Where next for the left?

By Mike Phipps

With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015, the left suddenly found itself, to its great astonishment, in a leading position in the Labour Party. The different pillars of Corbynism – the social movements, like Occupy and the student fees campaign, the trade union leaderships that had backed Corbyn and the old Labour left, including the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and the Labour Representation Committee – had come together in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fight for a government led by a genuine socialist.

Whether it made the most of that opportunity is open to debate. We didn’t succeed, but failure can be instructive. The important thing to recognise is that, having lost, we are in a radically new situation and we must adapt accordingly.

Part of the problem was that much of the old Labour left did not adapt very effectively in 2015 to the wholly new situation then.  For many on the old Labour left, its astonishment at Corbyn’s leadership victory was soon replaced by a growing sense of entitlement.  Wasn’t this, after all, what we had richly deserved for standing by our principles while others discarded theirs?  At that point, we should have recognised the dramatic transformation in the situation and seized the opportunity to turn outwards and build a movement that could sustain the gains we had made at the top. Instead,  many on the Labour left chose to attach its narrow and burdensome agendas to the project, weighing it down – or else felt more comfortable carrying on its routines as usual.

Momentum too could have played more of a role at integrating new supporters – remember that Labour’s membership trebled in 2015 – into a movement. While The World Transformed did some brilliant work, Momentum itself was hampered, firstly by sectarian in-fighting by different vanguardist groups which dogged its first year, and then by the bureaucratism that was imposed by its leadership in order to sideline this behaviour.

Left thinking on strategy was fairly undeveloped at this time. That at least has changed.  Although things look bleak overall today, the last five years have seen a flowering of ideas and thinking compared to how things stood then.  We also have better left representation in Parliament and a solid policy basis to build on.

But these gains, important as they are, should not blind us to the fact that we have been defeated on many fronts. The 2019 general election defeat means a right wing nationalist Tory government pursuing a hard Brexit.  Jeremy Corbyn had to stand down as Labour leader. The loss of seats means Labour has a mountain to climb if it is to win the next general election.

Keir Starmer replaced Corbyn as leader. How do we read this? In my view, we make a mistake if we see it as a total rejection of everything Corbyn stood for.  He was nominated even by Corbyn’s constituency, Islington North. My own experience of phoning Momentum supporters locally in September shows that a lot of former Corbyn supporters voted Starmer and still thought he was doing a good job – although this was prior to Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension. Starmer’s campaign was much better prepared and financed that that of Rebecca Long-Bailey, the left candidate, which gave him an advantage, but there were other attractions to his pitch that won over former Corbyn supporters.

I agree with Corbyn’s former policy advisor Andrew Fisher, when he says: “Keir Starmer won the Labour leadership in 2020 for three main reasons: he pledged to stick to the core policies of Corbynism; he promised competent leadership; and he prioritised party unity. There is nothing in this that the left should oppose or be in conflict with.”

And since then? Well, the appearance of competence is easier to maintain when, unlike your predecessor, you are not facing constant briefing against you in the media by your PLP colleagues. But however much Labour MPs send out coordinated approving tweets about Starmer’s “forensic” parliamentary performances, many members have nagging doubts. He has been too timid in nailing the incompetence and dishonesty of the Johnson government – especially on the pandemic – and has lagged behind public opinion in the positions he has taken.

Unity has been harder to achieve. On the one hand, the active hostility from the Party apparatus and senior figures that damaged the Corbyn leadership has gone, but the Party nevertheless remains as factionally divided as before, as the rival slates for the NEC elections show. Starmer’s election was greeted with a great deal of goodwill from ordinary members, but many of them will feel he has squandered his chances of achieving unity with the suspension of Corbyn.

Both wings of the Party are battling for influence over Starmer’s direction of travel. There are many signs that Starmer plans to punish the left for its past failures, hoping to stifle internal divisions and send out public signals that the Corbyn era is dead and buried.

Top of the list of transgressions is the whole area of anti-Semitism. The debate on this has become so toxic that nobody in the Party has a clear idea just what might lead to a disciplinary sanction of any kind. Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked from the front bench for tweeting praise of an interview given by Labour supporter Maxine Peake. Jeremy Corbyn was suspended, although the grounds were opaque, and then reinstated 19 days later.

But it’s not just anti-Semitism. Labour front benchers who lost their jobs for voting against the ‘spy cops’ bill got a written warning from the Chief Whip, an unprecedented action to take against MPs who broke a one-line whip, which is usually treated more leniently.

Many members who were not hardcore Corbyn supporters will be alarmed at these measures. Some who disagreed with Corbyn’s statement after the publication of the EHRC report will nonetheless feel that Starmer has unnecessarily jeopardised Party unity for some time to come, gaining only the short-term advantage of looking resolute.  Members with long memories will recall how Neil Kinnock in the 1980s was applauded by the media and others for criticising the miners’ strike, expelling the Militant tendency and creating a climate of intolerance towards the left. But come the next election, these same siren voices said Labour was too divided to be taken seriously, Kinnock was an idiot, Labour’s policies were mad. There is a lesson here about how worthless the praise of your enemies is. In consequence, Kinnock, the longest-serving Leader of the Opposition of the 20th century, could not win a single election for Labour. Starmer would be a fool to emulate this failure.

The third reason members voted for Starmer was his commitment to continue the popular policies that the Party had developed over the previous five years. It’s a bit early to draw firm conclusions on this. In August, Labour called on the government to scrap the benefit cap, something the pre-Corbyn Party supported. Labour is now firmly anti-austerity. The shift in the terms of debate in the Labour Party over the last five years is a real achievement which cannot be easily swept away.

But there are warning signs of rollback. One indication of this is the new leadership’s yearning to look statesmanlike – like a “government in waiting”, in the words of shadow security minister Conor McGinn – on the spy cops bill and the Overseas Operation Bill, a flawed proposal which would make it more difficult to prosecute war crimes, both of which Labour abstained on – although it eventually opposed the latter.

Another, more substantive retreat, concerns the radical green agenda Labour put forward at the last election. Labour’s Green Economic Recovery, issued a few days ago, backtracks significantly on previous commitments, as Labour Hub analysed. 

Earlier, Starmer’s own speech in what would have been his first Party Conference as leader was notably short on policy detail. He wants to get Brexit done, but he had nothing to say about what a good Brexit would look like. He promised to guarantee all care workers a real living wage. He outlined a vision of “properly funded universal public services… world-class education… huge investment in skills… an economy that truly works for all regions… a country committed to a greener, cleaner and fairer society.” But he also placed home ownership at the centre of his vision.

With no opportunity for constituency parties or any other affiliates to shape policy this year, it is clear that the big battles on policy – the climate emergency, economic recovery, public services – lie ahead. This is one reason why the left should stay and fight. Many members who voted for Starmer want policy continuity. We should not be walking away from the battles to come over this.

There are many other reasons why the left has to stay in the Party, which I have outlined elsewhere. Leaving is what our opponents want: Tony Blair has said that the membership needs replacing. A lot of what the right wing has been doing for years – as shown by the leaked Compliance Unit report on the activity of Party HQ during the 2017 general election – is about demoralising members in the hope they will give up. Then the Party’s bureaucracy can go back to running things as they prefer, with fewer trouble-making members and where big donors have more influence.

But it’s not just that this approach is undemocratic – it also won’t win back the seats Labour has to win if it is to get elected to government. To win, the Party needs an active grassroots membership. Many who advocate leaving the Party rarely see the issue in terms of how it affects the needs of working class people and instead suggest it almost as an individual lifestyle choice. Would they take the same approach to trade union membership, if their union was right wing-led?

Jeremy Gilbert tweeted recently, “What I don’t get about the ‘I’m leaving Labour because its current leadership doesn’t represent me any more’ people is this: if Corbyn had ever taken that attitude, then you’d never have ended up joining in the first place. How do you square that paradox?”

He went on, “I’m sure there are people following this path who have sound reasons. But I worry that it seems to express a passive, ahistorical, consumerist, retail understanding of politics. The Labour brand identity no longer matches yours: time to shop elsewhere…”

A blunt message to the self-righteous, although not every leaver falls into this category.  In any case, it is your political activity that defines the individual, not the membership card of the Party you are in. People who write at length in Whatsapp groups about how their membership is hanging by a thread rarely say what they will do in politics, if anything, if that thread breaks.

Labour Party membership confers other advantages: it allows us to influence selections at all levels and hold representatives, local councillors especially, accountable. It allows socialists to network with others and bring the influence of the workplace, via affiliated trade unions, into the Party, keeping it rooted in the lives of ordinary people.

Those who suggest forming a purer alternative should be reminded of the failures of previous attempts to do so, the Socialist Labour Party of Arthur Scargill, the Socialist Alliance, George Galloway’s Respect Party and many other even punier efforts. Both Scargill and Galloway, it should be recalled, had considerable standing in the movement at the time, but their departure from the Labour Party into smaller formations served only to expose their weaknesses, both political and personal.

 Marx saw this over 150 years ago when he wrote, “The sect sees the justification for its existence and its ‘point of honour’–not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it.” He also understood that the tendency to form such breakaways is stronger particularly in a period of reaction.

We are living through such a period now and must adapt ourselves to the new conditions. Despite the defeat and the change of leadership, we have two great strengths: the policies and the mass membership. If the latter drift sway, the policies will be under threat. The membership will be less likely to leave if the left is focused on campaigning, both inside the Party and outside, on progressive policy. If it concentrates entirely on internal issues such as rule changes, or even more narrowly, on disciplinary processes, then it will have failed to correctly read the mood of much of the membership and won’t connect with it.

However, it won’t just be policies that win the next election, but narrative. The big pitfall to avoid is not a return to New Labour, which I see as pretty unlikely, but going in a Blue Labour direction, which maintains the popular economic radicalism favoured by the post-election Labour Together report – but at the expense of liberal values. You might think this unlikely for a leader who made his name as a human rights lawyer, but it’s an entirely feasible course for Starmer to take, particularly if he is unable to read the loss of the ‘Red Wall’ seats accurately.

The loss of these heartlands began in the New Labour years. It was symbolised by the possibly apocryphal story that David Miliband had to be shown where his seat of South Shields was on a map. Voters in these areas were taken for granted, because, in Mandelson’s complacent phrase, they had nowhere else to go. It was part of the same process which saw Labour wiped out in Scotland in 2015, where working class voters clearly did have somewhere else to go.

An inaccurate reading of the loss of the ‘Red Wall’ in 2019 focuses on the alleged social conservatism of these voters, which was supposedly at odds with the liberal values of the Corbyn leadership. But this is false. Writing in the Guardian after the election, Kenan Malik said something very interesting and worth quoting at length: “The working class, runs the argument, is rooted in communities and cherishes values of family, nation and tradition. It has little time for liberal individualism or for the language of diversity and rights. That belongs to the ‘metropolitan liberals’ and to a different political tradition…Labour now faces a choice: either accept that its traditional working-class voters are gone forever or abandon liberal social policies.

  “The trouble with this argument is that the key feature of Britain over the past half century has been not social conservatism but an extraordinary liberalisation. The annual British Social Attitudes survey, which began recording public attitudes in 1983, has tracked ‘the onward march of social liberalism’. On a host of issues, from gender roles to gay marriage, from premarital sex to interracial relationships, Britain has liberalised to a degree that would have left the average Briton of the 1980s aghast. It’s not just metropolitan liberals but society as a whole, including the working class, which has embraced this change…The problem is not that metropolitan liberals have become too liberal or the working class more conservative. It is that social and economic changes have unstitched the relationship between the social and the liberal that defines the left.”

Hopefully, Starmer, with an understanding of basic liberal values like human rights and the rule of law, increasingly called into question by this government, gets this.  But his abstention on a critical piece of legislation that challenges human rights and the rule of law – the ‘Spy cops’ bill – on the grounds that Labour needs to look responsible and like a government in waiting, is a real cause for concern.

So what should the left do? Firstly, we must put aside the belief that we were cheated out of power by the party apparatus, figures in the PLP and large parts of the British establishment. It probably isn’t true and it certainly won’t help us to make progress.

As Christine Berry says, “We all need to let go of the fantasy version in our heads, the endless dwelling on ‘what might have been’, the idea that we could have had the best of all possible worlds — and face up to the reality. Only then can we move forward, clear-eyed about the strengths and weaknesses of our movement and the lessons to be learned from the last five years. For me, a key one is that we need to recognise the limits of party politics and do much more to be present on the ground in communities, making our politics relevant to people’s everyday lives and struggles, making it something we build together.”

Secondly, we need to recognise a defeat for the left.  Although immeasurably stronger than ten years ago, we will now be at a disadvantage, compared to the right wing in society and the Party, which will seek to maximise its victory. That’s why ultraleft talk of new parties, especially in conditions of a defeat, is signally unhelpful. But so is the absence of new thinking and repetition of platitudes, which some on the left indulge in.

“There are worse things than failure,” the late Mike Marqusee wrote, “and while failure is nothing to glory in it’s also nothing to be ashamed of. You can learn more from a failure than from a success – if you recognise it as such.” Of course, if the only lesson we learn from the last five years is that we were betrayed, we will have learned little.

But he added, “In the politics of social justice, unmixed success and unmitigated failure are rare.” Despite the failure of the Corbyn project, the fact is that the left is stronger, and not just intellectually. It’s probably the largest grouping in the Party currently, yet in conditions where the left candidate for leadership got a very limited vote.

Rebecca Long-Bailey got 28% of the members’ vote for leader. But the Grassroots Voice left slate, albeit on a much lower turnout, got 55% of the vote for the constituency NEC elections earlier this month – close to the 60% votes that Jeremy Corbyn got in his leadership elections. Young Labour election results were even more spectacular, with the left getting 13 out of 16 positions. 

Clearly there is an appetite among members to exert some control over the leader – but Starmer remains a leader most members still support and one who is closing the poll gap with the Tories. This contradiction must shape how we orient towards former Corbyn-supporting, now Starmer-supporting members.

This imposes a responsibility on us and requires thought. In many ways, it’s easier for much of the left to retreat into the default position it took for the thirty years following the miners’ strike: oppositionism, what Christine Berry calls “the comfort of moral superiority combined with political impotence”.

Tempting, but unhelpful. It’s the opposite of building something: it is a deliberate dismantling. Once you have decided that Corbyn was betrayed by others in the Party, it’s a short step to denouncing those in the Corbyn camp who sought conciliation with the alleged traitors. The fragmentation of Corbynism is fuelled by this approach, and it is not going to help people mobilise against the rotten policies of this Tory government.

The other great strength of the left is that it has the ideas. From The World Transformed to Claim the Future, there is a ferment of creative thinking and policy formulation. The development of ideas on the green new deal, new forms of public ownership, localism and municipalism are increasingly the property of the left: the right has no real alternative to neoliberalism and the centre tends to triangulate, with few clear ideas of its own.

There is a race against time here.  Looking at the numbers of members who were eligible to vote in the NEC elections, it is evident that Party membership has declined by about 57,000 since Starmer became leader. Some estimate 10,000 members have left following the suspension, now rescinded, of Jeremy Corbyn.  As left activists leave, CLPs will fall into the hands of the right, MPs will lose the confidence to speak out, regional and national conferences will become tamer affairs and the opportunity to press forward with a popular socialist agenda will evaporate. The left must break with internal reflection and offer a programme that maps a way out of the social, political and economic crisis engulfing this country.

There is a huge amount the left must now do to advance the political debate and help fill the vacuum that the end of the Corbyn project has created. Our aim must be to dominate every area of policy, exercising political hegemony over all issues, including those that Labour has often had less to say on in the past, including crime, security and defence. Now that would really make the Party look like a government in waiting.

Mike Phipps is a member of Brent Central CLP and of the Executive Committee of the Campaign for Labour Democracy. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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