not come to this and I have worked to prevent the divisions we are now witnessing.  But things are now where they are. They cannot be wished away. Neither will they be solved by abuse or recriminations on either side. A Leadership election is now on and we must all – as individual members of the Party – cast our votes for what we think is right for the future of the values in which we believe. I know that not everyone agrees with the conclusions I have come to in recent weeks, but those conclusions are genuine. We all have to be true to ourselves, however difficult or painful that may be. Please do continue to let me know your views as well. As you can imagine, I am already getting a huge amount of correspondence so I cannot promise early replies, but please do rest assured that your letters and emails will be read.

And as we once again go through the Labour leadership election, our work still goes on outside. It goes on to confront the growth of the politics of hate – whether at home or overseas. It goes on to oppose the Conservative Government and to represent local people to the best of our abilities. That work goes on whether there will be an early General Election or not. It goes on regardless of Theresa May taking over from David Cameron. And it goes on regardless of Labour being in the middle of our own leadership election. That is what I will continue to do. Please do your bit too.

In the words of Jo Cox, we have more in common than divides us.

Best wishes,


Richard Burden MP
Birmingham Northfield

House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
t: 020 7219 2318 (Commons) / 0121 459 7804 (Constituency)

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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