Sir Keir’s ritual sacrifice
Derek James of Labour Party Marxists says the official left’s passive response to the latest upping of the witch-hunt is a direct result of careerism and narrow electoralism
After the initial pushback and protests against the proscription of Labour Against the Witchhunt, Labour In Exile Network, Socialist Appeal and Resist, the militant sections of the Labour left have been taking stock of the significance of this latest purge and how to fight back.
The Defend the Left campaign - which has already brought together a range of groups, including the Labour Representation Committee, Jewish Voice for Labour, Labour Left Alliance, Socialist Resistance, LAW, LIEN and Labour Party Marxists - is gathering support amongst left activists in the party and the trade unions. It is a very positive initiative and could be the basis for an authentic movement against bans and proscriptions and in defence of free speech and party democracy.
The determined opposition of these comrades is in marked contrast to the cowardly response and the weasel words of the largely tamed official left in the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the leadership of Momentum and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. Their combination of studied silence, empty platitudes and - in the case of some so-called left national executive committee members, actual complicity in the proscriptions - should have come as no surprise, yet many are still shocked at how far the official left has strayed from the basic principles of solidarity. But, when all is said and done, this should surprise no-one. The ‘keep your head down and hope for better days in the future’ approach has been their basic line for so long that now they can do little else: they have passed the point of no return and so remain deaf to the warnings that, when their time comes, such ‘strategic silence’ and appeals to party unity will not save them from Starmer’s next round of purges.
However, despite opposition to the reintroduction of bans and proscriptions amongst the militant Labour left, there is still much confusion about what lies behind the Labour leadership’s latest move. At recent online meetings of LAW, the LLA and the Defend the Left campaign, some comrades have argued that this is ‘the final battle’ and that Starmer is adopting a scorched-earth policy to completely extirpate the left, even at the cost of losing the next general election. On the contrary, the symbolic sacrifice of these four, small left groups is an integral part of Starmer’s electoral strategy: he really does want to be prime minister and these latest attacks on the left are designed to further that. He wants to prove to the capitalist class that he can guarantee Labour as a reliable, pro-capitalist second eleven.
While the exact timetable of Starmer’s purge remains uncertain - it seems that, as yet, no comrades have been expelled following last week’s NEC meeting - the Labour leadership is clearly preparing the ground for a set-piece attack on the left, enjoying maximum media coverage during the party conference in Brighton. Whatever form this takes - a Kinnock-style denunciation of Jeremy Corbyn and his expulsion from the party, or more direct attacks on the ‘official left’, such as Momentum - there will be no let-up in the witch-hunt, which will surely soon extend beyond the militant left.
The question that has arisen in LAW, the LLA and other groups is how to respond politically and strategically to these renewed attacks. LPM comrades have argued that the left needs to realise that we are on the defensive and that this is not the moment for a ‘I’m Spartacus’ display of individual witness and heroism in the face of the witch-hunt. Good advice - observe basic personal and political security: do not offer yourselves up as a willing sacrifice to the witch-hunters in the Labour bureaucracy and their collaborators in the local parties and trade unions. Think both tactically and strategically: Labour membership should not be thrown away voluntarily, that is for sure; as one comrade put it, ‘Don’t desert the battlefield when the war is still in progress’.
If there is some confusion about the immediate perspectives, some comrades are making quite serious mistakes about how the authentic left should respond to the proscription of the four socialist groups. For example, at a recent LAW members’ meeting and on the LLA organising group, a minority of comrades have argued that Labour is finished and that the left should start negotiating seriously with other socialist groups outside of Labour to form a ‘broad left party with a Marxist vanguard’. Others have fatalistically argued that expulsion is inevitable and that we should not cling on to the wreckage of a decaying Labour Party.
The alternative these comrades offer is a new party ‘like Labour was under Jeremy Corbyn’, which could ‘remobilise the tens of thousands who have left Labour in demoralisation and disillusion’. If the advocates of the ‘broad left party with a Marxist vanguard’ offer us a recipe for an impotent political fudge that will remain becalmed on the side-line, the proponents of a party ‘like Labour under Corbyn’ are really just arguing for a ‘Socialist Labour Party’ - in effect a Labour Party mark two, which simply reproduces all its fundamental political and structural flaws.
In response to these positions, LPM comrades have continued to argue that socialists should stay and fight, and not abandon Labour to the right. Instead, we say that, despite the serious defeat of the left, the party still remains a site of struggle, where serious socialists and Marxists should continue to fight Labour’s pro-capitalist leadership. Actually, existing Labour simply cannot be wished away, no matter how much some yearn for a new ‘broad left’ party or hopelessly envisage a return to the glory days of Corbynism. We must continue to take Labour seriously and not be seduced by either lowest-common-denominator projects of ‘broad left’ regroupment or simply reproducing a Labour Party mark two outside the party - the only worthwhile project here is one that has the potential to deliver a mass Communist Party, not yet another marginal irrelevance on the fringes of politics.
The important question hanging in the air all the time at these meetings is the nature of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party. Our strategic orientation is not that of Socialist Appeal, which appears to believe that the party can be transformed into an instrument for achieving socialism through the election of a left Labour government.
LPM agrees that the battle within the party is vital, but, instead of creating illusions in a parliamentary road to socialism, we fight for the refounding and transformation of Labour as a united front of working class and socialist organisations. This position was overwhelmingly adopted by LAW at its recent all-members’ meeting and shows how the reintroduction of bans and proscriptions has given us the opportunity to place this demand higher up the agenda.
The nature of Labour is also on the agenda, because the logical end of Starmer’s strategy is a rather different type of refounding - in effect delabourising the party by breaking the link with the trade unions and creating a party similar in politics and organisational form to the Democrats in the US. The media chatter about a ‘progressive alliance’ with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, and the pushing of electoral reform as an issue within Labour both point to Starmer seeking to finally complete the unfinished Blairite project. Taken together with the ongoing election in Unite for a new general secretary - which, if the Labour right’s candidate, Gerard Coyne, wins, will decisively alter the balance of forces within the party - this means we are entering an important period for the working class movement. Given these developments, the militant left cannot stand aside from the fight, in either the party or the unions.
Throughout the witch-hunt, the official left leadership from Corbyn onwards has been put to the test and found wanting - the current attacks are no exception. The woeful failure of this ‘leadership’ is not simply the product of personal cowardice or careerism. Rather it is the inevitable outcome of their prime focus on the election of a Labour government as the means to achieve what they call ‘socialism’, and the closely related argument that any Labour government is better than a Tory government. This electoral strategy engenders a deeply entrenched Labour loyalism and an endemic tendency to compromise and prostrate oneself before the Labour right. As the whole history of this official left has shown, whenever they are faced with a choice between principled politics and capitulation, they always run up the white flag.
We will doubtless have a chance to see this strategy of retreat in action yet again on Saturday July 31, when representatives from the LLA, JVL, the LRC and Socialist Appeal will put forward a motion to a meeting of the shadowy Chatham House left network, opposing the proscription of LAW, LIEN and Socialist Appeal, and calling for LAW and LIEN to be admitted to the continuing talks about left unity. The oh so responsible left trade union leaders and official left politicians will be put on the spot - the Chatham House rule of diplomatic silence notwithstanding - and will surely draw the line at bringing into their elevated counsels the unacceptable, militant left that the NEC has ruled to be beyond the pale.
Open, public discussions on the left about the best way to fight back against the pro-capitalist right are good; secret talks and manoeuvres by leaders behind the backs of the wider working class movement are not, and principled socialists should not be a party to talks that impose such secrecy and bind more principled comrades to the compromising politics of the official left.