Should I Stay or Should I Go?

One year into Keir Starmer’s leadership, Mark Perryman examines the case for leaving, and staying

It’s a FAQ amongst those of us who joined, rejoined or reignited a dormant membership, in thrall to the radical possibility of Corbynism.  And as the eagerly anticipated – well, maybe not in these parts – first anniversary of Keir Starmer being elected Labour Leader fast approaches, the question will be asked by ever more people, and ever more loudly.   

Anecdotally we’ll all know plenty who have decided to go; social media is awash with those who’ve done the deed.

Rather than cutting up a party card for a tweeted statement of intent,   a more level-headed approach might start off with the following self-evident fact.  Enraged at the Party drifting rightwards, there is only one consequence of leaving: aiding that drift. Harsh, but true. The idea that resignations will bring the Party to its knees or its senses, is delusional, with zero basis in historical experience, every resignation filled by those only too happy to take the Party in the opposite direction to those leaving.

Can’t stomach the rightward shift, being on the losing side, policies you don’t believe in?  Then drop out of Party activities, criticise the drift and the policies in public but keep the Party card in a back pocket for when there are votes to be won to reverse the direction the Party is heading in.  Once exited leftwards, there’s no chance of being part of these hard won victories. And as Labour members making criticisms, our voices are immeasurably more potent than those no longer in the Party trying, forlornly, to shout their way in from the outside.  Whose Party? It’s our Party too, but not if we’ve gifted it to the right by leaving it isn’t.  

Want to do something more useful instead? In a trade union, in a campaign, a social movement, in our community – what’s stopping us? But the same applies, there is no necessity to tear up the Party card in order to do so. Keep it in our back pocket for when it might be useful.

Then there’s the supposed appeal of joining another left party, or even forming a new one?  With the singular exception of George Galloway’s Workers Party, currently calling for a tactical Tory vote to defeat the SNP, so good luck with that one, the rest owe their inspiration and organisation to Marx or Lenin or Trotsky, in some cases all three.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that but unless leaving Labour with a like-minded ideological adherence, be prepared for a very lonely existence. Oh, and while size isn’t everything, an average Constituency Labour Party has more members than the entire membership of most of these groups, put together.

Did somebody say ‘a new party of the left’? Let’s be absolutely clear: it-will-not-happen.  When George Galloway was expelled from Labour at the height of opposition to the Iraq War, not one Labour MP, not Corbyn, McDonnell, Skinner, nor Benn either, followed him, no trade unions disaffiliated to support him, not more than a few handfuls of Labour Councillors joined him. There is no sign of it being different this time, and without anyone resembling George’s undoubted charisma, not even someone to snatch a seat off Labour in spectacular fashion.

The more attractive proposition for many is the Green Party.  I’d broadly describe my politics as red-green, or even green-red and in any Labour led coalition Caroline Lucas would be a hugely popular addition to the Cabinet (personally I ‘d invite her to join the Shadow Cabinet right now, but that’s for another argument). Nevertheless there are three reasons why I’m doubtful about why Labour members should leave to join the Greens.

First, those exiting are leaving leftwards, because its no longer the party of Jeremy Corbyn, yet choosing instead a party that is ‘Green’ not ‘red’ or even ‘red-green’ – where’s the sense in that? 

Second, apart from Caroline’s seat there’s not a single other one where the Greens are the runners-up, a handful of thirds, mostly 4ths or worse.  Yes, a bit of a local base but very scattered.  There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but being in a party of opposition, however problematic, is entirely different to being in a party of one MP and no immediate prospect of getting another. 

Third, psst, don’t tell Labour’s compliance unit but how we vote in the privacy of the polling booth is entirely up to us. Not even David Evans can ensure as Labour members we vote Labour rather than Green should the political fancy take us.   

So far, mostly so negative, the case against going. But at least in the immediate future there’s a compelling reason to stay too. Too many on the left of the Party, because they have a strong ideological identity, think the same goes for Labour as a whole. Something similar goes for the right of the party too, mistaking the shifts in the Party as an endorsement of their particular world view. Both are wrong: rather than an ill-defined ‘broad church’, the majority of Labour members through the long periods of being out of government, 1979-97, 2010-, simply want Labour back in power.

The primary reason why Keir Starmer won was because he seemed to look like he could deliver the victory neither Ed Miliband nor Jeremy Corbyn could. The fact the latter increased Labour’s vote and number of MPs in 2017 for the first time since ’97, something Blair, Brown and Miliband failed to do, is an inconvenient fact.  To date, Keir has faced no such comparable test. How he does when he has that test in May more than anything else will shape the future direction of the Party. 

A failure to make significant headway in the English locals in the target seat constituencies, lose the Hartlepool by-election, come third in Scotland with no sign of regaining the 41 seats lost to the SNP in 2015, and the prospects of a majority Labour government in 2024 are next to zero.

If as a result Keir doesn’t grasp the necessity to work with other parties towards an anti-Tory majority, he will detonate his own coalition of support in the Party, most of whom are both plural and pragmatic by inclination.  And if he exacerbates this divide between himself and the majority of members by opposing the adoption of electoral reform at Labour’s annual conference he will narrow his support still further.

There are parts of the Labour hard left who will be entirely absent from such a process, preferring their fantasy of all or nothing: better Labour stands alone defeated than Labour stands with others and the Tories on the losing side instead.  Those who cling on to such fictions might as well be out as in, because for them it is to the margins, comrades: the 35 years Jeremy endured of next to no influence until his moment came, and went. But for those of us unwilling, or unable, to wait, to leave now when everything could be about to become a whole lot more fluid and play no part in shaping the outcomes. Why? To what end?

There is an important exception to all the above: the local Party environment.  There are plenty of examples where the divide is so yawning, the atmosphere so unforgivingly toxic, the determination to close down dissenting views so absolute, that the prospects of a fruitful use of one’s time being an active Party member are next to non-existent. 

Or perhaps a more insidious version of this non-existence.  In order to survive, having to surrender to an organisational culture, to win increasingly meaningless votes by scraping together this or that majority but with no obvious practical outcomes bar survival. When this is the sum total of what being a Labour member amounts to, it’s not very much. The key in such an environment is to carve out a space of our own, liberated from all this unwelcome baggage, but not just for its own sake, but to prove in practice that a better way of ‘being’ Labour’, doing too, is possible.

Added together these are our resources of hope, not forever and a day, my Party right or wrong. Such are the politics of unshakeable faith, not creative thinking. But a tactic misunderstood as a strategy is one of the gravest errors in left politics. For those of us currently feeling pretty negative about the Party’s direction, we also need to recognise there is not one proposition for how going will contribute to achieving the desired end rather than the complete opposite instead.

No, it’s not going to be easy, and when it becomes an undignified ideological chore, well, life’s too short, but almost one year in, the cheap thrill of resignation has the unmistakable whiff of premature miscalculation.

Mark Perryman is a member of Lewes CLP. His latest book Corbynism from Below is available from here.   

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