‘Millions back me’ (after John Heartfield - 1931)

Labour and Lubner’s millions

Starmer’s new megadonor threatens to outweigh the influence of the unions, argues Paul Demarty

Eyebrows were raised in the Westminster press lobby on June 4, when one Gary Lubner announced millions of pounds in donations to the Labour Party.

Lubner told the Financial Times that he had given £500,000 to the party in the first three months of the year alone, and was steadily increasing his generosity, as the next election approached. As he made clear to the pink ’un, this support was hardly unconditional: he could not have donated when Corbyn was in charge:

His grandparents were Jewish refugees from one of the pogroms in Russia in the early 20th century and his grandmother saw her parents shot in front of her. When anti-Semitism surfaced in Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, he was appalled.

“I was horrified by what was going on,” he said. His youngest son, a Labour student activist, was “abused, pilloried, attacked” during that period. With reference to anti-Semites in the Labour Party, he added: “Starmer got rid of them, to his credit. It was a real cancer in the party.”1

Few people with £5 million burning a hole in their pocket choose to hand it over to the Labour Party, of course; not even one as cartoonishly business-friendly as is the regime of Brave Sir Keir. And the FT profile does a reasonable job of making Lubner sound sincere. He made his money essentially from Autoglass and its surrounding companies - a good old boring car repair chain - rather than from asset-stripping or creative tax accountancy. He is retired, and giving away his money to the usual array of ‘good causes’, among which he seems to count punishing the Tories for Brexit. He denies that he is fishing for a peerage, and would support the abolition of the Lords - “in an ideal world”, whatever that means. And, indeed, his fortune is measured in the modest hundreds of millions, rather than billions, of pounds - there being only so much money in windscreen repair, at the end of the day.

He is thus perhaps the acceptable face of capitalist Labour donors, then - more acceptable than David Sainsbury, supermarket tycoon and financier of the Blair project (Sainsbury also recently gave £2 million to Labour); and less clownish than Alan Sugar’s brief dalliance with the party. His announcement cannot have been made without the say-so of the leader’s office. The whole interview is so trapped within classic Starmerite parameters that it is difficult to believe otherwise. A snipe at the old regime, check; criticism of the Tories’ handling of Brexit without any call for its reversal, check; indeed, no specific demands on Labour at all.

Trumpeting donations of this sort does Starmer a favour in a very specific way: it sends out a very clear signal that the party is ‘under new ownership’ and is therefore safe to the capitalist businesses that really make a difference to its chances of success - the press barons. The intended audience is Rupert Murdoch, or whoever succeeds him, when the reaper finally catches up with him; and, we suppose, the FT itself.

Beyond that, the sheer volume of cash being thrown around here has its own significance. Suppose that Lubner really does splash out £5 million over 18 months: between his and Sainsbury’s donations, they are close to matching Labour’s income from affiliated unions in a typical 18-month period - although that will no doubt increase in election season, we must also take into account that Unite has been tapering its contributions due to political disagreements with the Starmer leadership.

Significant shift

This is a significant shift in the weight of financial backing, exacerbated by the significant reduction in membership numbers under Starmer (as disaffected Corbynites are scattered far and wide). It is a reminder that the peculiar form of the Labour Party - administered by professional bourgeois politicians, but composed in large part of affiliated organisations of the labour movement - is a historic accident, and inherently unstable. There is no inherent need in bourgeois politics for a party that represents workers’ organisations, treacherously or otherwise: the ruling class prefers ultimately to offer us all a choice like that in the United States, of more-or-less liberal and conservative parties of the bourgeoisie. The Labour-Tory split in British politics is not quite that, and the principal reason for that is Labour’s link with (most of) the trade unions, rather than any matter of substantive politics.

For that reason, the link is endlessly in the crosshairs of the bourgeois media. Labour leaders are relentlessly hectored for being in the pocket of union barons. Absurd pseudo-scandals, like that around the Falkirk by-election selection process in 2013, are blown up into political crises. Anything to sever that link! Some Labour leaders and leadership hopefuls have been happy to broach the subject, and it was, after all, the dream of Tony Blair: the construction of a US-style Democratic Party by way of reversing the split between labourism and liberalism, with the unions’ largesse retained largely because what else are they going to do? Vote Tory?

It should be noted that the question may not be completely rhetorical. Though the union bureaucracies in the US are largely politically pliant before the Democrats, the appeal of a politician like Donald Trump to some blue-collar voters poses awkward problems. Many of the so-called ‘national conservatives’ foresee a kind of post-war corporatist settlement to replace the present neoliberal dispensation, and a much stronger role for labour as a part of that. They have no vehicle to deliver such an outcome, of course, Trumpism in power being something of a mirage; but the idea is not wholly nonsensical. Notoriously the Teamsters endorsed Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1972, although the extent of that union’s corruption at the time makes it an unusual case. The point remains: sooner or later, those with nowhere else to go find somewhere else to go.

The lesson is more urgent for the left than the right, however, which can always reform itself, amoeba-like, around some new conception of order. Today’s nationalist-corporatism supplants yesterday’s libertarianism, to be replaced by who knows what horror on the morrow. The left in this country has never quite been able to get its head around the Labour Party - there are, of course, no end of confidently-stated theories of its nature and strategies to deal with it, but these have a habit of being shown up by surprises in the tangled thread of the party’s history.

Such arguments obviously date back to Labour’s founding, with the Social Democratic Federation walking out almost immediately in high dudgeon; and then with its refounding as a more centralised national organisation in 1918 (which occasioned the famous polemics in the nascent Third International). The pattern on the revolutionary left ever since has been one of sharp lurches - from some version of the idea that Labour is completely moribund as a sphere of working class political action to some version of the idea that separation from Labour is inherently sectarian.

We may concentrate on the more recent past: in the 1990s, and especially after the Blair years began (and still more intensely after the invasion of Iraq), the first idea spread very widely on the British left. Militant Tendency - later to become today’s Socialist Party in England and Wales - was an ‘early adopter’, thanks to its rough treatment by Neil Kinnock after the Liverpool council disaster gave him the excuse, and Militant’s later success with the anti-poll-tax movement. From 1996 to roughly 2015, left-of-Labour electoral challenges were offered by a range of parties and ad-hoc alliances, from Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, through the Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party, Respect, and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, to that strange gaggle of Mandelites and identitarian oddballs called Left Unity.

Then came Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and the whole premise - that Labour was moribund - was proven decisively to be false, and therefore to have been false in the whole period it had been adopted as dogma by SPEW, the Socialist Workers Party and so on. Those who course-corrected at this point largely dissolved into Labour, their grander political commitments having lost their justification; those who stood aside, like SPEW and the SWP, no doubt looked very stupid to the shrinking numbers who cared who they were, and suffered splits, but learned nothing - yet, now that Corbynism has given way to Starmerism, their false perspectives once more look more plausible.


In those two decades between Blair’s election as leader and Corbyn’s, it became more and more common to welcome union disaffiliations from Labour as a political step forward - no longer were organisations of working class economic power hostage to “the worst kind of reactionaries” (as Lenin famously put it, having in mind Ramsay MacDonald, Arthur Henderson and the like - god knows what he would have made of Peter Mandelson2), and they could now fight for true working class politics (leaving aside that what was usually meant by this was Trotskyists pretending to be Bennites). In every case, in fact, it is clear that disaffiliation (or, in the case of the Public and Commercial Services union, which is legally barred from affiliation, a failure to fight to overturn this anti-democratic ban) has been a step backwards. Militant unions were simply absent from the scene when the left was suddenly thrust into the party leadership, and SPEW strained every sinew to ensure that they remained absent.

The surprise election of Sharon Graham as Unite general secretary in 2021 was likewise welcomed as a victory for ‘the left’, but in substance was a victory for the sort of transactional, petty-bourgeois philistinism in relation to high politics urged on unions by SPEW members in the New Labour years (‘What have you done for my members lately?’). This was not the achievement of SPEW, to be sure, relatively marginal as it is in Unite; but an indication that SPEW’s approach puts a ‘Marxist’ gloss on what is an intrinsic limitation of ‘pure’ trade unionism. Graham’s substantial reductions in Unite funding to Labour will no doubt make Lubner’s millions all the more welcome - and influential. It will thus embolden Brave Sir Keir, as he hammers her members in due course.

Could all this really betoken the delabourisation of Labour for real? It certainly should not be ruled out. The left has consistently confused a fairly predictable political cycle within Labour politics for historic shifts of quantity into quality; but the cycle is an effect of an intrinsic contradiction in its class composition, and we should not suppose that this will go on forever. The final end can only be either ‘delabourisation’ - or alternatively the revolutionisation of the party and the excision of its bourgeois wing altogether. It is clear which outcome is more likely just at the moment: and equally clear that the wider left will fail to recognise this for what it would in fact be - a defeat.

  1. www.ft.com/content/103ec036-c3aa-424a-86f9-71292b334f05.↩︎

  2. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/jul/x03.htm#fw6.↩︎