The left, the Labour Party and the way forward

By Peter Rowlands      

The growing antagonism between the left and the Labour leadership, and the recent Conference which indicated some of the relative strengths and weaknesses of either side, necessitates a consideration of how to best move forward. The following is intended as a contribution to that debate.

Background

It is worth acknowledging that despite the large numbers on the left that have quit the Party, the left remains much larger and more organised than at any time from the mid 1980s to the Corbyn era. Even in 2010 a majority of members supported David, as opposed to Ed, Miliband.

The 2019 defeat was not as bad as it was painted by Labour’s opponents and many on the Party’s right. The ’worst result since 1935’ accusation was only true in terms of seats, and is not a measure of general support, which was in fact greater than in the elections of 2010 and 2015. But it inevitably precipitated a leadership election. The left candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey, was unimpressive, and many on the left voted instead for Keir Starmer. This was partly due to his ‘Ten Pledges’, which broadly promised a continuation of the policies adopted under Corbyn, and to there being no apparent evidence of any previous right wing or Blairite association or leaning. The attempt to blame him for the adoption of a ‘second referendum’ policy was not credible, as this was supported by a majority of Corbyn supporters.

Starmer as leader

From the outset there were worrying signs. These included the sacking of Long-Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet over a spurious anti Semitism charge; the paying off of those threatening legal action over the leaked document, despite previous advice that legal action by them would have failed; and the appointment of David Evans, who had held senior administrative posts under Blair, as General Secretary.

But there were four members of the Socialist Campaign Group in the Shadow Cabinet, and a further four on the front bench, and it was still thought by many on the left that it should be possible for a broad agreement on policy , based on the ten pledges, to be attainable. Paul Mason and John McDonnell warned against the left isolating itself. I supported this view, but the publication of the EHRC report and the subsequent suspension and reinstatement of, and removal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn saw a renewed period of antagonism develop, and disciplinary action taken against those who sought to oppose the denial of the whip to Corbyn. But there was also increasing opposition to the leadership’s reluctance to put forward positive policies, instead supporting right wing policies such as increasing arms expenditure.

The Conference

The left came out of the Conference in better shape than many, including me, had expected. The right had clearly done a lot of work mobilising for it and the leadership was able to move rule changes at short notice and had overall control of the running of Conference. Starmer’s biggest single setback was the failure to reinstate the electoral college system, which if it had succeeded would have been a serious blow against the left. Clearly not enough work had been done to convince the trade unions to support it, or to oppose a number of leftish motions. Although most of the other rule changes went through, the most damaging for the left were making deselection and nomination in a leadership contest more difficult.

The vote of only 57% in support of Evans as General Secretary was humiliating and must have the effect of reducing his standing and influence.

Some good resolutions were passed, including one on a Green New Deal, which included a commitment to energy nationalisation and repeal of anti-trade union legislation, on housing, on Israel and Palestine, including sanctions, against the AUKUS treaty and on workers’ rights, including a £15 minimum wage. The biggest surprise was the failure of the motion supporting proportional representation to go through, as despite a high number of CLP delegates voting for it, an even higher number of affiliates delegates voted against. It is of course an issue on which the left is divided.

What does this signify?

I believe there are several conclusions that should be drawn by the left on the situation confronting it post-Conference.

First, Starmer now holds a political position which is a substantial rejection of the ‘Ten Pledges’, and for that reason, if basic principles were to operate here, he should at the least resign and offer himself for re-election. They don’t and he won’t. Whether he was being completely dishonest, or whether he has just moved to the right is difficult to say – I fancy it’s a bit of both. Unlike other leaders I don’t think he had any clear perspectives at the outset, but he would have understood that without the ‘Ten Pledges’ it is unlikely that he would have been elected. This makes his continuation as leader unacceptable.

Second, the antagonism generated has been almost completely caused by Starmer, Evans and their supporters, rather than the left, and it is now difficult to see that there could be any reconciliation, which would have been possible before last November.

Third, the left, as indicated by the Conference, the Women’s Conference, and various elections, and what we know of activity within CLPs, trade unions and other affiliates, remains a relatively strong force within the party. Recent figures show a fall of 120,000 in membership, almost all of these probably on the left, although some will have joined on the right. This clearly reduces the 60% support that Corbyn had in 2016 to below 50%, but left support remains substantial. Starmer’s 56% vote in the leadership election is estimated to have included about 40% of those who had voted for Corbyn in 2016. Although some of these have left, it is reasonable to assume that the left constitutes a substantial minority of the membership and is broadly about the same size as the right. Voting patterns would seem to bear that out.

Fourth, Starmer’s position is much weaker following the attempt to remove Rayner, with an increasing gap between him and the more left of the ‘soft left’, led by Miliband. He is increasingly a prisoner of the right, although not supported by many of them. The huge vote of 43%, against recognising Evans as General Secretary, has also weakened him, as well as Evans.

The way forward

First, it is perhaps worth spelling out what is NOT the way forward at this point. This includes proposals to form a new left party, joining the Greens or one of the smaller left parties, or just leaving. Under our electoral system, a new party is unlikely to succeed, at least in the short run, and should not be considered short of the absolute defeat of the left which is far from being the case.

The same argument applies to the Greens and other small left parties. Leaving can only help the right by reducing the left’s electoral and activist strength. It should be said, however, that for those whose mental or emotional states are adversely affected by continued membership, they should feel free to leave and no pressure should be put on them not to do so. But   those not so affected who are considering leaving should be argued with and hopefully persuaded not to do so. Those that have left should ideally be kept in contact with locally and periodically asked to consider rejoining.

Second, like any organisation, the left must be as efficient, organised, welcoming, adaptable, democratic and unified as possible. It should be active in the Party at all levels, in trade unions, in campaigns at various levels and in local councils. This will naturally involve some division of labour.

Third, the left should contest and organise to fight all elected positions within the Party, from national positions down to officers of local branches, and similar positions in trade unions or campaigns, and should support the selection of left candidates for local councils, or as MPs, MSs or MSPs,  etc., and should oppose candidates from the committed right. But we should not necessarily oppose those who are not committed to left positions but appear to have a left-inclined outlook. We should be actively involved in regional and one-off conferences, through seeking delegacies, moving motions and general mobilisation.

Fourth, all organisations on the Labour left should commit themselves to increasing the level of unity, even if that involves some compromise, as we are unlikely to succeed without it. There is still a level of sectarianism on the left which can only ever be counterproductive.

Fifth, as John McDonnell has said, the left is the only source of credible ideas for the change that our society so desperately needs, and we should ensure that discussion of policy is central to our activity. There is certainly no shortage of issues. But while we should discuss these things in left meetings, it is vital that they are carried into the main local organisations of the Party, sometimes in the form of motions to CLPs that can be transmitted upwards.

Sixth, I will not attempt to set out the way in which the left can improve its position to become at least one of the more dominant forces within the party. This is because there are a range of different scenarios that might come into play according to decisions taken by the right, the leadership, the soft left or prominent individuals, over which the left will have little control, but will have to react to if it is to improve its position. The left could of course exercise its initiative independently and in advance of other players, but the risk of failure, and its consequences, would indicate that such a path should only be taken if success was very likely. It is difficult to envisage such a situation, at least before the next election, and although there is clearly increasing opposition to Starmer from other quarters the same probably applies to them.

Replacing a leader with a looming election is a risky business, and is unlikely to happen. Labour will continue, as a very unhappy ship, but could still win the election if the Tories are finally blamed for the mess they’ve created. If Labour loses, Starmer will go and while the right will put up a candidate, Andy Burnham would be well placed to become leader, which would probably be a relatively favourable outcome for the left. It is pointless to speculate further.

In conclusion, the left has suffered a setback under Starmer’s leadership, but it remains a substantial force within the Party, and there is no reason why it should not continue to fight for left wing policies and principles, in the hope of a better day to come.     

Peter Rowlands is a menber of Swansea West CLP and Welsh Labour Grassroots Momentum

Image: Party Conference 2021, by Emma Tait.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts