Flight or fight?
A recent NEC vote shows that the official left is prepared to join in the witch-hunt, reports James Harvey of Labour Party Marxists
As the toll of suspensions and expulsions in Labour’s civil war continues to mount, leftwing members in Constituency Labour Parties are increasingly asking: where are our leaders? When are they going to lead a fightback? Although the official left are keeping very quiet, we know where they are, and it is miles away from the front line in the fight against the witch-hunt. Whilst many are simply keeping their heads down or meekly issuing apologies when threatened with suspension, others have gone even further and are siding with the Labour right.1
The most egregious example of this betrayal was the December 7 meeting of Labour’s national executive committee, where the official left - including five Grassroots Voice supporters representing the CLPs - effectively supported the witch-hunt by voting to implement the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s proposals on Labour’s disciplinary procedures.2 These GV NEC members campaigned and drew support in the recent elections as opponents of the witch-hunt and defenders of the CLPs, but at the first serious test they collapsed before the Labour right, betraying their mandate and leaving their supporters defenceless before the purge.
This capitulation is even more outrageous when you consider that, in the days leading up to the NEC meeting, we had two further examples of what such a surrender would mean. In the last week Moshé Machover, a leading Jewish anti-Zionist, and Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, a key figure in Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), joined the growing ranks of socialists who have been purged during Starmer’s witch-hunt. Their crime? Moshé’s long-standing argument that anti-Zionism does not equal anti-Semitism was deemed a ‘thought crime’ by Labour officials, while Naomi’s heinous offence was to speak out at an online CLP meeting against the accelerating purge of the left!3 The pace of the attack on the left is now so fast that it really is a case of ‘another day, another round of suspensions’.
This NEC vote is a serious setback, which will widen the scope of the witch-hunt and further restrict free speech and party democracy. However, it is just the latest episode in a long line of retreats, which has demoralised and disorganised the Labour left and sabotaged the chance to mount an effective counterattack. Taken together, this abject surrender, along with the Labour bureaucracy’s relentless pressure on even the mildest opposition, reveals the fundamental crisis now facing the official Labour left.
The nature of this crisis is encapsulated in the current debate amongst many left activists about whether it is still possible to stay and fight in the Labour Party under present conditions. This argument began in earnest following Starmer’s election and has now intensified following the EHRC report and Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the Parliamentary Labour Party. In response, leftwingers in the CLPs and trade union branches tabled motions of protest, which were met with bureaucratic manoeuvres and attempts to shut down discussion. David Evans, the party’s general secretary, issued a series of edicts preventing internal debate on Corbyn’s suspension or any aspect of the EHRC report.4 These curbs on free speech were further extended to other political issues - even the most innocuous solidarity with the Palestinian people was ruled out of order in one London CLP.5
Although over 80 CLPs managed to pass critical resolutions, in countless others local party officers and full-time regional officials successfully shut things down - in some case literally pulling the plug on Zoom meetings!6 It has become commonplace for CLPs to be threatened with disciplinary measures whilst in some cases officers who allowed critical motions to be discussed, such as in Bristol West CLP, have been suspended.7 The result is that some comrades on the Labour left are asking if calls for staying and fighting still hold water. Does the purge mean, they suggest, that Labour is dead, and we should now build a new working class party?
Keep your head down?
Let’s rehearse the arguments. In a recent article on Labour Hub, Mike Phipps of the Labour Representation Committee puts the case for the left keeping its head down and riding out the storm. Comparing Starmer’s purge with Blair’s New Labour counterrevolution, he argues that the left has indeed suffered a serious defeat, resulting in fragmentation, demoralisation and loss of membership. Agreed! But what does comrade Phipps propose? A vigorous defence of party democracy? A real counterattack against the witch-hunt? No, instead he advises us to
choose our battles carefully if we are going to survive and, more importantly, maintain our relevance with the broader membership. Failure to understand this will increase the danger of our marginalisation (original emphasis).8
We have seen the fruits of this passive approach throughout the witch-hunt and witnessed this week how it culminates in GV supporters voting with the Labour right on the NEC. A case of ‘choosing your battles carefully’? No, this is a sure-fire recipe for defeat and disaster, not survival. We do not “maintain our relevance with the broader membership” by keeping quiet: to remain silent during this purge means we are really abandoning the fight and going over to the enemy on the Labour right.
This trajectory is inherent in Phipps’ quietist approach, because his political strategy is completely focused on the election of a Labour government. Along with the rest of the official Labour left, this belief in a parliamentary road to socialism absolutely requires party unity (with the right) and the preservation of the Labour Party at all costs as an instrument for ‘socialist transformation’. Leaving aside the historical experience of Labour governments and the failures of the Labour left throughout the last 120 years to transform the party into any kind of instrument for militant socialist politics, Phipps’ advice for the Labour left in 2020 amounts to no more than a reiteration of its traditional strategy, combined with desperate appeals to cling on to party membership at all costs. It is a very long way from the demand that the left should stay and fight.
We strongly agree that comrades should stay and fight: it is an absolute duty that they should not quit and abandon the party to the likes of Starmer and his ilk. However, staying and fighting, is only the beginning of the battle! Recent experience has shown that, if you speak up against the witch-hunt or challenge the leadership’s lies and slanders about anti-Semitism, you will be suspended or expelled. Thus, Starmer’s purge and the increasing collaboration of the official left in shutting down debate and undermining party democracy are making it increasingly difficult for principled left activists to continue to operate within Labour.
The result is that for those comrades - like the supporters of Socialist Appeal, who make the Labour Party the central feature of their strategy - this crisis really is existential. If the space for socialism and democracy within Labour is closed off, what alternative perspective is open to these comrades? Burrow down and hope for better days ahead, perhaps?
But if clinging on to your membership card at all costs is an inadequate and ultimately impossible strategy, then the alternatives offered by comrades who advocate setting up new broad left parties and formations outside Labour are equally flawed. To repeat, we recognise that principled left members will face suspension and expulsion when they stay and fight. However, leaving Labour during this witch-hunt is a moral gesture, not a serious strategy for socialists. If comrades leave the party, where are they going? What is seriously on offer? Behind the rumours and the vague ideas for a regroupment of the left, two possible formations are frequently suggested: a Labour Party mark two, and a ’broad front’ modelled on Syriza or Podemos.
In the form of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, a Labour Party mark two is advocated by the Socialist Party in England and Wales and, since Corbynism’s defeat, is now being revived as an electoral front. Although former Labour MP Chris Williamson has recently joined Tusc, given its record of very modest success to date and its limited programme of economistic left reformism, it seems unlikely to be the future vehicle for militant socialist politics.9 As Labour Party Marxists has frequently argued throughout this crisis, sub-reformism of this Labour Party mark two type simply reinvents all the political weaknesses and strategic dead ends offered by the historical Labour Party mark one!10 It is a trap and a route to futility and disillusionment.
Despite the allure of the idea of the broad left front as an alternative to Labour, the experience of Syriza and Podemos does not augur well. Their record in government in Greece and Spain shows the real nature of the politics behind their radical phraseology. Their trajectory from ‘anti-establishment outsiders’ to parties of coalition follows a familiar reformist pattern, which comrades who claim to be revolutionary socialists should flatly reject as any kind of model. In a similar vein, nearer to home, the history of left regroupments in Britain over the last 30 years points to a similar pattern of failure to build a credible revolutionary party that offers a real challenge to capitalism. The history of the stillborn parties that emerged after 1990 is hardly inspiring; do the experiences of the Socialist Labour Party, Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Alliance, Respect and Left Unity really offer us any party models or examples of a coherent political strategy that we can adopt today?
The witch-hunt has exposed fundamental flaws and fault lines in the politics of the Labour left. As the NEC vote shows, the leadership of the official left shares much in common with the right, leaving many of their supporters in the CLPs and the trade unions demoralised and uncertain of how best to fight back. These comrades are looking for a strategy to advance socialist politics. Stay and fight is the first step: we must not lightly surrender the Labour Party battlefield to the enemy. But it is only the first step: the current existential crisis poses much more fundamental questions for the Labour left about the Marxist programme and the type of party that we need if we are to carry out our movement’s historical commitment to the socialist transformation of society.
See jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/councillor-suspended-for-saying-no-basis-for-a-jewish-race-nation-or-homeland. Some former lefts have gone even further, enthusiastically joining in the purge: for example, it is reported that aspiring Labour bureaucrat and former leading member of Workers Power Mark Hoskisson initiated the complaints which resulted in expulsions and suspensions in Liverpool Wavertree CLP.↩︎
‘Diversionary dead end’ Weekly Worker April 6 2017; and ‘Aim to be a party of extreme opposition’ Weekly Worker May 18 2017.↩︎