Curse of faction
James Harvey looks at reactions to the Forde report and what it says about the state of the Labour Party’s left
While much of the media’s attention over the last few weeks has been focussed on the Tory Party leadership contest, there have also been some important developments that reveal much about the current balance of forces and the dynamics that shape the Labour Party.
The first event was the long-delayed publication of the Forde report, which looked at the leaking of an internal report on the handling of claims of anti-Semitism within the party, but went on to discuss what Forde calls the “wider structural and cultural issues that precipitated an extremely difficult chapter in the life of the party”.1 Forde is a QC and the tone and structure of the whole report was consciously judicious and carefully balanced in its language. For example, blame for the crisis was evenly attributed to all sides under the catch-all sin of “factionalism”. As the report puts it, the central issue was the lack of “mutual respect and a great deal of evidence of factionalism - so deep-rooted that the party had found itself dysfunctional”.2 This balanced tone was picked up by the media and subsequently spun by the Labour apparatchiks around Starmer (‘Nothing to see here: let’s move on. That was then, this is now’). Starmer is the leader, the left has been purged and so, for the Labour right and their friends in the media, that’s the end of factionalism then.3
However, the Labour left felt vindicated and, although many were aware of political dangers in Forde’s ‘balanced’ attribution of blame, they welcomed what the report revealed about the machinations of the Labour bureaucracy against the Corbyn leadership and the smearing of the left with false and outrageous accusations of anti-Semitism.4 Forde had probably written his report with just such cherry-picking in mind: of course, allow the left to claim some sort of moral victory and ex post facto vindication by all means, but do nothing to address the real reasons for the attacks on the Corbyn leadership and the onslaught on leftwing Labour activists. “Factionalism” is a smokescreen, not an explanation. All parties and movements have factions with different political and organisational objectives, struggling to win support for their positions. In some cases, however, to label your opponents a ‘faction’ is to delegitimise not only their politics, but even their very existence or physical safety - especially under absolutist regimes or repressive dictatorships.
In the Forde report accusations of “factionalism” are deliberately used to obscure the political reality of a struggle directed by the Labour bureaucracy and an openly pro-capitalist wing of the party with close links to the state. This conscious and well-organised campaign against Jeremy Corbyn (and the hundreds of thousands of left members who had joined the party when he was elected leader in 2015) was designed to regain control and ensure that capitalism had a reliable second eleven in place. The labour bureaucracy and the trade unions leadership have long been closely integrated into the state and bourgeois society, acting as the ‘labour lieutenants of capital’ within the working class movement.
However, despite the sub-reformism of Corbyn’s politics, the movement that he headed had the potential to destabilise this cosy relationship between the ruling class and the bureaucrats. Moreover, even a timidly critical Corbyn government had dangerous implications internationally for the US alliance, Nato and supporting Israel in the Middle East, so the need to defeat Corbyn by any means possible became clear to everyone - except Forde, it seems. He confines his ‘analysis’ to moral failings and personal unpleasantness, in the manner of an exasperated parent dealing with squabbling children. His recommendations amount to an exhortation that leaves the Labour right firmly in control - stop all this arguing, don’t be naughty and play nicely together - on our terms!
If Starmer could be generally happy with the ‘balanced ‘Forde report and its reception in the media, the continuing wave of strikes and the ‘unruly’ behaviour of some of his front-bench spokespeople and MPs has caused him a few headaches. Although the sacking of Sam Tarry as shadow transport minister has drawn the most headlines, the appearance of other leading Labour MPs on picket lines, in contravention to Starmer’s instructions to stay away, shows some of the continuing structural fault lines within Labour.5
Sir Keir’s sole aim is to become prime minister and his strategy is one of classic ‘triangulation’ - which involves tacking even further to the right and demonstrating to both ruling class and potential ‘middle ground’ voters that he is a safe pair of hands who can be trusted. A ‘responsible’ position on strikes and the cost of living crisis is just the right place to start. With the Tories in disarray and further bad economic news on the horizon, Starmer hopes that by adopting an ‘even-handed’ approach to the disputes and avoiding any firm policy commitments, he can get into Downing Street without too much fuss.
The roots of these politics lie in the contradictory nature of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party: that is, a party which from its very beginnings was rooted in the organised working class within the trade unions, while its leadership was just as firmly rooted in capitalism and committed to the existing constitutional order. All this presents both opportunities and challenges for Starmer. It also helps to explain why he has adopted his current electoral strategy and the reasons for the type of limited opposition he now faces from the likes of Sam Tarry.
Although, both in the Parliamentary Labour Party and amongst the rank-and-file membership, the left is at one of its lowest points historically, these links with the unions and the wider working class provide the conditions for the spontaneous reproduction of the Labour left, irrespective of how fragile and inchoate a form it may take. Starmer probably calculates, quite correctly, that on past form he can safely contain that left and keep control of the party machine. After all, even ‘principled rebel’ Sam Tarry, who publicly declares that he “wants to reclaim Labour”, also pledges his unswerving loyalty to Starmer and his strategy to get into No10.6
So, given the official left’s complicity in the witch-hunt and its cowed acquiescence since the leadership election, Starmer can have little to fear from such a loyal left opposition of this sort. Even so, rumours persist that Sir Keir is unsure he can win an election on his own and that he hankers after some form of ‘progressive alliance’ with the Liberal Democrats and the electoral centre ground. This would entail breaking the link with the trade unions and would repeat a strategy that Tony Blair contemplated - until winning in 1997 with an unexpectedly massive majority (making a coalition with the Lib Dems impossible). The high profile of militant union leaders, such as RMT’s Mike Lynch, combined with the open estrangement between sections of the union leadership, such as Sharon Graham of Unite, and the current Labour leadership, makes this development more of a possibility than at any time since the 1990s.
If we cannot read Starmer’s mind, we can certainly understand the dynamics that shape the politics of the Labour left. Sam Tarry’s “absolute belief” that Starmer should be prime minister, combined with his calls to “reclaim Labour”, says it all. Brother Sam and the rest of the official Labour left can only see politics through the prism of the election of a Labour government. Electing a Labour government - hopefully one day a ‘left’ one - is the sum total of their strategy. To them the Labour Party is the only instrument for achieving what they call ‘socialism’ - in reality a limited, reformed type of capitalism - and so they have to cling on for dear life to any form of a political and careerist future. How else can they advance the ‘socialist’ cause?
For others on the left, however, the possibility that Starmer will break with the unions or that more unions will disaffiliate opens up the perspective of a new left party emerging. Based on the trade unions and drawing in the expelled and scattered fragments of the Labour left and beyond, we are assured by some that this would be a ‘real Labour’ party purged of the right and committed to socialism. As with Starmer’s supposed dalliance with progressive politics and tactical electoral alliances, rumours and hopes abound on the left that Corbyn will return from exile to lead such a new left project.
To date these dreams have not come anywhere near to being realised and, given the current state of the Labour left, they are unlikely to come about. As the history of a whole series of initiatives to the left of Labour has shown since the late 1990s, unless the left completely breaks with the perspectives and politics of Labourism, it will simply reproduce them, albeit in a ‘left’ form.
Halfway houses, ‘broad alliances of the left’ and unprincipled lash-ups are just so many dead ends: the only real alternative and strategy for the left is not to ‘reclaim’ Labour or tail-end industrial militancy and protest movements, but to build a genuine Marxist party, armed with a revolutionary programme committed to the overthrow of capitalism and the self-emancipation of the working class.
For just three amongst many responses, see jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/article/laburs-anti-black-racism-within-labour-further-exposed-and-challenged; morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/forde-shows-labour-has-no-right-call-itself-anti-racist-or-anti-misogynistic-party; labourleft.org/education/video-the-forde-report-and-the-lessons-of-the-corbyn-years.↩︎