By Mike Phipps
Political defeats have many dimensions. The UK general election defeat of 2019 has helped send living standards into freefall and unleashed unprecedented attacks on civil liberties and a populist nationalism that is stoking a culture war against the politics of equality and universality.
In the Labour Party, the election of Starmer as leader has opened an unrivalled offensive against the left: the former leader has had the parliamentary whip removed, with little prospect of it being restored, without which Jeremy Corbyn will not be permitted to be a Labour candidate at the next election. At the same time, there has been a flood of suspensions on spurious grounds, often for old social media posts or for links with organisations that the Party only later decided to proscribe, alongside blatant factional misbehaviour by Party officials to get the results they want at local selection meetings, Annual Conference and regional conferences and AGMs of affiliated societies.
It’s not surprising that members feel demoralised in these circumstances. Over 100,000 have left in the las t two years, many no doubt in despair at a Party leadership which appears to treat them with contempt, while signally failing, until ‘Partygate’ surfaced, to make much impression either in opinion polls or in local and regional elections.
The ongoing attacks on the Corbyn wing of the Party are actually a sign of the left’s strength. Some people roll their eyes when this point is made, but it’s true. When victims of the purge complain that even Tony Blair did not go to these lengths to exert his vice-like grip over the Party’s organisation, they should remember that he did not have to: from the mid-1990s on the left was marginalised. That’s not the case now and that explains the scale of the attacks upon us.
Plummeting membership numbers do not bother the Party’s right wing either. They want a smaller, more controllable membership. Tony Blair has said the membership needs to be replaced. He and his co-thinkers understand, as we should, that a mass membership Party is the left’s greatest asset and the best defence of radical, progressive policies.
In fact, the right have never favoured a large, unwieldy Party, preferring moribund organisations with a paper membership to campaigning structures. An example was BAME Labour and its predecessor which senior Party figures were able to operate as a virtual fiefdom for many years. In the 2010 leadership election, despite being Labour’s third largest affiliate with over 3,000 members, BAME Labour members cast only 255 eligible ballots, mostly for the right wing candidate. Labour Students was another unrepresentative organisation, also accused of suspect electoral practices. In its 2019 internal election, out of a total membership of 30,000, only 507 votes were deemed valid by its leadership. As a result, about half of the member clubs quit the organisation and the Party’s NEC voted, on Jon Lansman’s initiative, to disaffiliate it from the Party.
This is how the right have always operated. So unsurprisingly, membership resignations don’t bother them. As Mark Perryman has pointed out on this site: “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.”
Jeremy Gilbert is even blunter: “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.”
There is no doubt that life in the Party right now is grim. But it could be worse. As Chilean friends pointed out after Labour’s 2019 defeat, nobody has been shot, nobody jailed. We live to fight another day. But to do so, we need to regroup and work out how to survive and build.
That means recognising that the right hold most of the cards in these internal battles. At the last NEC, there were passionate appeals for the whip to be restored to Jeremy Corbyn. Not a single opponent of this proposal bothered to speak against it – but they voted it down anyway. An affront to the members? Wake up: the right don’t care!
When the former leader was first suspended, the Party’s General Secretary issued instructions to branch and CLP officers that this issue was not competent business for discussion. Those who ignored this ruling faced suspension. Those who observed it were accused by some on the left of capitulation. But, unsuspended, they survive to fight the next battle.
We are seeing similar posturing from some on the left over the latest confrontation between Starmer’s leadership team and members of the Campaign Group. Eleven members of the Group who signed a Stop the War Coalition statement before the Russian invasion of Ukraine were told by Starmer to withdraw their signatures or risk losing the Party whip. They duly obeyed. Sections of the left went straight into denunciation mode.
It’s predictable – even understandable – why small groups outside the Party would take this approach. After all, they would welcome a left split from Labour, useful for increasing their marginal influence, even if history shows that breakaways to Labour’s left invariably tumble into political oblivion.
But it’s more perplexing why some on the left inside the Party echo these attacks. “A timid and pathetic rump”, “feebleness and capitulation”, “grovelling collapse” was the verdict of one Labour activist on the decision of Campaign Group members to withdraw their signatures from the Stop the war statement. John McDonnell MP came in for particular criticism for withdrawing from a Stop the War event in London last Wednesday.
The Labour Representation Committee took a similar line, saying, “Capitulation to this bullying behaviour is exactly the opposite of what the left needs at the present time. We need leadership and bravery.”
This stuff is easy to write but it’s not tactically very astute. Based on the ruthlessness we have seen from the Party apparatus over the last eighteen months, the threat to withdraw the whip from MPs is very real. It has taken years of organisation to increase the numbers of socialist MPs in Parliament, with selection victories in key seats, from which the left was systematically excluded throughout the Blair- Brown years. Mid-way through a five-year Parliament, with Party selection battles looming, nothing would delight the Party’s right wing more than to have a dozen left MPs removed from the fray on grounds of ineligibility. Beating a tactical retreat to conserve these gains should not be met by denunciation from those on the left who seem to prize keeping their hands clean over the need to make compromises in order to still be on the field.
John McDonnell understood that when he said that that at a time when people are dying on the streets of Ukrainian cities, we should not be distracted by political arguments in the UK Labour Party. He added: “In the wider context of securing a socialist Labour government, and possibly inspired by my team Liverpool at Wembley at the weekend, I do believe it’s important for socialists to stay on the pitch for as long as it takes.”
So a tactical step back is not a betrayal of principle – any more than it is to advise a left candidate to delete their social media history in conditions where the Party apparatus is employing staff specifically to trawl through members’ old posts. Tedious, yes –but the cost of these tactical calls is small, limited in a country like the UK to suspension or expulsion from the Party, at worst. But in many countries, the failure to recognise a period of reaction and a hard-headed determination to push at all times for offensive tactics would lead to a very heavy price being paid. Ask those in Latin America whose response to the imposition of military dictatorship in the 1970s was to step up the armed struggle. It was a horribly costly mistake.
One of the central reasons why Jeremy Corbyn was able to become leader – particularly in conditions where there really wasn’t a huge wave of mass struggle propelling him forward – was that the different components of the left – social movements, constituency activists, unions like Unite and Unison and even the now much reviled Paul Mason – were able to unite in support. Frankly, the left has not got a hope in hell of recovering unless it is able to find some of that unity again.
Failure to do so would be a tragedy. Jeremy Corbyn’s former Head of Communications James Schneider said recently: “The Corbyn project showed that we weren’t losing because the majority of the population just loved the world as it was; quite the opposite. It’s actually that the common sense in this country has remained broadly progressive, while not having political expression, while its organs were being defeated and crushed.”
In other words, notwithstanding the 2019 defeat, Corbyn’s socialist ideas remain popular. They are popular in the Party too. This is why Starmer called the 2017 manifesto a “foundational document”: to win election as leader, he had to pretend to some continuity with Corbyn.
Despite all the manoeuvres by the Party machine, the 2021 Conference underlined that the left has the policy solutions to the main issues facing Britain and the world, be it on climate change, Covid, the cost of living crisis or human rights and equality. Our task is to forge these demands into a movement that can bring about real change in practice. A socialist strategy means knitting them together, and the key to this, to quote James Schneider again, is recognising that “the biggest organized base of socialists in Britain, right now, is the Labour Party.” Getting thrown out of the Party is an obstacle to that goal.
Two years on from the 2019 defeat, the left has its work cut out in organisational conditions that are far from favourable. But if we are to make any progress, we need to stop looking for traitors in our own ranks, recognise the popularity of our vision and work to build as much support for it as possible. Lord Peter Mandelson once boasted that his wing of the Party had put the left in a ‘sealed tomb’. Undoubtedly he would like us back there. Andrew Fisher, who largely wrote the 2017 manifesto, warned recently: ““We cannot construct a binary of ‘Corbynism’ and ‘not Corbynism’ – that locks us into an oppositionalist stance and in doing so places us into a sealed tomb of our own making.”
One final thing the left needs is patience. Starmer’s authoritarianism towards Labour’s rank and file is a sign of weakness: he lacks the ability to persuade so he resorts to fiats. But his lack of persuasiveness is visible too with the broader electorate, in his lacklustre by-election and local elections results over the last year. If Boris Johnson gets a lift in the polls in the current international context, Starmer’s recent recovery could prove short-lived and questions will inevitably resurface about his competence and authority. It is not impossible that he could be out of a job before the next general election. If he stays and loses that contest, it’s almost certain he will have to step down.
In short, this regime of intolerance in the Party will pass. Left activists need to still be members when it does, not only to help choose what replaces it, but to get back on the offensive on the policies and ideas that can help Labour win office.
Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
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