Not the gutter, but the stars
Jack Conrad comments on Starmer’s victory and the problems with the left.
Few will be surprised by the Labour leadership election results. Kier Starmer scored a resounding victory. His 56.2% of the vote was a humiliation for Rebecca Long-Bailey - and for the entire reformist left. After all, RLB was, in effect, Jeremy Corbyn’s chosen heir and successor. Although - well, maybe because - she had Jon Lansman as her campaign manager, she only managed to secure 27.6% of the total vote.
Long-Bailey was told to pitch to the centre: back Angela Rayner for deputy, accept the Board of Deputies’ 10 demands, promise to press the nuclear button, etc. Creepily, she did as ordered.
Not that Richard Burgon did any better in the deputy leadership contest. No, in fact, he did worse - in the first round a paltry 17.3%. That though he too had the backing of the pro-Corbyn left.
Nor did the results of the national executive committee by-election bring any comfort. There was, of course, no single left slate. Momentum, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, Labour Representation Committee and Labour Left Alliance failed to come to an agreement.
Jo Bird came fourth … in a contest for just two seats. True, she was suspended from membership in the midst of the campaign. It is unlikely, though, that this made much of a difference. Conceivably she gained a sympathy vote. Sure, 46,150 votes is not bad in and of itself, but Johanna Baxter and Gurinder Singh-Josan - backed by Progress and Labour First - were ten thousand ahead. As for Deborah Hudson, she trailed far, far behind with just 8,974 votes. That in spite of support from the LRC and Grassroots Black Left. In the BAME election Carol Sewell beat Momentum’s Navendu Mishra - again by a convincing margin.
So the right won across the board: leader, deputy leader and three NEC seats. It should be added that four NEC candidates - all from the left - remain suspended or excluded. A travesty of basic democratic norms. That happened, remember, under the watch of Jeremy Corbyn, Jennie Formby and Seumas Milne.
There is the flotsam and jetsam who have already resigned or are talking of resigning. This is inevitable. Easy come in 2015, easy go in 2020 - a testimony to political naivety, impatience and the desperate search for instant salvation. Many - too many - believed that Jeremy Corbyn was the ‘man on the white horse’, who would deliver good jobs, good housing, good public services, even a good climate … if only he got himself into No10.
Others, from the same mould, say Starmer must be given a chance. His promise to “rise above factionalism”, his talk of “party unity”, his commitment not to return to the “politics of austerity” - all this hustings waffle should be taken on trust. His juvenile Socialist Alternative dabblings are even cited as evidence of a sincere leftwing heart. All going to prove that you really can fool some people some of the time. Hence the transition from naive Corbynism to capitalist realism. After all, the hope is that Sir Kier is more electable than Comrade Corbyn is well founded. He is undeniably more acceptable to the mainstream media and the capitalist class.
There are, of course, the steadfast Corbyn believers, including amongst the sects of one, who blame Rebecca Long-Bailey herself, as a personality, for the debacle. She was a weak candidate, that is beyond doubt. She allowed herself to be manoeuvred like a chess piece by that master strategist, Jon Lansman. First it was to the centre, then into retreat and finally a desperate move to the left.
She wrote to Labour members proclaiming herself the champion of “updating” the totemic clause four. Lansman’s fingerprints were all too visible. We were stupidly told that “the original clause four promised common ownership and an equitable distribution in the economy”, while the Blairite version “described us as a democratic socialist party”. That the 1995 version abandoned the state capitalism of 1918 seemed to entirely pass her by. Nor did the fact that Tony’s Blair’s “democratic socialist party” embraced neoliberal capitalism appear to register.1 She wanted to please everyone, but ended up pleasing no-one.
Her last-minute pivot to the left was therefore not only calculated: it was feeble, trite and bound to fail. She appears to have no ideas of her own. She is, in other words, a typical soft-left careerist. She richly deserves her appointment as Starmer’s shadow education secretary.
Surely, though, the real problem lies not so much with Rebecca Long-Bailey, but with the left itself.
There are all manner of autopsies. Let us begin with those who will not, cannot, take the Labour Party seriously as a site for struggle. The election of Starmer is a godsend for them. Now they can return to business as usual.
The Socialist Workers Party is typical:
His victory should be a final nail in the coffin for the idea that the main focus for the left is inside the Labour Party. The focus has to be building the resistance to the Tories outside parliament.2
Leave aside the loaded words, “main focus” and “final nail in the coffin”. The SWP has no political strategy, no programme for socialism. Strikes and street demonstrations are everything. Politically the SWP is closer in spirit to Mikhail Bakunin than Karl Marx. What the SWP really means is that work in the Labour Party is unnecessary, a diversion, a waste of time.
No communist would say that their “main focus” should be trade unions. But a communist who ignored the trade unions, who refused to work in trade unions, would be a very poor communist indeed. There are, after all, over six million trade union members in Britain today - potentially a huge force for change.
What is happening inside the Labour Party is without doubt a form of the class struggle. The bourgeoisie knows it all too well. Labour must once again become the safe alternative party of government, capitalism’s second eleven, as it was under Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and Tony Blair. Relying on the Tory party alone is full of risks. Just look at the Brexit disaster. Given the choice of Brexit or Corbyn, it was always going to be Boris Johnson. So, Labour must be reclaimed by the bourgeoisie.
Towards that end, writing in the Murdoch-owned The Sunday Times, deputy editor Sarah Baxter demands that Starmer sends “packing the Marxists, the ultra-leftists and the anti-Semites who flocked to Corbyn’s banner”.3 And, yes, right on cue, Starmer promised to change Labour, so that it can “become a credible government-in-waiting”.4
Showing that he meant it, not only were Ian Lavery, Barry Gardiner and Jon Trickett given the boot from the shadow cabinet. Much more importantly, in a video, released straight after his leadership victory, Starmer described anti-Semitism as “a stain on our party” and vowed to “tear out this poison by its roots.”5
Expect a far-reaching purge. Expect a huge battle. Expect high court judges to take sides. Expect government legislation. Expect the mainstream media to demand ever more heads. To stand aloof from that fight, is, to put it mildly, worse than useless.
But that too is just what the Socialist Party in England and Wales does:
Starmer’s victory represents a qualitative step in the capitalist class’s campaign to make the Labour Party once again, as it was under Blair, a reliable vehicle for their interests …. the labour and trade union movement, and socialist activists, must start a discussion now on the need for a new mass workers’ party with a socialist programme, and how it can be built.6
So, it is back to the future with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, the Campaign for a New Workers Party and the futile attempt to build a Labour Party mark two.
Left Unity, George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain, the Workers Revolutionary Party, etc will all be saying similar things, in their own different ways.
Let us now turn to Labour’s soft left. It does indeed have its “main focus” inside the Labour Party. Life outside its committees, conferences and forums is literally inconceivable. Therefore count on a drift to the right.
The LRC teamed up with Jewish Voice for Labour and Red Labour in formulating a joint statement. Underwhelmingly, we are told that Starmer’s election is “a worrying outcome for all of us who were inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s transformative vision”. That is, note, a vision of a transformed capitalism, which Corbyn and his supporters bizarrely wish to call ‘socialism’.
Only too aware of Long-Bailey’s political trajectory, LRC-JVL-RL clutch at the straw of Richard Burgon’s “principled stance”. They take upon themselves “responsibility of forming the bedrock for rebuilding the left in the coming months” - the upshot of that vaulting ambition being securing an agreement with Jon Lansman’s Momentum to field “common candidates, and find a more inclusive and democratic way of deciding on them”.7
So we arrive at Momentum itself. It actually “congratulates” Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner on their election and claims to be looking “forward to working with them to ensure the election of a government that will carry out the kind of bold, transformational policies our country and planet so badly need”. Momentum says its principal task now is to ensure that Starmer keeps his promise not to roll back Corbyn’s policies to nationalise the rails, mail, energy, water, etc. He must “build on Jeremy’s transformative vision”.8
In that deluded spirit, Momentum claims that the political landscape has been transformed by Corbyn’s four years as Labour leader. Yes, the politics of privatisation and austerity have vanished. With the Covid-19 pandemic we have coronasocialism - a series of emergency measures forced upon capitalist governments around the world. But what will follow? What will happen after the pandemic? In the name of the national interest, the Tories will attempt to impose another age of austerity. Starmer and his front bench will surely do their duty and provide constructive criticism.
Then there is the Labour Left Alliance. In other words the LLA’s leadership. The comrades readily admit that the election of Starmer and Rayner is “a serious setback for the left”. Good. However, though less supine than LRC-JVL-RL and Momentum, LLA falls squarely into the same political frame.
Hence, we are proudly told about “Corbyn’s principled politics” and how the affiliation of the trade unions “makes Labour a true mass organisation of the working class - and the biggest democratic socialist party in Europe”.9 Giveaway formulations that are well worth investigating.
Admittedly, Corbyn bravely opposed US-UK imperialist wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, stood alongside striking trade unionists on picket lines and supported those fighting for equal rights. An honourable record that should never be forgotten.
Sadly, though, his politics are shallow, untheorised and amount to no more than humdrum left reformism. His internationalism is of the sentimental variety. Moralism, not Marxism. Instinctively, his perspectives are based on the nation-state. Here is his agent of social change. Certainly, he is far happier with the politics of ‘the people versus the elite’ than the politics of ‘class against class’. The 1%, the greedy bankers, the corrupt elite will be vanquished - not through the class struggle, but through the British people voting Labour in a standard British general election and thereby equipping the British state with a new set of ministers. That is what Corbyn’s socialism amounts to. Can the same be said of LLA’s leadership?
Having begun with Corbyn’s “principled politics”, we now move to Labour being a “true mass organisation of the working class”.
Lenin can usefully be brought into the argument at this point. Writing against the ‘left’ communists of his day, he says this about the Labour Party:
... whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers, but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat.
Regarded from this - the only correct - point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns [the German social chauvinist murderers of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht - JC].10
Despite all the subsequent changes since 1920, this assessment remains essentially correct. Labour is still a “bourgeois workers’ party”. Of course, once Corbyn was formally announced leader of the Labour Party, on September 12 2015, things became slightly more complex. Labour became unreliable from a bourgeois viewpoint. It could no longer be trusted. But that hardly amounts to Labour being “a true mass organisation of the working class.” No, it remains an organisation which exists to systematically dupe the working class. Given the urgent necessity of superseding capitalism, Corbyn and Corbynism acted as a diversion from what is objectively needed.
Next, Labour as a “democratic socialist party”. Here it is hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Labour suspends and excludes inconvenient candidates running in its own elections; is dominated by a self-serving bureaucracy; serves as a political ladder for professional careerists; expels anti-Zionists; bars communist and socialist organisations from affiliating. What on earth is democratic about any of that?
Not only is there precious little “democratic” about “democratic socialist parties”. There is precious little socialist about them. “Democratic socialist” is a honeyed phrase with a long and thoroughly dishonourable history. It is code for Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism, code for anti-Bolshevism, code for cold-war anti-communism, code for Blair’s so-called third way.
In the two general election campaigns Corbyn fought as leader, we saw neither hint nor trace of socialism. Not even of the left reformist variety. Or are LLA leaders telling us that For the many, not the few (2017) and It’s time for real change (2019) represents some sort of socialism? Well, not if they have any attachment to orthodox Marxism. Socialism is the rule of the working class, the supersession of capitalism, the transition to a moneyless, stateless, classless society. It is not a reformed capitalism.
Like the LRC-JVL-RL triple alliance, the LLA leadership seeks solace in Richard Burgon. His campaign was “unashamedly radical”. Really. Burgon is just Corbynism without Corbyn’s backsliding. Nonetheless, despite that, we are informed that the LLA views his hustings promise to “build on the values and principles” of his campaign” with “great interest”. Well, yes, if your sights are on the gutter, not the stars.
LLA’s leadership too sets itself the task of organising those “who were inspired by Corbyn.” A worthy aim, of course. It gives what it calls an “honest” explanation of “what went wrong following Corbyn’s election in 2015”.
There are, in essence, four explanations:
1. The establishment media. Corbyn was accused of being a Czech spy, a terrorist sympathiser and mad. True, initially, none of these charges stuck. The 2017 general election, when the media predicted huge losses for the party, showed that Corbyn was a force to be reckoned with. “The party should have launched its own media and news outlets to combat the destructive role of the establishment media.” Exactly what Labour Party Marxists have been long arguing for.
2. Rightwing opposition and sabotage. Yes, the majority of Labour MPs never reconciled themselves to the Corbyn leadership. They fed lies and rumours to the mainstream media and staged two coup attempts. With good reason LLA argues that “Corbyn was effectively held prisoner” by the Parliamentary Labour Party, due to his commitment to “unity”. The situation on the NEC “was only marginally better, but pro-Corbyn forces never held an outright majority”.
3. Corbyn and his team “did not use the opportunity” presented by his leadership “to radically democratise the Labour Party in order to give more powers to the members”. The demand for open selection of Labour MPs is the obvious example. Yes, if Corbyn had publicly thrown his weight behind this “basic, principled demand”, it would surely have been adopted at the 2018 Labour conference. But Unite’s leader, Len McCluskey, claims that Corbyn asked him to instruct his delegates to vote it down - against the expressed wishes of 95% of the CLP delegates and in violation of Unite’s agreed policy.
4. Appeasement. Corbyn and his team sought to bring the Tribunite centre on board, and at least neutralise the diehard Blairites by giving ground, by mollifying, by appealing for unity. This was the disastrous strategy mapped out by Seumas Milne. It was never going to work. The right smelt weakness and relentlessly kept up their attacks.
“Most disappointing,” we are told, “was the attitude of the leadership to the ever-increasing witch-hunt against Corbyn’s own supporters”. Far from speaking out against the flood of false allegations, Corbyn “stood by and watched, as some of the best campaigners in the party were picked off one by one, smeared and subject to trial by media for alleged anti-Semitism”. To call that “disappointing” is surely an understatement. If we are going to be honest, we ought to call things what they are. Corbyn behaved appallingly, he betrayed his own friends, he unwittingly fuelled the witch-hunt.
So, yes, Corbyn “should have spoken out against those who consciously weaponised the miniscule number of anti-Semitic incidents”. But by their friends ye shall know them. Some of Corbyn’s “closest allies went along with the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism”. Eg, Jon Lansman, John McDonnell and Owen Jones.
Unquestionably, Corbyn and co tried to show the right that they had a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to anti-Semitism. The results are all too well known. Natural justice, fairness and a transparent disciplinary process were all thrown to the wind. Instead, there were fast-track expulsions, the massive expansion of the compliance unit (now renamed legal and governance) and total collapse before the right.
But there ought to be a fifth explanation. It constitutes the LLA’s elephant in the room: Labour lost the December 2019 general election.
As a consequence, the reformist left - and not only in the Labour Party - suffered a body blow. With Jeremy Corbyn they had their ideal leader, with John McDonnell they had their ideal shadow chancellor, with It’s time for real change they had their ideal manifesto. And yet Labour went down to a crushing defeat.
Naturally, soft-left explanations for Starmer’s victory seize upon the mainstream media, rightwing sabotage, Corbyn’s timidity and the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign. But the most important explanation is the December 2019 general election defeat.
The reformist left is wedded to the ‘next Labour government’ - presented not as a prelude to the ‘next Tory government’, but as the high road to socialism. An illusion, of course. History provides only evidence to the contrary - disproof, negative examples. But that is what the soft left still doggedly preaches.
Given this soft left common sense and the 2019 defeat, what do we expect the average Labour Party member to conclude? It is perfectly logical for them to vote for the acceptable candidate, not the continuity candidate. In other words, the soft left is part of the problem.
The results of the December 2019 came as no surprise to anyone. Opinion polls showed a clear Tory lead. Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings skilfully set the election up as being about ‘Getting Brexit done’.
But, if by some fluke a Corbyn government had happened, it would not have delivered on the very modest promises contained in It’s time for real change. The Corbyn leadership was committed to reversing austerity, increasing the economic role of the state, repealing some anti-trade union laws and introducing some minor constitutional reforms. At best that amounted to a hopeless attempt to run British capitalism in the interests of the working class. But there would have been a run on the pound, a constitutional coup, an army mutiny, US ‘push back’, etc. A Corbyn government would have quickly collapsed. Given the continued hold of constitutionalism, narrow trade unionism and ephemeral protest politics, resistance would surely have proved feeble and ineffective.
Does that assessment mean that Marxists should give up on the Labour Party? No, that would be stupid. One might as well give up working in trade unions, standing candidates in elections or organising political strikes and street demonstrations.
No less stupid is the idea that the CPGB bases itself on Lenin’s position in 1920. As everyone on the left knows, Lenin advocated that the CPGB should simultaneously seek to put Labour into office and seek affiliation.
A Labour government would, Lenin reckoned, open the eyes of militant workers. It was not merely a question of a Labour government not delivering on its promises. With a growing, ever more authoritative CPGB up and running, it could aspire to lead the mass of the working class.
Lenin, it needs emphasising, wrongly thought that conditions in Britain were those of a rapidly maturing revolutionary situation. His approach to CPGB affiliation should be seen in that context. Communists would demand the right to criticise Labour’s reactionary leaders. If affiliation was accepted that would be to the advantage of the CPGB. If affiliation was turned down, that too would be to the advantage of the CPGB. In other words, a win-win situation.
Apart from taking Lenin’s formulation that the Labour Party is a bourgeois workers’ party, we base ourselves entirely on contemporary conditions. There have been plenty of Labour governments. All have disappointed, all have led, not surprisingly, to demoralisation and demobilisation. After each Labour government we get a Tory government and a shift to the right - not a mass influx into the numerous confessional sects that pass for the Marxist left nowadays.
We are committed not merely to waging a struggle against the right, bringing the PLP to heel, making the annual conference sovereign and opening Labour up once again to the affiliation of leftwing groups and parties, etc. No, we are committed to the complete transformation of the Labour Party, forging it into a permanent united front of the working class and equipping it with solid Marxist principles and a tried and tested Marxist leadership. Then Labour can become a vehicle for socialism along lines analogous to the soviets in Russia.
A goal, which, it must be stressed, can only be achieved by building a well-led, tactically astute, highly disciplined, mass-membership Communist Party. Laying the foundations for such a party is definitely the main task at this moment in time. It begins with mastering the best in Marxist theory, drafting a far-sighted minimum-maximum programme and conducting an unremitting struggle against all forms of opportunism. Not by seeking lowest-common-denominator unity, beginning where people are at, or trading away principles. No, the Communist Party cannot be built ‘bottom up’.
Nor can there be any chance of even democratising the Labour Party and the trade unions without a powerful movement towards such a vanguard organisation and winning considerable swathes of activists - both from within and from without the Labour Party - to that historically necessary project. This is a truth which the ideologues of soft leftism in the Labour Party refuse to grasp. Which is why they are doomed to suffer one Sisyphean defeat after another.
. J Marshall, ‘Clause wars’ Weekly Worker March 12 2020.↩︎
. Socialist Worker April 7 2020.↩︎
. The Sunday Times April 5 2020.↩︎
. The Sunday Times April 5 2020.↩︎
. The Sun April 5 2020.↩︎
. The Socialist April 6 2020.↩︎
. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, pp257-58.↩︎