Bold, sharp, strong, broad

Rebuilding the Labour left is a matter of extreme urgency, declares Graham Bash. This is an edited version of the talk he gave at Communist University 2019.

Thank you for inviting me to address Communist University - the first time I have been invited in over 10 years. After what I have to say today, I may not be invited for another 20! By that time, I will be approaching my prime, but by then, for all of us on the left, time may be running out.

We are, of course, at a tipping point. The political situation has rarely been more volatile or contradictory:

It is a witch-hunt that is based on a lie - that the Labour Party is ‘rife with anti-Semitism’. The victims of this witch-hunt are primarily the anti-racist left - many of them Jewish or black. The perpetrators, on the other hand, are the right wing of the party - many of whom have supported or abstained on all sorts of racist measures against ethnic minorities and/or supporters of the racist state of Israel. It is a witch-hunt, however, that has received some support and legitimacy from some sections of the left, including the leadership of the 30,000-40,000-strong Momentum group - and it is that, above all, I think, that raises the question of the need for an alternative Labour left.

And all this in the context of growing attacks on black and Asian people, the embryo of a far right that we ignore at our peril, and the silencing of independent black voices in our movement. This, too, in the context of a global axis of evil from Trump, Johnson, Netanyahu, Bolsonaro, Modi, Orbán and Putin. And in the context, above all, of looming climate catastrophe.

The tasks are urgent and we have little time to lose. But, for all the urgency we face, rebuilding the Labour left is not just an aim that we wish for or simply declare: it is something that has to be built, on foundations that are strong, bold, politically sharp and also - not a ‘but’: it’s an ‘and’ - to win, it also has to be broad.

Above all, unlike Momentum, and unlike many of its predecessors on which it was based, what we have to build has to be democratic and accountable. It is not just that we must not throw away all the lessons of our lifetime, but we must recognise the failures of the left that we have built in our lifetime. If we do not learn those lessons, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.


Now, in order to understand the scale of our tasks, we must understand what is the central contradiction of the Corbyn leadership: the contradiction between the most leftwing leadership in Labour’s history and the period of defeat going back to the miners’ strike that preceded it.

Men - or rather people - make their own history, Marx explained in the Eighteenth Brumaire, but they do not make it as they please. They do so under circumstances existing, already given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of dead generations weigh on us like a nightmare on the brain of the living. So we are not starting from scratch, but under the dead weight of 30 years of defeat that brought in its wake the rise of New Labour, which sought to destroy the class contradiction at the heart of the Labour Party. Labour is essentially a class compromise, and New Labour attempted to resolve it in the interests of capital by destroying that link with the working class.

Now, first, a sense of perspective. What happened in September 2015, when Jeremy won the leadership, was a shifting of the tectonic plates. Just remember where we were - Ed Miliband had lost the May 2015 election, New Labour’s knives were out, the candidates to replace him were so awful that some in the Labour Representation Committee were even suggesting that we support Andy Burnham. I must make it clear that was a minority. And then at a campaign group meeting in parliament they went through the options for the left.

Some unnamed genius suggested Jeremy Corbyn. He was seen as such a no-hoper that sufficient centre and right MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party were persuaded to nominate him and, with seconds to spare, he scraped onto the ballot paper. One of those who nominated him was Margaret Beckett, who in a moment of regret, referred to herself as a “moron”. She was right.

It was clear to me that if Jeremy got onto the ballot paper he would be a strong candidate. I remember saying that at a meeting in Ramsgate a couple of days before the close of nominations and I was laughed at. So, if anyone laughs at me today, just remember that!

But why a change? In part, the “morons” had forgotten the change in the system for electing the Labour leader, passed after Ed Miliband’s Collins Review - something, of course, all of us on the left vehemently opposed. It was ‘One member, one vote’, no electoral college, no votes for MPs and now votes for registered supporters too. It was ‘One member, one vote’ for affiliated trade union members as well.

So confident were the right, so dismissive of the left, that they had forgotten the words of Richard Crossman more than half a century before: that the right keeps control of the Labour Party in two ways - through the independence of the parliamentary party and the trade union block vote, which kept them in power. And in one swoop they took away the foundations.

But, of course, it was not just a historical accident that won it for Jeremy, though it was in part that. Something was happening in the world outside. In Greece, the rise of Syriza, in Spain Podemos, in the United States Bernie Sanders - the years of stability had been broken by the economic crisis of 2008.

Now, it is conditions, we know, that determine consciousness. As World War I was the precondition for the Russian Revolution, and the 1929 crash the precondition for Hitler’s rise to power, so too, at a lower level - no doubt at least for the moment - the 2008 crash undermined the stability that sustained New Labour and moderate bourgeois governments, and brought in its wake the radical movements of the left and the populist movements of the right.

Once we were given the opening, it was there for the taking, and we were bold - we seized the moment. I have happy memories of putting our stall out on the Broadstairs seafront, with our application forms for registered supporters: “Vote Jeremy for Labour leader. £3 a vote” was the call. And they came and they voted, and suddenly all of the other candidates had feet of clay.

And a similar thing happened in the run-up to the 2017 election. Jeremy, surrounded by a hostile PLP, which had tried to mount a coup against him, somehow survived, but was looking weak. But then there was another bold move - the manifesto, For the many, not the few, for all its limitations, was far to the left of anything we could have anticipated. Battle was joined, and this time it was the Tories who had feet of clay. The outcome was a stronger leader and a Corbyn government in waiting.

However, when Jeremy won the Labour leadership, the odds were always massively against us. We were fighting, of course, against the state. Veiled threats by the generals to overturn a democratically elected Labour government and, in the event that Jeremy becomes prime minister, have no doubt that we will see that again. The media, with relentless attacks and ridicule; the Tories moving to the right; the undemocratic structures and rules of the Labour Party, with the right wing-dominated compliance unit acting as a party within a party and being used to suspend hundreds of Corbyn supporters.

And all this in the context of a Brexit vote that put Labour between a rock and a hard place, and the near death of Labour in Scotland that would take years to recover from, whoever was Labour leader. And the PLP, shamefully refusing to accept the party’s overwhelming verdict, briefing against Jeremy, forcing a second leadership contest, also acting as a party within a party, and - have no doubt - opposed to a Corbyn-led Labour government far more than to any Tory government.

And there was a further problem, and we have to recognise this. Unlike, say, Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy had to operate in a parliamentary framework on a day-to-day basis, having to put together a parliamentary opposition within a hostile PLP. He and John McDonnell were embattled on the front line from the start. Now the only possibility against such powerful opposition forces - the establishment - was to build an anti-establishment insurgency from below.

But there is another problem. This was not the late 60s, the 70s and the early 80s - the period in which I was brought up politically, when the working class was powerful: so powerful that, when Edward Heath called an election in 1974, on the theme of “Who rules - the government or the unions?” - he lost.

Now, we have suffered decades of defeat since the miners’ strike and, although Jeremy’s victory reflected, in part, a genuine disaffection from below against austerity and neoliberalism - and in this sense was part of an international movement, including Spain, Greece and the US - at the same time our movement was at a low ebb. That was the key contradiction: between the rise of the most leftwing leadership in Labour’s history and the low ebb of class struggle.

Radical crusade

To argue that this contradiction determined what happened next would be the depths of passive fatalism. After all, there was, and there remains, an opportunity for fundamental change. But it does help explain what is happening and to understand how the absence of class pressure from below, especially from the trade unions, has helped, or rather exacerbated, the bureaucratisation of the Labour left.

Our task was, and is, to rebuild the labour movement, using the leadership of the party to help do so. What was, and is, needed is a democratic, grassroots movement that would have to try openly and transparently to transform the party itself. That insurgency has to be a radical crusade against the establishment, an authentic voice for the dispossessed.

It has to overturn the undemocratic procedures of the party and its rightwing bureaucracy, it has to transform the PLP to bring it in line with the new leadership. That means mandatory reselection - that has been part of the Labour left agenda for years, but is now diluted in the compromise of last year’s conference, together with an even more serious setback that failed to change sufficiently the rules for electing the next leader.

But here was, and is, the conflict: how to achieve a root-and-branch transformation of the party, while at the same time achieving sufficient unity within the PLP and shadow cabinet, to keep the parliamentary opposition on the road. There were two aims - party unity and the building of a radical, democratic, grassroots movement. How could those two opposites be reconciled? And that is the nub - or a nub - of the problem. That tension - exacerbated by the political degeneration and incorporation of Momentum’s leadership - has now reached a point of separation.

Now, I feel for Jeremy, especially after the split by the Gang of Nine. He had an almost impossible choice. He feared another parliamentary split that could make a general election victory - even against this weak, crisis-ridden Tory government - desperately difficult. And yet to abandon the radical, grassroots movement to the power of the parliamentary party is to give up in advance on the chance of a lifetime of achieving a radical Labour government.

Let us spell it out - I know everybody knows this. But our leaders cannot hope to carry out a programme to transform the country and make an appeal globally without a mass movement behind it; a movement rooted in our communities and, through that, wired into our Constituency Labour Parties.

A Corbyn government that sticks to its guns will face the might of the establishment, probably economic sabotage, a flight of capital, and we need to develop a response, a programme and policies for a radical Labour government. We need to build from below to sustain a Corbyn government and, where possible, go beyond its excellent, but limited, manifesto. Or else, lacking programme and base, we will go the way of Syriza - tossed aside by the power of capital - whatever our good intentions.

Have no doubt: we are fire-fighting. We are having to fight, just for the right to speak. The witch-hunt against the left has now claimed a leading parliamentary ally of Jeremy Corbyn, Chris Williamson. We are in the middle of what I think is another attempted coup in a different form - this time possibly a slow one, but it is gathering force. And that force and the exaggerated allegations of anti-Semitism within the party will not stop unless and until Jeremy himself is either toppled or - and this is the more immediate aim - taken prisoner by the right of our party. This coup is about re-establishing the primacy of the PLP against the members - and it is a coup supported by sections of the left itself, including the leadership of Momentum, which at times has been complicit in the witch-hunt, with Jon Lansman publicly supporting the disciplinary action against Chris Williamson and Ken Livingstone.

Chris was suspended because he is one of the few Labour MPs to speak out against the smears, because he booked a room in parliament to show the film Witch-hunt - about the anti-left campaign in the party and the struggle of Palestinians for justice - and for what he said at a meeting of Sheffield Momentum, in which he defended the party against charges that it was institutionally anti-Semitic.

This speech came after general secretary Jennie Formby released data that confirmed that the grounds for the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have indeed been grossly exaggerated and, in some cases, fabricated. Let us be crystal-clear: one case of anti-Semitism in the party is one too many, but, to quote from an article in Labour Briefing on the anti-Semitism allegations, “This is not a wave: it is not even a ripple.”

In our Thanet and Sandwich Labour Party Facebook page, one of our comrades - by no means on the left - said this:

Gotta hand it to the LP. Every time I think they can’t get any more ridiculous, they manage to surprise me. What seems to be happening now is that it’s being considered anti-Semitic not just to say anti-Semitic things yourself, but to disagree with the LP about how accusations of anti-Semitism in others should be handled. It’s ‘meta-anti-Semitism’ - the anti-Semitism that you commit by discussing anti-Semitism wrongly.

My experience

I have been a Labour Party member for 50 years, now in South Thanet CLP. I was a founder of Labour Briefing some 38 years ago, a founder of the Labour Representation Committee, a founder of Labour Against the War. All of these were my way of surviving the New Labour years.

I speak also as someone who is Jewish and a proud founder member - and now an officer - of Jewish Voice for Labour. This is an organisation of Jews in the Labour Party, which is non-Zionist and does not insist on support for Israel as a condition of membership.

I know what anti-Semitism is. And I do not accept lectures on anti-Semitism from those who have neither experienced it nor fought it - like Tom Watson. This is the same Tom Watson who went along with all New Labour’s anti-terrorism and Prevent measures, and abstained on Theresa May’s 2014 Immigration Act, which introduced the “hostile environment” policy, leading to the deportation of hundreds of black people.

I will not exaggerate my experience. I did not suffer discrimination or exclusion in the way that black and Asian people do. But I did suffer prejudice. How many times as a child was I told that Hitler should have finished the job and sent the Jews to the gas chambers? - I was told that when I was six. I was told, “You Jews killed our Jesus”, and was laughed at when I tried to patiently explain that Jesus was a Jewish leader - yes, I was already a political activist at six! How many times have I had to walk out of football grounds when fans of my own team - West Ham - were singing, “I never felt more like gassing the Jews”.

My experience of anti-Semitism, especially when I was young, made me feel an outsider - a feeling I have never lost. I also learned lessons from my father about fighting the fascists at Cable Street in east London in the 1930s - how the Jewish East End, in alliance with the dockers and other sections of the labour movement, stopped Mosley’s fascist thugs. And these experiences - and learning about the traditions of Jewish socialism - led me into anti-racist struggles, made me a socialist internationalist and, at the age of 19, I joined the Labour Party.

I have been a member of eight different constituency parties and my experience over half a century is that I have rarely encountered any anti-Semitism in the party. Indeed, it has been a safe haven for me: a refuge. I have come across anti-Semitism in the party only once - in Hackney North, where an idiot came out with anti-Semitic filth. The secretary called for his eviction from the meeting - this was agreed unanimously and he was never seen again. I am sensitive to anti-Semitism. I have a sixth sense about it. I know what anti-Semitism is and I also know what it is not.

So what is the problem? There was no problem until lifelong anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn became leader, His predecessor, Ed Miliband, was Jewish, and the main challenger to Ed was his brother, David, also Jewish. As Stephen Marks, my good JVL comrade, points out, clearly all these anti-Semites in the party were doing rather a poor job.

Jeremy became leader and it all started. He was a threat - a threat, of course, to the right wing of the party, because he was a socialist; because of his pro-Palestinian credentials, a threat to supporters of the state of Israel. So JC becomes leader and - all of a sudden - the party has a major problem with anti-Semitism. The Labour Party is part of society - the best part of society in my opinion - but part of society nonetheless. Of course, there are examples of anti-Semitism in the party, but from my experience it is underrepresented - just as you would expect, just as the data reveals.

What we have seen is a pincer attack with sections of the right wing joining up with pro-Israel supporters and manufacturing a crisis that largely does not exist. And they do it by conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. And a lot of it has been done with the full support of the Jewish Labour Movement - an affiliated organisation of the party that is Zionist in its constitution and supports Israel.

But who are the main victims of this campaign to malign Labour as anti-Semitic, in what has become a witch-hunt? Firstly Jews, anti-Zionist Jews, such as Moshé Machover, the renowned, 82-year-old Jewish Israeli professor of philosophy, Glyn Secker, secretary of JVL, a lifelong anti-racist (both suspensions were lifted within a few days), and my partner, Jackie Walker, who was suspended for two and a half years before her expulsion.

Secondly, black anti-racist activists, such as Marc Wadsworth, who was expelled, and Jackie too. And, thirdly, possibly the best anti-racist leader this party has ever produced - Ken Livingstone, forced out for daring to examine the history of the Ha’avara agreement in the 1930s, by which some Zionist organisations played a role in breaking the anti-Hitler trade boycott that threatened to bring the new Nazi regime to its knees. And now we have Chris Williamson.

Why does this witch-hunt matter?

Because it is used to undermine the best leader this party has ever had.

Because it is a diversion from the fight against the Tories and their austerity programme, and weakens Labour in the run-up to a general election.

Because it is used to conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, to silence criticism of the state of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights, and to close down discussion on key historical issues.

Because it separates anti-Semitism from all other forms of racism and obscures the racism against black and Asians, which structurally divides them from power in society and within our party.

And, as someone who has experienced anti-Semitism, I know it hinders the fight against it. This is particularly odious - the way false allegations of anti-Semitism are being used for factional interest. It is an abuse of the memory of all victims of anti-Semitism and racism - if we do not put an end to this, it will come back to haunt us.

United struggle

Have no doubt: the left is on the back foot, but it is not too late to reverse the tide. And that is where we come in. Our task is to be both supportive and independent of our leaders - free from their pressures, speaking truth to power. Saying and doing things our leaders perhaps cannot do themselves - and when that happens we have to assume leadership ourselves. I remember John McDonnell saying just these words to us.

And we need to return to the aim set out at the very beginning of Jeremy’s leadership challenge - to build, in very difficult historic conditions, a movement politically both strong enough and broad enough to begin to exert a counter-pressure against all the forces within the media, the PLP, the party machine, that have attempted to hold Jeremy prisoner.

And we will need to do all those things - bold, sharp, strong, broad - if we are to build a left alternative to Momentum, appealing to all those loyal Corbynites within Momentum who have yet to fully understand the political deficiencies and weaknesses of Momentum’s leadership. And we need to build not just in the constituencies, but in the trade unions, among youth, among ethnic minorities, where our radical brand of Corbynism has had little impact so far.

Our task is not to create a coalition of left groups. That is not the point. To get 40 rather than 20 here, to get 300 instead of 150 at an LRC AGM, to sell 3,000 instead of 1,500 copies of Briefing. All very good - but a bit beside the point.

No, a real left unity that is worthwhile cannot be built outside the struggle to rebuild the workers’ movement. An obvious point, I hope, but absolutely critical. If, as our good comrade, Chris Knight, has explained, revolutionary consciousness is consciousness of the strength and potential power of our movement on a global scale, we can only build a real left that is rooted in the struggle to strengthen and empower the workers’ movement in Britain and the world.

And to do so we need to reclaim the same radical spirit and unity that won us the leadership that long three and a half years ago. We need to embody the spirit of those who have fought against oppression - in Jackie Walker’s words: “Black and white, Jew and gentile”, united in the struggle for a better world.