Facing terminal defeat

Yes, we must continue to fight in the Labour Party, writes Tony Greenstein, but what about those who have left or been expelled?

Stan Keable, in his report of Labour Against the Witchhunt’s August 28 all-members meeting,1 describes how I found myself “in a minority of one on the steering committee”, when arguing for a different strategy to the one that he was proposing. Yet in the same sentence Stan concedes that my motion gained “a significant minority vote”, which he then proceeds to dismiss as being “a widespread view amongst the sects of one and a few disillusioned Corbynites”.

Stan omits to tell Weekly Worker readers that the “significant minority vote” comprised no less than 44%, which would suggest that it is not myself, but the steering committee, which is out of touch!

Stan also ‘forgot’ to mention that the Labour Party Marxists motion calling for “unrestricted free speech” - ie, free speech for fascists and organised racists - was defeated. He also fails to explain why LPM opposed my motion of no confidence in Starmer, which was overwhelmingly passed.

However, my motion on strategy was far more nuanced than Stan gives it credit for. I argued for a twin-track approach, working with people inside and outside the Labour Party. My motion also stated that we have to recognise reality.

The battle against the witch-hunt has been lost - that is clear. Some 150,000 members have left. Many, many more will go, lost to the socialist movement. We have a duty to provide them with a place to organise. There is today what Jewish Voice for Labour members have called a “reign of terror”, with people being afraid of being seen with other comrades in public for fear of being fingered.

What I did argue for was “to create a socialist movement that encompasses people inside and outside the Labour Party, which will keep activists in the Corbyn project together, with a view to forming a distinct socialist party in the near future”. Note the phrase, “with a view to”. I am not arguing for the creation of a separate party now, but that should be the long-term aim.

And, yes, I did move that “the time has come when socialists in trade unions should argue for disaffiliation from a party that is now part of the neoliberal consensus”.

But let me take people back a few years to the beginning of the Corbyn project. Comrades may recall that my article, ‘Labour turned upside-down’, was published in the Weekly Worker on October 22 2015.2 The ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign had barely started, but it was clear even then that Corbyn was embarking on a policy of appeasing the right. I wrote:

The election of Jeremy Corbyn opens up significant possibilities to advance a socialist agenda in Britain, but it also lays the basis for a possibly terminal defeat in the Labour Party if the wrong strategy is adopted. The danger is that the far left will retreat behind sterile slogans about Labour and the limitations of a reformist or bourgeois workers’ party without analysing the uniqueness of the present situation.

I also warned against what was clearly Corbyn’s strategy of appeasement:

Corbyn is in a distinct minority in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Unfortunately his strategy appears to be one of feeding the lions rather than shooting them. Appeasement is rarely a successful strategy. At best it buys time, but, as soon as sufficient time has elapsed, the Labour right will be going in for the kill.

Even then I saw that if the left got it wrong it could face terminal defeat. That is unfortunately what we are now facing. Part of the problem was that the left - nearly all the left - got it wrong. They did not understand the surge that led to the Corbyn victory. I was not confident that Corbyn could withstand the backlash from the right and predicted he would last 18 months. In fact he did survive the Owen Jones chicken coup and came out stronger as a result. And what did he do then? He threw it all away and brought back Starmer.

In my view Corbyn had unleashed pent-up forces that had been stifled for far too long. The young, the badly housed, the poor, the disorganised, the low paid. Whilst Jack Conrad and the Weekly Worker did not have a clue about the likely outcome in 2017, I was confident that Theresa May would stumble. On April 20 I wrote an article entitled ‘Labour can win if Corbyn is bold - the key issue is poverty and the transfer of wealth’3 and again on June 3 ‘General election - is Labour on the threshold of victory?’4

Getting it wrong

I did not have a crystal ball, but it was clear to me that when Corbyn could speak to 8,000 people in the shire town of Leamington Spa and thousands of workers in northern towns that something was happening. Likewise I was equally convinced that 2019 was going to be a disaster, even as Momentum was fooling itself that it could unseat Boris Johnson in Uxbridge.

I fear that the left will get it wrong again if it adopts fixed positions that owe more to a catechism than a Marxist analysis of our position. As I said in the LAW meeting, the CPGB is the “Catholic party of the left”. It is convinced that, come the revolution or the creation of a mass Communist Party, that it is the duty of the left to stay in the Labour Party regardless. I disagree.

Starmer is completing what Blair began. His complete disregard of any democratic principles, the proscription of groups like LAW and the Labour In Exile Network, his expulsions using the good old McCarthyist principle of guilt by association, coupled with the outlawing of any discussion that criticises his misleadership, such as the withdrawal of the whip from Corbyn, suggests that it is impossible for the left to conduct a fight within the Labour Party.

Obviously we should support people who do want to fight. I am not urging anyone to voluntarily leave the Labour Party. I never have, but I cannot think of any better way to disillusion people than to tell them to fight what is a hopeless battle. We have to offer an alternative.

I still do not have a crystal ball. It is impossible to know whether or not Starmer/Evans will target the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs. If I was Starmer, I would leave them in their place, knowing that not only is their bark worse than their bite, but they lost the use of their teeth years ago! However, it may be that Starmer does go for the 19 Campaign Group MPs who signed a statement in support of Ken Loach. In that case, should we not encourage them to stand as independent socialists, as part of a new socialist formation, in the next election?

I do not buy into the CPGB description of any left-reformist party that includes revolutionaries as a “Labour Party mark two”. Such formulations encourage a feeling of hopelessness and impotence. That is not the job of revolutionaries. I certainly believe that it is possible to regain the spirit of 2017, especially since Starmer, unlike Blair, is not in a position even to offer the most minimal of reforms.

We also need to re-examine some of the fundamentals of our own belief. It is a fact that the working class has been quiescent since 1985. The number of strike days continues to decline. The mass strikes of old do not happen any longer, because the old battalions of the working class have disappeared. That poses very difficult questions for us, but to pretend nothing has changed when it clearly has is not a Marxist approach. Ignoring the facts does not make them go away.

The question for us is whether it is possible to harness mass movements of social protest, such as Extinction Rebellion, the anti-Police Bill protests, etc, plus working class movements over housing, cuts to benefits, etc. The alternative is that the working class will go over to the Brexit/nationalist right.

We face a very determined Tory government of the far right, which is attacking the most basic democratic rights, legislating to make it difficult to vote, legalising state murder and torture, yet Starmer himself comes from the highest echelons of the state. That Labour has effectively bought into Johnson’s agenda to the extent that it cannot even lay a glove on him over Covid illustrates the political weakness of the Labour right.

Yet the Labour left has shrunk away from any fight with Starmer or the right. It has accepted without a whimper the closing down of Constituency Labour Parties, the suspension of officers and now the auto-exclusions.

Both Momentum and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy have effectively implemented the witch-hunt by accepting that members of the Labour Party should not appear on platforms with those who are expelled or auto-excluded. We were told that Forward Momentum represented a break from Jon Lansman, yet it has gone along with his agenda to the extent that Andrew Scattergood’s reaction to Corbyn’s suspension was to tell us that this “undermined the fight against anti-Semitism”!5

The response of the left should be to target Momentum politically. It is a group that never understood and still does not understand the nature of the campaign against Corbyn, which was clearly state-directed. It was a campaign of political destabilisation of the sort which the United States was used to carrying out in Latin America. The failure to stand up to the witch-hunt and ask why Labour’s racist right wing was so concerned about ‘anti-Semitism’ was fatal.

So, to answer Stan Keable, no, I am not opposed to fighting the good fight inside the Labour Party, but I do not wish to sow illusions in the success of that fight.

If that makes me a defeatist, so be it!

  1. ‘Continue the fight’ Weekly Worker September 2: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1361/continue-the-fight.↩︎

  2. weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1079/labour-turned-upside-down.↩︎

  3. azvsas.blogspot.com/2017/04/labour-can-win-if-corbyn-is-bold-key.html.↩︎

  4. azvsas.blogspot.com/2017/06/general-election-is-labour-on-threshold.html.↩︎

  5. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/corbyn-suspension-is-an-attack-on-the-left-that-undermines-labour-response-to-anti-semitism.↩︎