Between a rock and a hard place
Candidates in the Labour leadership election reflect the self-inflicted defeat of the Labour left under Corbyn’s leadership, argues Carla Roberts of Labour Party Marxists
Six candidates have thrown their hat into the ring to become the next leader of the Labour Party, but we can safely presume that, in the end, it will be either Keir Starmer or Rebecca Long-Bailey. Clive Lewis and Emily Thornberry could well drop out, whereas Lisa Nandy may not even make it onto the ballot paper. Jess Phillips might have been the popular go-to person for the anti-Corbyn press looking for a nasty quote. But coming out, all guns blazing, in favour of ignoring the result of the Brexit referendum has ensured that most of the media have now turned against her. And she has no chance with the membership anyway. As we go to press, Barry Gardiner is “considering” throwing his hat into the ring, and we will have to see how he is positioning himself politically. While he was better on the anti-Semitism smear campaign than most MPs, he is also a member of Labour Friends of Israel.
Before we start, we should point out how poor all these candidates are. All of them are way to the right of what Jeremy Corbyn stood for in 2015. While Corbyn was a symbol of the victory of the left against all the odds, the current candidates, including Rebecca Long- Bailey, are the living embodiment of the defeat the left has now suffered.
The real sense of hope that hundreds of thousands of people felt after the 2015 election of Corbyn has all but evaporated - for now. By not standing up to the right, by appeasing them over and over again, Corbyn and the rest of the leadership helped to decimate and, crucially, depoliticise and demobilise the left in the party. Instructing Len McCluskey to use his Unite contingent at the 2018 Labour conference to vote against the democratic demand for mandatory reselection of all parliamentary candidates was, perhaps, the most vivid example of Corbyn’s political climbdown. But it was his decision not to tackle the ongoing anti-Semitism smear campaign which really damaged the left in the party. He stood silently by as one supporter after another was sacrificed - all in the vain hope that at some point, surely, enough concessions would have been made to stop the attacks. Needless to say, the opposite happened: for every step back by Corbyn and his allies, the right took two steps forward.
This was all justified by the need to ‘keep our eyes on the prize’ - ie, finally getting the keys to No10 Downing Street. We might have to sacrifice this or that political principle and we might have to pretend that anti-Semitism is a huge problem in the party - but at least we can convince enough rightwingers to stick with us. Then, once we’re in government, we can finally show what we’re really about.
That has been the recipe not just of Corbyn, John McDonnell and their inner circle - it is the long-standing ‘strategy’ of much of the organised Labour left: Momentum, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Socialist Action have been the most blatant in applying this method, which the Labour Representation Committee and much of the rest of the Labour left are also guilty of, albeit to a lesser degree.
We have now seen where this recipe leads - to disaster. From this reformist perspective, we had the perfect leader with the near-perfect social democratic programme - and we still did not make it into government! And no, it wasn’t just Brexit wot did it. The fact that the leadership never stood up to the right in and outside the party meant that the entire established media were able to portray Corbyn and the bulk of the party as a bunch of deranged anti-Semites, racists and crazies. And it stuck - of course it did.
Unfortunately, Chris Williamson was the only MP who stood up against the witch-hunt and campaigned for the democratisation of the party. And we know how that ended for him. Every other Labour MP kept their mouth firmly shut. That includes Richard Burgon, who is running for deputy leader and is probably the best of the whole bunch of candidates. Like Ian Lavery, who briefly considered running for the top job, Burgon at least did not actively participate in the witch-hunt against Corbyn and the left - which is more than can be said of the six candidates for party leader.
That is probably one of the main reasons why Lavery could not gather the required 21 nominations from his fellow MPs. We fear that Burgon - despite, or maybe because of, his endorsement by John McDonnell1 - will also fail to jump that hurdle.
There is a massive pressure and temptation now to move the party to the right in order to finally become ‘electable’ again. This would, however, mean that we had learnt nothing from the last five years. In truth, the party hardly moved left at all. Yes, hundreds of thousands of new members joined since 2015. But most of them never participated in their local branch or CLP meetings. And, when they did, they were understandably shocked by how bureaucratic, dull and apolitical meetings are. Almost no structural democratic changes have taken place under Corbyn - he did not even dare to touch the now pro-capitalist clause four, which was rewritten by Tony Blair. The so-called Corbyn Review was nothing but a damp squib.
But these are exactly the issues that should be at the heart of our struggle: the democratisation of the party; restoring power to the members and making conference truly sovereign; and we should even discuss getting rid of the position of leader altogether. Instead, the party should have a truly democratic, accountable and transparent leadership. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if we could see minutes of national executive committee meetings?
Empowering the members is part and parcel of fighting for a genuine socialist government and working class power - not pursuing a strategy of trying to introduce socialism from above, one step at a time. The biggest problem with this strategy is simple: it does not actually work. Real socialism is the self-liberation of the working class, from below. Otherwise it quickly turns into its opposite.
Keir Starmer, the preferred candidate of the ‘moderates’ and Blairites, is posing, somewhat entertainingly, as the Corbyn continuity candidate, in a rather obvious attempt to attract some of the softer lefties. He says he supported the miners in 1984-85 (not many miners remember that one) and even used to be a Trot once. In 1986- 87 he wrote for the short-lived Socialist Alternatives magazine, mainly on trade union matters. Despite its affinity to the Pabloite tactic of deep entryism into mass Labour and communist parties (in anticipation of World War III), the basic character of the journal was closer to the reformism and the identity politics of the Eurocommunists.2 But have no doubt: this man is today’s Tony Blair.
No doubt, most of the organised left will come out for Rebecca Long-Bailey - bar, perhaps the wretched Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - who, we hear, are even considering support for Keir Starmer (though remainer Clive Lewis is no doubt on the AWL list too). But it is palpable how very little enthusiasm there has been for RLB among the party membership, despite her having been groomed for the position by John McDonnell and Momentum owner Jon Lansman for the last two years. It is easy to see why there is so much hesitation and scepticism about her: she has made a huge effort to distance herself from the left and to be seen as anything but the Corbyn continuity candidate.
There was her underwhelming article in The Guardian on December 29, in which she promised to pursue a policy of “progressive patriotism”.3 Presumably that was supposed to show that she will not be a US ‘special relationship’ puppet. But in the process she had to resort, rather pathetically, to claiming that the internationalism of the Lancashire cotton workers during the US civil war - the second revolution - was exactly the opposite. A rather entertaining article on The Struggle blog puts her right:
the boycott of southern cotton was not ‘patriotism’, but an act of internationalist working class solidarity with the workers in the northern states and the slaves held in chains in the south. To dress this up in a Union Jack is to disgrace the sacrifice - all too literal - of the Lancashire mill workers.4
Then there is her promise that she would be prepared to press the nuclear button, albeit reluctantly: “If you have a deterrent, you have to be prepared to use it,” she told the BBC. “Any leader and any prime minister has to be clear that the security and the protection of the people that they represent comes first, above all else, and they would do anything it takes to ensure the people of this country are protected.”5
Or you could, you know, campaign for nuclear disarmament. It used to be very popular on the Labour left to oppose the nuclear obliteration of large sections of humanity. Jeremy Corbyn was admittedly ‘hazy’ on the question and refused to continue to campaign for the abolition of Trident once he became leader. But he never went as far as to say that he would actually use nuclear weapons.
We are also less than impressed with RBL’s running mate - and flatmate - Angela Rayner. They seem to want to recreate the ‘dream team’ of Neil Kinnock and his deputy, Roy Hattersley, which ostensibly was supposed to unite the left and the ‘centre’ of the party - and, of course, ended with Kinnock turning against the left, expelling the Militant faction, etc. The civil war of the last five years has shown clearly that there cannot be any ‘unity’ with the right.
Worst of all though is RLB’s political weakness, when it comes to the witch- hunt in the party. In June 2019, she met with the vile witch-hunter, Stephane Savary of the so called Jewish Labour Movement, and agreed with the JLM that Chris Williamson should be expelled from the party.
She also agreed that anti-Semitism complaints should be handled by an “independent body”. That sounds ever so ‘progressive’, but is actually an absolutely disastrous suggestion. Who should decide if a Labour Party member should be expelled, suspended or otherwise disciplined? The Jewish Labour Movement, perhaps? Or the Jewish Leadership Council, made up chiefly of Tory supporters? Of course not. Members should be judged by their peers. It is an ongoing injustice that employees of the party, chiefly recruited by witch-hunter general Iain McNicol, are dealing with complaints and preparing disciplinary reports - reports which are then briefly discussed by the disciplinary panel of the NEC, often in less than five minutes per case. The legal and governance unit - formerly the compliance unit - should be abolished and replaced by an accountable body democratically elected by Labour members.
After that meeting, she tweeted that “any comments made by anyone linked to the Canary or any other publication, which are anti-Semitic, or perceived to be - I condemn”6 - exactly the line that the JLM has been pushing for years: if they perceive a comment to be anti-Semitic, then that’s what it is! Any kind of rational definition would go out of the window. A rule change along those lines was quite rightly rejected by the NEC, and then by conference, in 2018.
And RLB is hardly an experienced militant. In 2015, for example, having just been elected an MP, she had to ask a Zionist audience what the BDS movement was.7
This makes it all the more important that the Labour left finally gets its act together and starts to put some real pressure from the left on the leadership. The only pressure in the last five years has come from the right - and it has showed. Uncritical support for RLB is even more misplaced and dangerous than the messiah cult we witnessed around Corbyn.
This leadership battle presents the left with an excellent opportunity to do so. Rebecca Long-Bailey has already ‘tweaked’ her campaign quite a bit since her Guardian article, perhaps recognising that members have been less than impressed with it.
Earlier this week, she declared on ITV News that she “would give Corbyn 10 out 10, because I respect him and I supported him all the way through”. Corbyn, incidentally, has “declined” to say how he will be voting in the leadership contest.8 We suspect that has more to do with his ongoing efforts to try and appear neutral than any political problem he might have with RLB.
In her official election platform, published in The Tribune on January 6, she discusses how the party “has been too close to the establishment we are meant to be taking on, whether cosying up to Rupert Murdoch or joining forces with David Cameron in the Better Together campaign in 2014”.
She also discusses the democratic deficit in today’s society and that “the people across these islands are sick of the British state’s distant and undemocratic institutions”. While discussing the need for “a vision for a new democracy”, she writes: “We must go to war with the political establishment, pledging a constitutional revolution that sweeps away the House of Lords, takes big money out of politics and radically shifts power away from Westminster.” Labour’s 2019 election programme talked, much more tamely, about ending “the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, and work to abolish the House of Lords in favour of Labour’s preferred option of an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions.”
That might still be what RLB means, but it does show she can shift. So let’s try and shift her! Before CLPs start nominating her to become leader of the Labour Party, members could, for example, ask RLB some of the following questions, each of which goes to the heart of today’s civil war in the Labour Party:
Will you campaign for Labour to support the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign?
Will you campaign for Labour to fight for the abolition of Trident and for unilateral nuclear disarmament?
Will you campaign for the mandatory reselection of all parliamentary candidates and the further empowerment of Labour members?
Will you issue an apology to Chris Williamson and ask him to rejoin the Labour Party?
The Daily Telegraph January 8.↩