Socialists: Stay in the Labour Party

JVL Introduction

Another evaluation, in Tribune, of the Corbyn leadership and where the left now stands.

Burtenshaw writes that, with Starmer’s victory, “there will no longer be a socialist as Labour leader “.

However: “Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party revived socialism in Britain. It made it possible to call capitalism itself into question – and have an audience for your argument. Perhaps most importantly, it convinced an emerging generation whose material circumstances disposed them to fundamental change that socialism could offer solutions to the problems in their lives.

“The arguments for socialism have not gone away.”

“… the task for socialists now is to learn the lessons of defeat, organise and rebuild.”

This article was originally published by Tribune on Sat 4 Apr 2020. Read the original here.

Socialists: Stay in the Labour Party

Now is not the time for the socialist movement to fracture and fragment. After today’s defeat, we need to organise and rebuild – and the best place to do that is in the Labour Party.

Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 epic La Haine, tracing the lives of disenfranchised youth in the Parisian slums, begins with the story of a man falling from a great height. “So far, so good; so far, so good; so far, so good,” the narrator assures himself. Then the screen is engulfed in flames. “It’s not the fall that matters,” we are told, “it’s the landing.”

At times in the past five years, the Left has scaled great heights. So much so, in fact, that a socialist Labour government seemed visible on the horizon. There were many achievements along the way – from overturning an austerity consensus that held total sway over British politics for years, to remaking Labour as a mass party with more than half a million members. Thirteen million people voted for a decisive break with neoliberalism in 2017; and ten million voted for a radical left-wing manifesto in December. More than had backed Miliband, Brown — even the last Blair government.

But the general election defeat was, nonetheless, severe. It has chastened the Left and this newfound timidity was evident in Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign. It suffered from many of the weaknesses of Corbynism. It was, in fact, born into the inertia that a lack of succession planning produced. Unfortunately, it had few of Corbynism’s strengths – and could not inspire the kind of movement necessary to beat the odds.

Keir Starmer deserves congratulations for his victory. He stood on a platform of making at least some of the radical policies of recent years electable. It remains to be seen how durable his leftward commitments will be once they come under pressure from the media or the right-wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Regardless, there will no longer be a socialist as Labour leader – Starmer is a moderate figure and not one whose politics will threaten the wealthy or powerful.

For the Left, this cascade of defeats makes clear that we are in a fall. Today’s results suggest that we have not reached terminal velocity. In the past, the Left has responded to these moments with the bitterness and recrimination of a movement whose hopes of changing the world were dashed. It has fractured and fragmented and given in to internecine factionalism. It has guaranteed, in other words, that its defeats were not temporary but generational.

That does not need to be the case this time. Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party revived socialism in Britain. It made it possible to call capitalism itself into question – and have an audience for your argument. Perhaps most importantly, it convinced an emerging generation whose material circumstances disposed them to fundamental change that socialism could offer solutions to the problems in their lives.

The arguments for socialism have not gone away. The coronavirus crisis means we face the deepest recession since the 1930s. This weekend even the Financial Times was arguing that four decades of neoliberalism had to be discarded in response. Already, we had seen years of economic stagnation and growing inequality. The climate emergency and resurgent far-right threaten further disaster in the years to come. Capitalism does not have the answers to any of these great questions of our age.

The task for socialists now is to learn the lessons of defeat, organise and rebuild. But we can only do this if we are clear-eyed about the reasons for our progress in recent years. Before Corbynism, the socialist Left was truly marginal. It played important roles in movements against war and austerity – but it was disparate, divided between a weak Labour Left and various radical groups who counted their memberships in the dozens or hundreds at most. We must not return to those days.

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party brought socialist arguments back into mainstream politics for the first time since the conquest of neoliberalism in the 1980s. It is certainly true that, under Corbynism, extraparliamentary movements were not as strong as they needed to be. A return to the work of building those is necessary – but so is organising socialists through the Labour Party.

The sources of hope on the socialist Left in the past decade — from Syriza and Podemos to Corbyn and Bernie Sanders — have come through engagement in mass party politics. Before this, many years of focus on street movements and minoritarian radicalism had failed to grow our ranks or proliferate our ideas. Socialists should remember this, and stay in the Labour Party despite today’s disappointment.

As this economic crisis deepens, the case for class politics will grow. With each passing week the inequalities in our society will be brought into starker relief, as will the nature of our economic system and who it is designed to protect. Despite its gentrification in recent decades, Labour remains the political wing of the trade union movement – and the only party which can reasonably aspire to represent the working-class as a class.

That must be the Left’s anchor in the years to come. The great risk of Starmer’s leadership is that it finally completes Labour’s realignment away from a party based on uniting people across cultural divides on the basis of their class interests and towards one which unites people across class divides on the basis of liberal social views.

This would be a disastrous outcome for socialist politics in Britain, trapping us in a groundhog day of Brexit culture wars for a generation. And doing so at exactly the moment when systemic alternatives to capitalism will be needed most. The only way it can be avoided is for socialists to be active in the labour movement – rebuilding a Left within the Labour Party and renewing our unions, a focus which was absent all too often under Corbynism.

Today is a defeat for the Left. But the real victory for our opponents would be watching the forces we have amassed in recent years scatter to the wind. We cannot allow that to happen. The need for socialist politics is too urgent to give in to the temptation to wallow in self-pity. We have a responsibility to do better.

We are falling at the moment – the question now is how we land. That determines where the Left will be when we start climbing again.

Comments (11)

  • Tony Dennis says:

    Well said. The worst thing would be for the Left to disperse into a variety of fringe groups. Remember that the Labour Party belongs to us, not to the massed commentariat of the national media who will be falling over themselves to tell Starmer what he should do.

    We need to hang on to the members – old and young – who were brought into the Party by Corbyn’s policies, and we urgently need to (re) build the Party at a grassroots level. If Labour is going to have a future, it needs to be as a campaigning body in the constituencies, involved in a variety of campaigns around things like housing, food banks, schools and employment issues. It’s imperative for our Party’s survival that it gets away from an image of being either an inward-looking clique, or a bureaucratic organisation that asks people to vote for it every so often, but ignores them and their concerns in between elections.

  • Elizabeth Morley says:

    Sorry, I have already left. I have a moral revulsion against riding on the achievements of a good man who continues to be vilified by members of his own party and whose lifelong record of standing up for justice for the oppressed will continue to be fodder for the foul and vicious mouths of our media hounds.

  • Mary Davies says:

    The struggle for socialism continues…

  • Fran Heron says:

    Although like many I am devastated and too old to ever see a socialist government in power in the UK, I do agree with much of what Tony Dennis writes.
    Particularly the campaigning around issues he cites. In our constituency campaigns are CLP-dictated which I have objected to. We should use our own experiences and knowledge to canvas for Labour votes. We’ve had all sorts of ideas for raising the profile of the local Labour party all rejected. I bet our ideas would generate more engagement with the grassroots but top down seems to be imprinted hereabouts.

  • Tony Free says:

    It is a lot to ask that socialists stay in Labour to rebuild. With the NEC, PLP Leader and party Chair now more Centrist than Socialist. But there is no where to go at the moment because the one person who could create somewhere to go is determined to stick to convention and stay within Labour. We will all be stuck as a rear guard action because Corbyn feels more allegiance to Labour than he does to those who have followed him. Start a party Jeremy and we will follow you in solidarity.

  • Janet Crosley says:

    As a non Jewish supporter, l find the comments about antisemitism that KS had made since his election thoughtless. I do not know as yet what l will do .This article gives me food for thought.Thankyou

  • David Stretton says:

    After 45 years membership I think it’s about time me and Labour partied ways and let the suits have their way.

  • Anthony Baldwin says:

    This is not the time to bend the knee to the Establishment and its representatives in every walk of life.
    In fact this is a time when our voices should continue to be heard if Kier Starmer is motivated by the likes of John McTernan who would have not one minuscule sign of Unity to be seen in Kier’s leadership of Labour.
    Kier has always stressed how much of a unity /continuity candidate he will be and he should be held to his Ten Pledges whilst being shown th error of his ways in relation to those from the BOD which imply the complete abrogation of the right to Free Speech within and outside the remit of the Party.
    The fact that his pledges to the Party are completely at odds with his letter to Marie van der Zyl needs to be underlined and David Rosenberg’s ‘Questions to Kier Starmer’ is a very good start in doing this.
    Don’t leave because if you do you give the McTernans and Akehursts of this world everything they have worked for since they failed to get Jeremy and our belief in Socialism defeated once and for all.
    For those who doubt this look up McTernan’s article in The Critic where he lays out what he would do if he was Kier Starmer’s Political Adviser.

  • Margaret West says:

    I see from “Labour list” that a video meeting has taken place between KS and “representatives of the Jewish Community” – except it hasn’t because it excluded JVL and many other Communities. At the meeting I see that KS has stated he will make the complaints procedure “independent”.

    Now what does that mean? It was already independent in that it had input
    from lawyers and the like .. surely?

    I think that the complaints procedure needed to be improved – it was not clear
    and it needed to take note of Chakrabarti’s recommendations.

    He has also got rid of (from the cabinet) those who did not sign the BDS pledges ..

    From labour list:
    “The two deputy candidates who did not sign the pledges – Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler – were stood down from the shadow cabinet by Starmer.”

    All concerning .. depressing ..


    He has included Andy McDonald in the shadow cabinet.

    It is notable though (also from Labour List)

    ” Labour members are overwhelmingly in favour of the radical policies contained in the 2017 and 2019 general election party manifestos developed under Jeremy Corbyn, YouGov polling has found.”

  • Harry Epstein says:

    Margaret I think that JVL was excluded because it is a tiny group and certainly not representative of Jewry

  • Tony Dennis says:

    Harry Epstein: I’m tempted to say that if you believe that this was the sole, or even the main, reason, then you’ll believe anything.

Comments are now closed.