I was hopeful when the group of Labour MPs was founded. But its response to the Irish referendum suggests it shouldn't exist
It was an evening suffused with hope. Last September, I attended the launch of Catholics for Labour at the party conference. Finally, I thought, we might have an authentically Catholic voice in the party, something that might help us feel a little less side-lined by the tidal wave of secularism washing away the party’s Christian roots. Some MPs declared, to applause, that they couldn’t see how a Catholic could vote for anyone but Labour.
Less than a year later, I find myself wondering whether Catholics can vote for Labour at all.
In retrospect, maybe I should have seen it coming. The unforgettable centrepiece of the evening was Fr Ray Blake’s homily at the Mass. Fr Blake exhorted us to live the radical life to which Christ calls us, and told MPs: “Some of you, I know, have appalling voting records on life issues.”
That was only eight months ago, but Catholics for Labour (C4L) has already failed its first serious test: the Irish referendum which repealed the pro-life Eighth Amendment.
As the vote approached, many MPs issued public statements of support for Repeal. I’m open to be corrected, but I can’t recall any Labour MP sending their best to Save the Eighth.
I can just about accept that this was an Irish question and not a hill on which C4L MPs wished to fight. Nevertheless, what happened next was inexcusable.
After the Eighth was repealed, Labour went on the offensive. In her capacity as shadow attorney general, Shami Chakrabati called on Theresa May to legislate the liberalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland. The Labour frontbencher called this moment a “test of Theresa May’s feminism”.
Historically conscience issues, such as abortion, have always been subject to free votes. But Chakrabarti’s remarks suggested that Labour MPs might be denied this freedom before long. Certainly the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) seems to want pro-abortion views to be compulsory. In an open letter to the Guardian, nine members of the NEC explicitly called on Mr Corbyn to whip his MPs in support of abortion.
This, surely, was a moment for leadership: a moment for the eight C4L MPs to stand up and be counted.
Instead, the organisation was totally silent. Silent on the referendum, silent on the result, silent on the party leadership trying to overrule the consciences MPs. Without the convention on conscience issues, it is hard to see how practicing Catholics can remain in a party that has a manifesto commitment to abortion. So the NEC’s demands seem an existential threat to C4L. Yet we have heard nothing.
Well, that’s not quite true. One of the founding MPs, Emma Lewell-Buck, retweeted her party leader’s assertion that the referendum result was “great news” and a “fantastic victory for women’s rights”. Another, Conor McGinn, announced that “today belongs to the women of Ireland”, before instantly moving on to demand abortion access be extended to Northern Ireland. McGinn was actually ahead of the party leadership: rather than standing up to their party’s pro-choice agenda, some C4L members are leading it.
A friend asked me a reasonable question: Would it really be better if C4L wasn’t there? Shouldn’t we be glad to have some sort of Catholic presence – and accept that it’s too soon to judge whether the initiative will bear fruit?
I would argue, with a heavy heart, that it is not too soon. Simply put, it would be better if Catholics For Labour did not exist. In their launch statement, C4L’s founders, including Lewell-Buck and McGinn, said they were “guided by the teaching of the Catholic faith”. To make such a claim, and then publicly act in a way which contradicts it, is scandalous in the precise sense. Catholics for Labour allows MPs to assume the mantle of our Church, yet clearly places no duty upon them to act accordingly.
This leaves Catholics in the Labour party in a very tight spot. Maybe we were all too optimistic that night of the launch: a little band of brothers and sisters slightly high on Fr Blake’s electrifying oratory. But I don’t think it was too much to hope that, at the very least, Catholics for Labour might show that it was possible to be exactly that: a Catholic for Labour. Its recent failures may have proven exactly the opposite.