Sir Keir’s road to Brighton
Organisations can be banned, but powerful ideas still live and flourish. Derek James of Labour Party Marxists reports on the growing opposition to the latest stage of the witch-hunt
In a further intensification of the purge against the left, Labour’s national executive committee has voted to proscribe four socialist groups: the Labour in Exile Network, Labour Against the Witchhunt, Chris Williamson’s Resist and Socialist Appeal. Reintroducing the proscribed list, which was formally abandoned in 1973, the NEC at its meeting on Tuesday July 20, declared that membership of these groups is incompatible with that of the Labour Party. Out of 39 NEC members just 10 voted against the ban on LAW and LIEN, while 12 voted against the ban on Socialist Appeal.
This return to a favourite historical tactic of the pro-capitalist Labour right was quickly met by a firm response from rank-and-file members of the party. A coordinating committee - including Jewish Voice for Labour, LAW, LIEN, the Labour Left Alliance, Labour Party Marxists, the Labour Representation Committee, Socialist Appeal and Socialist Resistance - organised, at short notice, a demonstration outside Labour’s headquarters in London to protest against this attack on free speech and party democracy. It was a successful show of opposition, with over 200 comrades gathering to hear speakers condemn Starmer’s witch-hunt, and call for a militant campaign to defend the left, and resist the bans and proscriptions.
As soon as reports emerged last week that the Labour leadership was planning this latest attack, left groups and individual socialists within the party immediately started to organise a fightback and build a campaign to defend the left.1 Leading figures on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, trade union leaders and NEC members, were approached to give support: all sections of the organised left throughout the party were also invited to join the fight. Whilst support for a real fighting campaign has been growing amongst activists, the response of what is now openly a tamed and licensed left in the form of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs and Momentum has been tardy and wholly inadequate.
The statement issued by the Momentum leadership avoided the main issues and instead offered pathetic platitudes about ‘factionalism’ and the need for ‘party unity’ to secure a Labour government. They offered no solidarity to comrades under attack from the right and failed to support the demonstration at Labour’s HQ. The Momentum leadership, which made such play on how it differed from the old Lansman regime, seems quite happy to stand idly by as the purge gathers pace, in the hope that by proving it is responsible and loyal to the leadership it will be spared from attack. But this expectation is likely to prove disappointing. Already moves are afoot to ban other organisations and fast-track expulsions. Another, eminently predictable, innovation is the compulsory ‘anti-Semitism’ awareness training for all Labour Party prospective candidates. Yes, of course, it is to be run by that Israeli embassy-linked outfit nowadays called the Jewish Labour Movement, in effect giving Zionism a veto power over who stands and who does not stand. In reality this is Starmer signalling his Atlanticism to the Joe Biden administration.
This latest attack is just part of Starmer’s strategy to prove that his Socialist Alternatives past as a Pabloite deep entryist is truly dead and buried. Having committed himself, as a leadership candidate, to upholding the Corbyn 2019 general election manifesto, he now seeks advice from Peter Mandelson and attempts to follow the Tony Blair playbook to electoral success. Where Blair courted Rupert Murdoch, Starmer courts the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. Where Blair sacrificed clause four and opposition to the Tories anti-trade union laws in the name of realism, Starmer sacrifices left groups in the name of combating the “poisonous ideas” of anti-Zionism and socialism. True, for the moment, he selects easy targets, especially when you have so-called left NEC members joining in the attack. At this stage the toothless Momentum and Socialist Campaign Group are not in the firing line, but doubtless their cowardly complicity will not save them if Starmer needs to perform still further symbolic sacrifices ... and he will. The ultimate sacrifice, though, as urged by Tony Blair himself, is the trade union link.
Taken together with his summer of ‘listening to the voters’ and ‘earning their trust’ in a series of stage-managed focus groups and public appearances, the reintroduction of proscriptions is just one stage on the road to the - much reduced - party conference in Brighton in late September. So expect not only warnings about banning the likes of Momentum, but a headline-grabbing pledge to permanently exclude Jeremy Corbyn from the Parliamentary Labour Party.
However, if Starmer thinks he can simply follow the script and secure the same type of electoral landslide that Blair gained in 1997, he is, it would seem, very much mistaken. This is not the 1990s with its exhausted and totally divided John Major government. The shallow rhetoric of New Labour is not likely to prove effective against a post-Brexit Tory Party presiding over a post-pandemic economic boom. Far from following the master into No10, it looks, at least at the moment, that Sir Keir will lead Labour to yet another general election defeat … and then fall on his sword. He is, in other words, more of a Neil Kinnock … or maybe he really will go down in history: as the man who finally delabourised Labour by weakening the trade union link to breaking point.
Even if the proscription of the four groups is not yet the immediate prelude to a wholesale purge of the left, including the ‘official left’ in the form of Momentum and the Socialist Campaign Group, left activists in Constituency Labour Parties and trade unions cannot restrict themselves to protests and signing petitions, important as these activities are in mobilising support. Opposition to bans and proscriptions is a matter of principle, and so must be firmly resisted as a matter of course. For any serious and principled socialist it goes without saying that bureaucratic restrictions and sanctions against free speech and party democracy should be opposed. But it is also an important matter of everyday politics.
The response to this purge tells us a great deal about the compromising and conciliatory politics of many on the Labour left. They are partially a product of individual careerism and personality, but most importantly they flow from a reformist focus on party unity at all costs in order to secure the election of a Labour government. As even the most cursory glance at recent Labour history shows, rather than take the fight to the pro-capitalist right, they retreat and will ultimately join in the attacks on more principled members of the left. Remember, the witch-hunt began under Corbyn when he and John McDonnell threw good comrades under the bus in order to appease the Labour right, and looked the other way, as left activists were smeared as anti-Semites and racist thugs.
It is not surprising that - given this betrayal and failure to defend, let alone extend, party democracy during the Corbyn period - many have become demoralised or dropped out of membership altogether. This has given Starmer his chance to attack and he has taken it. The mood of the demonstration at Labour’s HQ and the growing protest from activists shows that it is possible to organise a fightback. The coming together of a range of left groups to coordinate the campaign is a very welcome and positive step. But it is only the beginning of what will be a long fight that will extend far beyond the next party conference. Other organised left groups must be drawn into the campaign against bans and proscriptions: members of Momentum must demand that their leadership come off the fence and give full solidarity and support to those comrades under attack. The same is true for the left trade union leaders and MPs. By their silence or weasel words they are simply opening the door to more attacks on the left.
However, it is not enough to simply defend the left and oppose bans and proscriptions. We also need to pose an alternative to these anti-democratic restrictions that raise the wider issues of building a militant working class movement to transform society. It means that we have to take the Labour Party seriously and not play with lowest-common-denominator projects of left regroupment outside the party - the only worthwhile project here is one that has the potential to become a mass Communist Party, not a micro version of the Labour Party.
LPM comrades are countering Starmer’s bans and proscriptions with the demand that Labour be refounded as a united front of all socialist and working class organisations. All should be able to affiliate and take part in the battle of ideas.
The Labour Party remains an important site of struggle for a Marxist programme, and we should not easily abandon it. Comrades should take elementary security measures to guard their membership. Making oneself an easy target for the witch-hunters is pointless. Inevitably secretaries and editors will be fingered. But we have a very wide rank and file and, of course, organisations such as LPM can recruit, recruit and recruit again. More than that, we can fight the battle of ideas, whatever the Starmer leadership says and does. They can ban organisations, but they cannot ban ideas - crucially the ideas of Marxism.
Thus, we urge the militant left not only to stay and fight back against Starmer’s latest attacks, but also to use the opportunity he has given us to deepen the struggle to win the working class movement to the Marxist programme of republican democracy, ecological sustainability and universal human liberation.