Waiting for the axe
With the Brighton conference about to begin, Derek James of Labour Party Marxists looks at a confused left and the failure to confront a witch-hunt that began not with Keir Starmer, but Jeremy Corbyn
As delegates get ready to gather for the first face-to-face Labour Party conference since 2019, the mood amongst the Labour left is a combination of desperate hope and absolute dread.
Like prisoners languishing in the prison of some dictatorship, they are certain the sentence of execution will be carried out, but they just do not know when and what form it will take. They listen out eagerly for scraps of news and moods tend to swing, as they find either solace or increased cause for alarm in each new rumour. Some take heart that the left in the trade unions can throw a spanner in the works by rejecting the appointment of David Evans as general secretary and so gain a victory for the left at the beginning of the conference. Thus, all eyes are focused on the internal machinations within Unite, Unison and the GMB unions to see which way these delegations will fall.
Left hope springs eternal. After Starmer’s meeting with trade union tops it seems clear that they show no enthusiasm for replacing Ed Miliband’s 2014 OMOV rule change for a return to the electoral college, when it comes to leadership elections.
Of course, what the left opposed in 2014 it now defends. And what the right once proposed it now opposes. There is no consistency. Only narrow calculation. It is likely that the general secretaries of Unite and GMB will not even bother to turn up in Brighton. A definite apolitical mood prevails. Nonetheless, Unite’s delegation appears determined to oppose the appointment of Evans - because of redundancies at the Victoria Street HQ.
Maybe Starmer will retreat over rule changes. He hardly needs a return to the electoral college. But will this save the left? We simply do not know. Will the left be allowed to carry on as a useful adjunct or will it be symbolically eviscerated?
Speculation aside, it is clear that in comparison with 2019, when Corbynism was at its height, at this conference the Labour left is in a very much weakened position.
That weakness is not simply related to the delegates and motions on the conference agenda. Although tens of thousands have been expelled, suspended, or simply walked away in disgust at Keir Starmer’s leadership, there is still a substantial left, albeit a very demoralised and confused one, in the CLPs and trade unions. No, the current state of the Labour left is not merely a result of the attacks and the purges carried out by the party bureaucracy: its root causes go much deeper than that.
The starting point has to be the Labour left’s inability to clearly analyse how and why Corbynism failed. This is not just about the personal failings of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, but their concessions and compromises with the Labour right, and their complicity in the witch-hunt, which was fully underway during Corbyn’s leadership. Their willingness to throw good comrades under the bus during the witch-hunt was a futile attempt to placate the Labour right and their friends in the media. Leaving aside questions of serious principle, it was both a grievous tactical and political disaster that not only further emboldened the pro-capitalist sections of the Labour leadership, but disorientated many of Corbyn’s own supporters on the left. It was a civil war, but only one side was really fighting: the Corbyn leadership just rolled over and let the Labour right walk all over the left.
Corbyn’s failure to take the fight to the right and the acquiescence of the official left in the witch-hunt are an inevitable product of the historical original sin of left Labourism - its strategic focus on achieving ‘socialism’ incrementally through the election of Labour governments. Instead of driving out the pro-capitalists from the party, this ‘strategy’ sees Labour, as presently constituted, as an instrument for transforming society and, of necessity, it requires unity and compromise with the Labour right. In refusing to completely break with the right, the Labour left throughout its history has politically and organisationally capitulated to these allies of the ruling class within the workers’ movement.
As far as they are concerned, any Labour government is better than a Tory government. Consequently, to secure even this very limited objective they are prepared to line up unconditionally with the right: rather than rock the boat, this tame left has always been prepared to sacrifice the authentic, militant left in the name of unity. Despite McDonnell’s current attempts to rehabilitate his ‘leftist’ reputation, his complicity during the witch-hunt shows where this strategy leads. Likewise, for all his pious words after the fact, Corbyn also put a premium on conciliating the right and, by his silence, in effect facilitated the purges.
The reason why this is not simply a matter of historical interest is that many on the Labour left still hanker after the glory days of Corbynism and have not come to terms with why the right were able to successfully counterattack and regain control.
This will be the conference in which the right hopes to come into its own again and restore the ‘natural order’ of things. The suits will be out in force in Brighton, as the MPs and party bureaucrats, surrounded by aspiring careerists and opportunists, gather to stamp on the left. So, given the seriousness of the situation, it is no good either lamenting for the lost king over the water or simply hunkering down and vainly hoping that better days might return at some time in the future.
It is true that Corbyn’s leadership gave the Labour left some form of focus and a degree of coherence, but, now that he has gone, that is over and confusion reigns. Now the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs and the leadership of Momentum are safely ensconced as the licensed, tame, official left and hope that by keeping their heads down Starmer’s purge will pass over them. Undignified silence in the face of the witch-hunt might do the future career prospects of this acceptable ‘left’ some good (although students of the 21st century Labour left - and Pastor Niemöller - might tend to disagree). However, we shall soon see what Starmer has in store for them with Brighton.
The recent launch of Labour Left 4 Socialism - an initiative promoting “unity and defiance” against “factional attacks” by the Labour right - brings together some left trade union leaders, such as Howard Beckett of Unite and Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union, and a number of left groups, including the Labour Representation Committee, the Labour Left Alliance, Jewish Voice for Labour and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy.1 Although it aims to “unite disparate left groups under common policy goals and demands for greater democracy in the Labour Party” and opposes the recent bans and proscriptions, questions remain about the commitment of its leadership to really fighting back against the purge.
Why have they carefully distanced themselves from some expelled or suspended comrades deemed not to be ‘acceptable’? Is this an attempt to stay just on the right side of the boundaries laid down by the Starmer leadership and increasingly policed by the official left? Time will tell, but, taken together with their adherence to ‘the Chatham House rule’, and the way the initiative was launched (through a top-down rally rather than a real democratic conference, where activists could thrash out a militant strategy for the Labour left), it does not augur well.2
A recent interview with Ken Loach shows another aspect of the confusion and lack of clear direction on the left.3 Ken outlines the pro-capitalist nature of Starmer’s leadership, and the historical role of the Labour right, and correctly suggests that “at the moment it doesn’t make sense to start a new party. There have been various left groups over the decades that have aimed at building a new mass party of the working class and it hasn’t ever worked.”4 But Ken’s alternative for those either within the Labour Party or outside it, looking for a lead is … “a movement”! But “Not an electoral movement, because you want to hold together those who have left Labour and those who are still in.”5
However, comrade Loach is ignoring his own argument about the reasons why previous left projects failed by advocating an even more inchoate and directionless strategy of building a “movement”, which is both within and without the Labour Party. No, we need a clear line of march and a strategic orientation that recognises the importance of Labour in the workers’ movement, with all its contradictions as a bourgeois workers’ party and thus a site of struggle for serious socialists.
This is not an argument for an uncritical ‘Labour loyalism’ at all costs, or a passive acceptance of the party’s current organisational and political form, but is rather a demand that Labour be refounded - not abandoned - as a united front of a special kind open to all socialist and working class organisations. As the current disorientation of the Labour left (and indeed its whole history since 1900) shows, such a transformation will not occur organically within Labourism: all that Labourism, even in its most leftwing forms, can produce is ‘broad left’ parties based on the ‘politics’ of the lowest common denominator, or - worse still - simply a ‘Labour Party mark two’.
Without a mass Marxist party that rejects reformism and participation in bourgeois governments and is instead committed to the self-emancipation of the working class, all that will result will be yet more wasted opportunities and dead-end initiatives.