Why we shouldn’t leave the Labour Party

By Jeremy Gilbert

⬤ Don’t Think Like a Liberal

Last month, the current Labour leadership declared that the party is opposed to the ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ movement, which aims to pressure the Israeli government into ending its illegal treatment of Palestinians using tactics comparable to the international boycotts against apartheid in South Africa. This is despite the fact that a vast majority of Labour members, and even a large majority of those who voted for Keir Starmer as party leader, supported BDS, the last time they were polled on the subject in March of this year.

It’s easy to see why this might prompt still more members to leave the party, as hundreds of thousands have done over the past year. It is shocking to hear the leadership declare the party opposed to a political campaign that is not even socialist in inspiration, but simply represents a mainstream liberal commitment to international human rights. It is understandable that many of us might reply: “In that case, I can no longer be a member of the Labour Party.”

It is understandable; but such a reaction would be a catastrophic mistake. It expresses an attitude to politics and political belonging that is certainly widespread in our culture. But this attitude is incompatible with any kind of strategy to advance socialist or progressive projects in the real world.

These comments will shock many readers, but there is no point beating around the bush. If you think that the primary reason for being, or not being a member of the Labour Party is because you either support its current programme, or identify with its current leaders, then you are not thinking like a socialist. Instead, you are thinking like a liberal: working with a conception of politics which is basically the same as that of the elite professionals who staff our more progressive newspapers, the office of the Leader of the Opposition, and the PR departments of some of our more enlightened corporations. At the same time, you are making a fundamental philosophical mistake. You are thinking of the Labour Party like a football team that you support, but might stop supporting. But in an electoral system like ours, the Labour Party isn’t the team; it’s the very pitch upon which the game is played. To leave the party is not to make an effective point of principle: it is merely to concede the entire match to the opposition.

⬤ Don’t Give Your Enemies What They Want

Let me spell this out. Keir Starmer wants you to leave the Labour Party. He wants me to leave the Labour Party. If we leave the Labour Party, then we are giving him what he wants.

Keir Starmer has explicitly and deliberately made himself the political enemy of anyone who is even vaguely on the left of the Labour Party, and it is a pretty basic principle of political strategy that we don’t give our enemies what they want unless we are forced to do so. The fact that so many have been giving it to him so willingly, entirely playing into the hands of the organised Right, is a tragedy for the left, for our movement, and for our country.

When I’ve made this point to various friends and comrades over the past year, many of them simply cannot believe it. They can’t believe that it is really true that the party leadership and bureaucracy actively want members to leave the party. They imagine that by leaving the party, they have somehow inflicted a punishment upon it.

But, in fact, the opposite is true. To anyone who had any direct contact with them, or has read the Labour Leaks reporting, it has been obvious since early in the summer of 2015 that many right-wing Labour members, elected representatives, officers and bureaucrats have always seen the influx of new members from 2015 onwards as a threat, not as an asset. Of course declining membership puts pressure on party finances. But for the organised right within the party (Progress, Labour First, and the various networks of councillors, MPs, and party officials that they connect), the perceived threat to their power (and, in many cases, their jobs) from a left-wing membership has always been a far more important issue than the short-term question of subscription income, which historically they have always sought to supplement with donations from wealthy individuals. Please don’t be in any doubt that left-wing members leaving the party is precisely what they want. That’s why they’ve sought to suspend and exclude so many of us through the extraordinary over-use of groundless charges and investigations.

⬤ Solidarity or Moralism?

It is perfectly understandable and – on the face of it – laudable, that many of us have felt the need to resign in protest from an organisation whose leadership has carried on in this way, expressing our sense of solidarity with Corbyn himself (from whom the Labour whip remains withdrawn, for the flimsiest of reasons), and with the many ordinary members who have been treated as egregiously as he has. Unfortunately, this is not a political response to the situation. It is a moral, and moralistic response, which will do nothing to remedy the situation that it is protesting, while actually making it more likely that that situation will continue. It is a response that prioritises the moral sentiments of one individual – the member who leaves the party – over their responsibility to a collective movement. As party members, we retain the right to – for example – vote for left-wing members of the National Executive Committee. There can be absolutely no question that if we had done better in the most recent NEC elections, then fewer suspensions would be happening now. There can also be little question that if we had done worse in those elections – in which we topped the poll, but not enough to sweep the board of NEC delegates – then more suspensions would now be taking place. It simply stands to reason that the more of us who leave, the worse we will do in the next set of NEC elections, and the easier it will be for still further suspensions to be carried out.

Leaving the party might make an individual feel better, but it will make both them and the movement collectively weaker. Pursuing an individual sense of self-worth over any meaningful strategy to build collective power is exactly what bourgeois, liberal ideology trains us to do throughout our lives: through competitive schooling, a highly fragmented and competitive labour market, and the perpetually seductive machinery of consumer culture. It’s unsurprising, then, that it comes so naturally to most of us to think about our own sense of individual self-worth more clearly than we think about our place in a collective movement. But this is a mental habit that we simply have to unlearn if we want to be effective contributors to a collective political movement for socialism.

⬤ What Kind of Thing is the Labour Party?

Deciding to leave the Labour Party – or stay in for that matter – based upon whether you agree or disagree with the current leadership is in my opinion not the best way to look at your membership of the Party. In an electoral system like ours, mass parties such as the Labour Party are not, and cannot be, ideologically coherent organisations, whose constituent members and organisations are all committed to a unified set of aims and principles. The only way a party can hope to form a government under our system is by winning a plurality of votes in a majority of constituencies, which inevitably requires such a party to span a wide spectrum of political opinion. Inevitably, this will result in internal conflicts, and a situation in which different political tendencies will have to fight it out for supremacy within parties, as well as political contestation taking place between parties.

The Labour Party is, and always has been, a highly complex federation of local parties, trade unions, affiliated organisations, elected representatives, individual members, which contains within it a number of different – and, at times, incompatible – political traditions. Of course, many people joined the party between 2015 and 2019 hoping that Jeremy Corbyn could transform the party into an ideologically uniform vehicle for socialism. In many cases, people were shocked and disappointed to realise that in fact, the party was a messy, complicated organisation that had been dominated by its right wing since the 1980s, and which often felt and behaved like an organisation that had been dominated by its right wing since the 1980s. One thing for sure is that leaving the party is not going to stop it looking, feeling and behaving like an organisation that has been dominated by its right wing since the 1980s. The only thing that is likely to change that is enough left-wingers remaining inside the Party to do something about it. And five years was never going to be long enough for that.

⬤ Living on the Frontline

A key feature of our political situation today is this. Unlike in many other countries, the key fault line between political progressives and their opponents in Britain cannot be simply mapped onto the difference between different political parties: rather this fault line runs through a number of parties, most importantly Labour. There are members of the Green Party, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and even the Liberal Democrats who share the general aspiration of most Labour members for a society in which the very rich are less powerful than they are now, and the rest of us are collectively that much stronger. There are also members, officials and representatives of all those parties – but especially the Labour Party – who are committed to carrying on capitalist business as usual: perhaps making some reforms to improve the condition of the poor or of various oppressed social groups, but opposed to any change that would really alter the balance of social power. As such, the frontline of the struggle between progressives (including socialists) and their opponents cannot be conveniently found at the boundary separating one party from another: rather, it runs though these parties, and especially through the Labour Party. Those who are not willing to carry on that fight within Labour (or one of the other parties that I’ve mentioned), are simply absenting themselves from the frontline of political struggle altogether.

There was a prevalent view within our movement that simply electing Jeremy as party leader, and then as Prime Minister, would prove to be a simple and straightforward route to radical social change, without having to worry about the messy, dangerous complexity of institutions like the Labour Party – or indeed, the British state. Of course, many of us thought it was never going to be that easy. We knew that we’d have to fight for Jeremy’s programme inside the party, and that even if – by some miracle – he became Prime Minister, than we’d find ourselves in an all-out war with a range of institutions – from the BBC to the Civil Service to the City of London – all of which would have opposed his programme and all of which would have required radical reform and reinvention as part of our agenda. We knew that systemic social change would require more than just changing the face at the top: even if that face was Jeremy’s. Unfortunately, I think a large number of people were always hoping that changing that face might be all we had to do.

It is understandable that so many people were enthused by their direct identification with Jeremy Corbyn as an individual. He is an incredibly admirable individual, and if all politicians were like him then maybe we wouldn’t need to radically change our systems of government. But, at the end of the day, socialists should not base their politics on identification with individuals: that’s for liberals and followers of demagogues. Socialism is a collective project requiring a degree of collective discipline – including the discipline of enduring defeats without simply giving up the fight.

⬤ The Labour Party Isn’t a Person

One of the remarks that one often hears from those who have left the party, is that they cannot remain a member because of things that Labour is doing – whether that’s treating Jeremy Corbyn badly, or taking reactionary positions on BDS. My reaction to this is pretty simple. It isn’t actually ‘The Labour Party’ doing those things: it is only certain members of the Labour Party who are doing them. It’s David Evans, Keir Starmer, and their lackeys who are doing them. To conflate these people, and the networks of power that they currently control, with the Labour Party as such, is misguided.

The Labour Party isn’t a person who does things and makes statements that we can agree or disagree with. It’s a complex, often contradictory terrain of struggle. To leave the Party on the basis of the actions of the current leadership is, I believe, insulting to Labour members, including our best MPs, who continue to struggle every day to advocate for and support different positions to those advocated by Evans and Starmer. What kind of solidarity are we showing with Zarah Sultana, John Trickett, Nadia Whittome or Clive Lewis if we simply abandon them to their fate? What kind of revenge do we imagine we are actually wreaking on our enemies by simply leaving them stronger than ever, and more able to marginalise those voices?

⬤ Stay and Sulk

Of course, when presented with arguments such as I am making here, many members will understandably express their great frustration at the many hours they have devoted to political activism in and for the party, and the hideous hostility that they have faced from the right-wing, locally and nationally. Here, I think it is necessary to clarify exactly what I’m arguing for.

I don’t by any means regard it as a necessary duty to carry on political work in or for the party, under circumstances where doing so is obviously futile at a given moment. In fact I think that the strategy of direct engagement with local parties that many local Momentum branches has undertaken since 2015 has often been fairly futile, especially in constituencies with a sitting right-wing Labour MP, who is generally able to use the local party machinery to contain and neutralise any kind of democratic insurgency from the Left. In retrospect, in such localities, we probably should have been building autonomous organisations for political education, occasional campaigning and general cadre-building, rather than dragging new members with us to dispiriting and tedious branch and constituency meetings. In other localities, however, the attempt to build power within local party structures has been extremely fruitful, and it is imperative that we try to defend those gains that have been made.

Every member – or, more usefully, every local Momentum group – will have to make their own judgements about what is feasible and useful in their own local situation. But it is a terrible mistake to imagine that the only choice we have is either to ‘stay and fight’ with every sinew for a vigorous Corbynite position within the party, or to resign our membership altogether. Under circumstances where we can’t do useful activism through the party, the intelligent, strategic thing for us to do is to retain our memberships so that we can at least vote in the various internal elections – to the NEC, for local party officers, or whatever – which the right are desperate to deter us from voting in.

Friends and comrades, under such circumstances, allow me to recommend to you the strategy of ‘stay and sulk.’ By all means, withdraw from active party work if it is proving nothing but a source of frustration. But don’t give up your party card: that’s exactly what they’re trying to get you to do.

⬤ Why Be a Labour Member At All?

I understand that many people feel that they have had to leave the party because they have been hurt and abused by the party. But let me reiterate: it isn’t the party that has hurt and abused them, but certain people within it, who always wanted them to leave. If nothing else motivates comrades to stay in the party or to rejoin the party – which we desperately need many of them to do – then it should simply be this. Yes, it is true that the right-wing hate and despise us. So let us hate and despise them back. We should stay, or even rejoin, because that is exactly what they don’t want us to do.

Ultimately, in a political system like ours, there are only two good reasons to be a member of the Labour Party: because you recognise that no other party apart from the Conservatives can form a government, and that a Labour government will always be preferable to a Tory one. As long as those two facts are true, it makes no sense to leave. Being a party member does not preclude any of us from engaging in whatever other forms of activity we consider useful or find inspiring; from union and community organising to direct-action campaigning of various kinds. It need not oblige us to attend meetings dominated by tedious right-wingers. It does not preclude us from taking positions which are different from those of any current leadership, on issues ranging from BDS to the nationalisation of our railways.

Our attitude to the Labour Party should not be one of either love or hate. It shouldn’t be one of close identification or violent revulsion. Its existence is a fact of political life on the British left. Of course we also need organisations to belong to which do match up closely with our personal values and political aims, which we can identify with because we wholeheartedly agree with them. But that’s exactly why Momentum exists and remains important. The Labour Party is a very different kind of thing, and we would all do well to remember that.

This article originally appeared in Momentum’s December 2021 issue of The Educator here and is repubished with the kind permission of the author.

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory, a writer, researcher and activist based at the University of East London. See jeremygilbert.org for more information, or follow @jemgilbert.

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