WeeklyWorker

04.02.2021
Going in two opposite directions but blissfully unaware of it

Facing both ways

Last weekend’s conference ended up adopting two totally contradictory positions. James Harvey of Labour Party Marxists reports

If you want to understand the confused politics and contradictory strategy of the Labour left, the January 30 online discussion conference organised by the Labour Left Alliance was a good place to start. Everyone who spoke at the event - entitled ‘Labour in crisis: what next?’ - argued that we urgently need a strategy to organise an effective fightback against Starmer and the Labour right. The picture they painted was of a real attack on party democracy and freedom of debate by the leadership, and the resulting widespread disorientation and demoralisation on the left.

The majority of comrades who attended and spoke clearly regard themselves as the real, militant left in the Labour Party - in contrast to the tame official left, represented by groups such as the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs and Momentum. Indeed, everyone was at great pains to stress this distinction and place themselves firmly in the camp of extreme opposition to the Starmer regime. However, if all were agreed that Labour is facing a huge threat from the right, there was no real agreement about either the character of this crisis or the strategy that the left needs to adopt.1

Roger Silverman of the Workers’ International Network (WIN) and the LLA organising group set the tone in his political opening by suggesting that the one-sided civil war unleashed by the Labour right had finally reached boiling point. The split, initiated by Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, was already underway, he argued, but the official left lacked both the policy and the perspectives to fight back. In the context of this major crisis, comrade Silverman believed that the conference could prove to be “a landmark” in the struggle for a “mass workers’ party - a socialist Labour Party rooted in the trade unions”.

Unfortunately, it failed to live up to this billing. It was far from the landmark event Roger promised. Instead of clarity and coherence, what the conference actually revealed was the political and strategic muddle that lies at the heart of the Labour left. The dominant moods of the conference appeared to be of compromise, consensus and contradiction. This was most clearly exposed in the final section of the conference, which discussed how to “transform Labour into a party of the class”. Here participants, when presented with three very different analyses and strategies, finally managed, by clear majorities, to support two of them!

The first successful resolution called for “building a socialist alternative inside and outside the Labour Party” (my emphasis). Its argument, framed in rather apocalyptic terms, suggested that “the acute nature of the economic and social crisis of capitalism … meant the ruling class has had to resort to increasingly autocratic methods”, which included closing down free speech and democracy in political parties. In moving the motion Matthew Jones recognised that historically the left has been subordinate to the right within Labour, but he argued that we are now in a “qualitatively different situation”, in which the Starmer/Evans leadership wants to drive the left out of the party altogether. Given this situation, and with thousands of left activists now leaving the party, there was already a de facto split and so, comrade Jones suggested, it was necessary to “promote the self-organisation of the left inside and outside” Labour.

Although the resolution seemed to hedge its bets, the clear implication was that Labour was finished as any type of vehicle for the left. This was an unparalleled crisis and in these ‘end times’ for social democracy there was no longer any perspective of transforming Labour in any form. However, during the debate comrades who supported building such a socialist alternative “inside and outside” the party failed to clearly define what such an alternative would entail. The suggestion seemed to be that it would encompass the ‘entire left’, with the programmatic basis of any such a new formation deliberately left vague. This left the strong suspicion that the “self-organisation of the left” would simply be yet another recycled ‘broad front’ of lowest-common-denominator leftism, similar in form to the Socialist Alliance or Left Unity. Whether they understood it or not, comrades who supported this motion are transitioning out of the Labour Party, although the discussion showed that for many of them the final destination still remains elusively and deliberately just beyond the horizon.

In or out?

Just as these comrades seem to be on their way out, the movers of the successful Rotherham Labour Left motion were digging in even more deeply. Influenced by Socialist Appeal, this motion opposed the setting up of any new formations outside Labour, calling instead for LLA comrades to “keep organising in the Labour Party” and “avoid support for ‘competitors’ to avoid being ineligible for membership”. Although critical of Corbyn’s appeasement of the right and the failure of the official left to stand up to the witch-hunt, their Labour loyalism - and belief that the existing type of ‘traditional’ organisation of the working class provides ready-made instruments for the socialist transformation of society - coloured their analysis of the way forward for LLA supporters. The motion’s focus on rule changes for leadership elections, the demand for a recalled party conference and a new clause four were clearly designed to keep the troops safely busy within Labour rather than straying away for presumably more fruitful pastures new outside.

Both the historical experience of the Labour left and its contemporary self-imprisonment as a tame official left show the ultimate bankruptcy of such positions. As explained by the movers of the Rotherham motion, this strategy of Labour loyalism fails to deal with the contradictory nature of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party - a failure further compounded by their sowing illusions that the parliamentary strategy and the election of a ‘socialist Labour government’ is the only way to socialism in Britain. But perhaps even this is now too much for these comrades to hope for, given that the height of the ambition of these latter day Millerandistes seems now to be limited to getting a ‘Marxist’ MP into the shadow cabinet - “a coup” in the words of Rotherham Labour Left’s Daniel Platts!

The Labour Party Marxists motion dealt with both the defeatism and loyalism of the two successful motions in its central argument that the transformation of Labour requires a Marxist party. Stressing that Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party, the motion argued that Corbynism “acted to divert mass discontent away from what is objectively needed - the urgent superseding of capitalism”. Its strategy was to “draw the sharpest line of demarcation between the socialist left and the official Labour left”, especially on socialist participation in capitalist governments or capitalist shadow cabinets.

However, this explicit rejection of the coalitionist road to socialism does not mean that LPM is turning its back on Labour. It called for a struggle for the complete transformation of the Labour Party, forging it into a permanent united front of the working class - a process that can only be realised if socialists are organised in a mass Marxist party. Such a party, the motion argued, would seek to transform Labour, but the creation of such a mass Marxist party remains its central objective, and its strategy for achieving socialism does not rely on Labour.

Despite the very clear political differences between all three motions the resulting discussion was very confused, reflecting the different experiences of the participants. Some comrades, who had only become involved in Labour during the Corbyn period, were frightened by the very idea of ‘Marxism’ and worried that such radicalism would alienate our potential supporters. Even those comrades who claimed the title of ‘Marxist’ were rather defeatist and determinist in their assessment of both the current economic crisis and the future trajectory of Labour, playing down the possibilities of conscious socialist politics and a developing class struggle. In contrast to the clear politics and strategy advanced by LPM, many speakers in the discussion, whether they advocated remaining in Labour or building a socialist alternative outside, argued for the softest forms of broad front and compromise as the way forward.

LPM had called for this conference as a way of clarifying the political and strategic differences within the LLA, especially given the capitulation of the official Labour left and the growing demoralisation and disorientation of the left in Constituency Labour Parties. Unfortunately, however, the conference failed to really bring out these differences. As the votes for two rather contradictory motions showed, this discussion conference ended up facing two ways - one foot in and one foot out. There was no real analysis or taking stock of the failure of the Corbyn project: whilst the official left was rightly condemned for its complicity in the witch-hunt, its organic and symbiotic relationship with the Labour right was glossed over. But, above all, the conference failed to adopt a clear direction or present a strategy for the way forward for the LLA.

This could be charitably ascribed to the technical limitations of online Zoom discussions, but the format devised by the conference arrangements committee certainly did not help. LPM had argued for a conference with the space and time to fully explore the different political and strategic positions within the LLA. In particular, this would require more developed position papers rather than 400-hundred-word motions, and longer contributions than five-minute introductions and three-minute interventions from the floor. That this more expansive and serious type of conference format failed to be adopted was not a purely technical issue, but is rather a very significant political question of how we understand the best way to debate and clarify important political differences.

Moreover, in framing this debate about the crisis of the Labour left in the way that it did, the LLA illustrated all the political and strategic weaknesses that the left has acquired over the past 30 years or so. LPM will continue to argue its case within the LLA and other organisations of the Labour left, but, as this conference has shown, we are under no illusions about the scale of the task if we are to successfully rebuild and rearm our movement by developing a serious and coherent Marxist current within Labour.


  1. For details of the resolutions passed and voting figures see the relevant pages at labourleft.org.↩︎