Michael Dugher: "I can't see the point of Momentum. Their aggression is matched only by their stupidity."
In Michael Dugher’s office on the fifth floor of Portcullis House lies a pile of Christmas cards waiting to be signed.
It’s safe to say that Ken Livingstone won’t be one of the recipients. The former Mayor of London has angered many within the Labour family in recent weeks, but probably none as much as the Shadow Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport.
Firstly, Livingstone suggested Kevan Jones – who has spoken in the past about his battle with depression – should “seek psychiatric help” for questioning his appointment as co-chair of Labour’s defence policy review. He has also said that Labour MPs who disagree with Jeremy Corbyn – including those who voted for bombing Isil targets in Syria – should face deselection.
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However, it was his claim that the 7/7 bombers had “given their lives” in protest at the Iraq War which caused the most outrage. Dugher was not immune to the widespread sense of revulsion.
“Every time he opens his mouth he manages to offend large numbers of people, so maybe he should just open his mouth a little less,” says the MP for Barnsley East. “Ian Murray, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, received an email from someone who lost their fiancé in the 7/7 attacks and she switches on the telly and sees Ken Livingstone likening the 7/7 terrorists to martyrs for a cause and blaming western foreign policy.
“What do you think she thinks of the Labour party now? Do you think we can ever get that vote back? These were sick maniacs who need to be taken on and beaten for what they are. Stop the justifications, stop the moral equivalence bullshit and see them for what they are. These are people who want to destroy our way of life by causing murder and mayhem on the streets of the UK. They are our enemy and we have to treat them as such.”
So should Mr Livingstone lose his role in helping to set Labour’s defence policy? “It’s a very good question,” says Dugher. “My view, and it’s the view of many others, is I don’t know how he can do it. In fairness, this is a decision of the National Executive. I would hope they would reflect on their decision given recent statements by Ken Livingstone.
“It’s fair to say I’ve never really agreed with much of what Ken Livingstone has said. I’ve always found that’s something that’s given me enormous hope. If you find yourself in disagreement with Ken Livingstone, there’s a reasonable chance you are where most people in the country are.”
As if on a one-man mission to anger Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents, Livingstone also announced last week that he had joined Momentum, the campaign group which sprung from his leadership group. “As if they didn’t have enough problems with entryists,” is Dugher’s assessment of the development.
He adds: “Personally I can’t see the point of Momentum. If it’s an extension of the leadership campaign, well, they won the leadership. The whole point is when you’ve had a leadership election, all the leadership campaigns have to pack up and come together in the Labour Party. I thought that was obvious, so I can’t understand why people want to fight a leadership campaign that has already been won. We have to come together as one Labour Party.
“When Tom Watson described it as a ‘rabble’, that is what it has felt like. On the evening of the vote on Syria, we couldn’t get access through the main gates into Parliament because there were a lot of impromptu demonstrators with a huge Momentum banner lying down on the road in front of the gate. I joked with the copper on the gate ‘I could be coming in to vote against. This doesn’t make sense from their point of view – why stop MPs who are coming in to vote against the war’?
“It occurred to me that their aggression is matched only by their stupidity. I don’t know what the point of them is. It’s the job of Jeremy and all of us in position in the Labour Party to make sure that the Labour Party gets back in touch. That’s a shared responsibility and a shared burden and you don’t need to create a new faction in the Labour Party which has been susceptible to entryists and which has at times resembled the mob.”
Dugher was one of the 66 Labour MPs who defied Jeremy Corbyn to vote in favour of military intervention last week. The Labour leader, among others opposed to the bombing, has said that innocent Syrians will inevitably die as a result of the Commons decision to approve the RAF’s involvement. Dugher believes this is “utterly unfair and wrong”.
He says: “These are always enormously difficult issues. It’s about conscience as much as it’s about politics. No one has an exclusivity of morality on this. Some of my best friends in politics voted against action because they had concerns and they weren’t convinced and I absolutely respect their view. I know that they respect me for coming to a different judgement.
“The thing I thought was regrettable was statements afterwards caricaturing those who voted for military action as somehow deliberately being complicit in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. The reason why I took that decision because I felt you had to take on Isis to prevent some of the murder and barbarity we have seen in Syria, but also the barbarity and murder that they’re planning in the UK. I felt it was the best way of reducing the amount of innocents being killed.”
The Stop the War Coalition – which Corbyn chaired until September – have led calls for the pro-bombing Labour MPs to be de-selected. This in turn has caused many in the party to urge the leader not to attend a Christmas fundraiser for the organisation. Perhaps surprisingly, Dugher isn’t one of them.
“I think it might be quite useful if he went along to it because he can have a word with them as their former chairman and say to them ‘stop the intimidation, stop the abuse and stop the talk of deselections and going after Labour MPs who voted in a way they didn’t approve of,” he says.
“Him having a quiet word with some of those guys would be really helpful. What you’ve got to remember about a lot of these people in Stop the War is that they think the wrong people won the Cold War. To say I might have a slightly different world view is an understatement. Communism in a modern setting doesn’t have a lot of appeal to me.”
The Labour rebellion – 11 members of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet also backed the war – allied to the party’s better-than-expected showing in last week’s Oldham by-election, led to speculation that the leader could carry out a “revenge reshuffle” to re-assert his power over the whole party. Dugher, however, is unconvinced.
“We should make a virtue of our differences and be able to have debates. This is the new politics,” he says. “I’m not sure how revenge reshuffles sits with the new politics. It’s not for me to advise Jeremy on reshuffles and how he devises his team has got to be up to the leader. But I’m sure he’ll want to keep the party together.”
Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have pointed to the Oldham result, which saw Jim McMahon elected as Labour increased its share of the vote, as proof that his anti-austerity, pro-peace message is resonating with the wider public. But Dugher warns against over-confidence – and says next May’s election across the UK will be the true test of Labour’s progress in the Corbyn era. He says: “Oldham was a great result because even when you have a colossally safe seat like Oldham, and even when you’ve got an incredibly strong local candidate, you’re always nervous going into by-elections.
“We got a great result, but one swallow does not a summer make. We’ve got a lot of work to do ahead of what will be a really big test for us, which is the May elections. We’ve got the London mayor, which is really important, but equally we’ve got Wales where we’re in government and we’ve got to work really hard to make sure that’s still the case after May. Equally, we’ve got to show that we can make good progress in Scotland, that Jeremy’s anti-austerity message is going to resonate with the Scots and we can start to turn things around there. And we’ve got to make progress in England as well. At this stage we should not just be holding onto places, we should be gaining seats as well. So May’s a big test for us all.”
We meet up on the 35th anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination. As a Beatles obsessive, it’s a significant day for Dugher. “It was back-to-back Lennon on the iPod in the way in this morning,” he says. “It’s also the 50th anniversary of the release of Rubber Soul, so it’s a big month.”
In many ways, being in charge of the culture, media and sport portfolio for Labour – after serving as Shadow Transport Secretary under Ed Miliband – is his ideal job. He says: “When I got the job a mate of mine said ‘you’re the shadow minister for all the things you like’. I’ve had other interesting portfolios, but lengthy meetings about bus regulations or restructuring the railways - it’s not quite as fun as some parts of this brief.”
But it’s not all free tickets and gallery visits. He sees widening access to culture for working class kids as his key mission. “If you talk to the Arts Council they will be at pains to show you the improvements they’ve made, but there is a problem,” he says. “Things have gone backwards in the last five years. The amount of access 5 to 10-year-olds are getting to arts and culture has gone back from about 50% to about 30%.
“The people who are disproportionately hit are working class kids. It’s not just about where you live, it’s about whether your parents were graduates or not. Local government funding has been decimated and that has a huge impact on the provision of arts and culture and sport locally and that is a massive worry. When the Government spin cuts for town hall bosses, what they’re really talking about is theatres, galleries, museums, libraries and grassroots sport. The big worry is the impact the spending review will have because of the cuts on local authorities.”
The frustrations of being in opposition clearly weigh heavily on the 40-year-old, who freely admits to being in “the votes business”.
He sees the question of Trident renewal – another area where he and Jeremy Corbyn take opposite views – as another test of Labour’s electability. A Commons vote on whether to proceed with the project is expected in the New Year, and once again Labour splits will be in the spotlight. Dugher, however, is unequivocal.
“My position is the Labour party policy. The difference with Syria is we have very clear policy. It hasn’t been made by the shadow cabinet or the NEC, it has been made by the Labour Party in all of its democratic structures,” he says. “I know how important democratising the party is for many of Jeremy’s supporters. Well, like it or not, our policy on Trident has emerged from our democratic processes through the National Policy Forum. I’m more than happy to have a debate again about whether that’s the right policy. Personally, I think there’s a good reason why we have consistently won the argument for a policy of multi-lateral disarmament and a continuous at-sea deterrent.
“I have an old fashioned view and I have always voted for Labour party policy. If Jeremy wants to change that we can have another debate about it. There was a period when the Labour party tried this unilateralism and I’ve seen that movie and it doesn’t end well.”
But despite the clear political differences between him and his leader, Dugher insists “Jeremy deserves his chance” to lead Labour into the 2020 election. “He won the election with a convincing mandate and we need to unite around his leadership,” he says. “He needs to be given a chance to show that he can take Labour forward and I will be 100% supportive in that.”
With that, our time was up. Those Christmas cards won’t sign themselves, after all.