What becomes of our socialist movement without a leader?

JVL Introduction

In an article in the Morning Star, Nick Wright looks at how Keir Starmer is positioning Labour in the political firmament.

Its highly popular policies among members – such as mail, rail, energy and water nationalisation; increased taxes on very high income earners, its opposition to anti-union laws, and more­ – have all disappeared.

There is no longer any sense “that a party and an electorate might be animated by a radical programme of change.”

Here Wright suggests ways in which the wider left should respond.

This article was originally published by Morning Star on Fri 24 Jul 2020. Read the original here.

What becomes of our socialist movement without a leader?

Mass support for Corbynism endures in Labour without Corbyn, but what do the party’s socialists — and Communist Party members, too — do now that Starmer’s neoliberal steamroller rolls onwards regardless

JUST over three months ago the polling organisation YouGov published the results of a survey, which showed Labour Party members in a radical state of mind.

Only 3 per cent opposed the party’s signature policies of mail, rail, energy and water nationalisation; nine out of 10 wanted a 50 per cent top rate tax on incomes over £150,000 a year; two-thirds favoured full nuclear disarmament when Trident finally sinks beneath the waves, and two-thirds were for scrapping anti-union laws.

On a range of other issues party members showed remarkable fidelity to the main policy advances of the Corbyn years — on carbon emissions, the abolition of private schools, for free tuition, free broadband, a shorter working week, compensation for the Waspi women and a 20:1 pay ratio for all employees.

We can estimate the effectiveness of Keir Starmer’s restoration regime in the party by the disappearance of these measures from the public profile of the party, by their absence from parliamentary interventions and by the brutal sidelining of any figure associated with them.

When the poll results were released — during the Labour leadership campaign — John Trickett MP commented: “Whoever the next leader is will have the support of our membership to build on the past four years.

“This polling,” he said, “shows there is no support for turning back on what the members have won these past few years. Our party has a great future if we are proud of who we are, our working class politics, trade-union link and common-sense socialist politics.”

Earlier this month Rachel Reeves, his successor as shadow minIster for the Cabinet Office, declined to confirm that tax rises on the fortunes of the rich would play a central part in Labour’s economic strategy for our country’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. It was too early to formulate election policy, she argued.

The strategic thinking behind official Labour’s positioning is that — in the interregnum before the next scheduled general election — Brexit will be done and that the normal functioning of two-party politics will have restored the equilibrium between the two major parliamentary parties.

Note that a frank appraisal of the disastrous election positioning that saw Labour’s conference policy on respecting the referendum result abandoned plays no part in the public acknowledgment of the defeat.

In the calculation that Brexit will be a dead issue next time an election takes place there is an unspoken tribute to the judgement of Trickett and others.

The thinking appears to be that a studiously conventional approach to economic policy coupled with reassuring noises to the City, big business, the banks and the US (perhaps by then under a more conventionally capitalist president) might enable the party to win over enough of the middle ground to finesse a parliamentary majority.

The expectation is that a Johnson government — mired in incompetence and held to account by the electorate for the manifest failures of its public-health and economic policies — would be so compromised that a new administration could win an election on the basis of stirring up as little controversy as is consistent with its official role as the opposition.

There is no sense that a party and an electorate might be animated by a radical programme of change.

Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy’s collapse into Cold War-style posturing towards China and Russia marks a departure from an independent foreign policy – or even one that serves British manufacturing’s commercial interests.

That this strategy also entails a complete capitulation to the assault on Labour’s culture of solidarity with the oppressed is demonstrated by the re-institution of the inner-party policing regime in which reference to the character of the Israeli state or its policies is, prima facie, a case for investigation, suspension from membership and exclusion from party life.

Labour’s only electorally successful policy platform in decades lies abandoned. The politics of the overwhelming majority of the party’s members are regarded as an embarrassment, and the division between the parliamentary party and the membership and most of the affiliated unions — so readily apparent during the serial assaults on Corbyn’s mandate — is reinforced by Starmer’s disciplining of the parliamentary left.

The effects of this transformation of Labour’s political landscape are entirely predictable and consistent with the designs of those who have initiated it.

The question naturally arises in the working class, its movement and much of the left — a category that includes not only organised and experienced Labour people but also many, many voters and much of the membership — is what to do?

Some Labour people have retreated into passivity while others have abandoned their earlier positions in the expectation that a period of penance will, in time, earn them the favours of the new regime.

Many of the more committed socialists are actively looking for arenas of activity in which they can be more immediately effective and some of the more impressionable, and perhaps naive, among those mobilised by the Corbyn years have dropped their membership or activity.

The internal life of the party is suspended. By administrative fiat the leadership has changed the method of electing the party’s national executive committee from the first-past-the-post system for those members to a variation of the single transferable vote system.

STV, which ensures that any candidate or political formation that gets above a basic minimum of votes is guaranteed representation, is fiercely resisted as a system for electing members of parliament but, because it allows a challenge to the left’s predominance among the mass membership, it is now opportunistically deemed the best system for NEC elections.

If nothing else this shows that the right wing are really serious about winning the inner-party struggle to control the policy agenda and the candidate-selection process.

The normally fractious constellation of inner-party left-wing groups have found a measure of unity in drawing up a list of candidates for the NEC election. Last time round the various contending left-wing lists cancelled each other out and allowed the right to gain a majority.

But bear in mind that under STV only the highest scoring candidates on any list, or those benefiting from transferred votes from eliminated candidates, can hope for success.

There are a whole host of questions in which the left can and will find disagreement. The last thing we should expect is for a complete uniformity of view among the forces thrown up during the Corbyn years.

But winning the battle of ideas also entails winning the battle of position within the party and that requires open minds, brotherly and sisterly debate and an end to moralising and posturing.

Already the most disruptive element on the ultra-left fringe have found a reason to qualify their support for some of the names on the joint list of candidates and — in the rarefied atmosphere of an election campaign conducted in the often uncomradely social-media climate — this poses a real risk that the various tendencies on the right, who have sunk their differences, will prevail.

All of this raises questions for the wider left — rooted in the trade unions, the anti-austerity and anti-war movements, in solidarity and community campaigns — and in socialist organisations that are in broad solidarity with Labour. Like left wingers in the Labour Party, they are asking where they might best place their efforts.

This poses something of a dilemma for the Communist Party, which committed its disciplined but modest forces to support the new direction Labour took when its vastly expanded membership elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

A whole host of Labour people have approached the party, some to join, others to discuss the prospects for the left, many to think through what might be a realistic programme to achieve working-class political power in contemporary Britain, and more to seek advice and guidance on what is possible in these new circumstances.

It goes without saying that when socialists who have given their all in an attempt to reorientate Labour in a socialist direction see joining the Communist Party as an effective way to fight for working-class power they receive more than a welcome.

At the same time communists are very keen to see those people drawn into political activity by the last few years to stay in contention, fight for their politics, defend every policy gain, support every unity-minded left-wing MP, transform the parliamentary party and continue in their efforts to restore Labour’s connection with working-class communities.

This is not a new problem. When the Communist Party was formed — from existing socialist and working-class organisations a hundred years ago next weekend — Lenin advised the comrades to find their strongest connection with the federal party of Labour the better to overcome its class collaborationist and imperialist right wing.

He advised the anti-imperialist revolutionary Rajani Palme Dutt to found Labour Monthly as a platform for such unity around principled socialist positions.

Every subsequent controversy until victory over fascism raised this perennial problem. When, during a wartime conference of the Labour Party the engineering union called for the Communist party to be re-admitted to membership it was only narrowly beaten.

The left in Labour is always stronger when the communists are more influential — but it is pretty clear that in present-day circumstances the battle for unity will not assume this particular organisational form.

But it is equally clear that finding the broadest possible unity of left-wing, class-conscious and socialist forces is a precondition for winning our working class to socialism. This depends on the left as a whole renewing its connection to working-class communities and immersing itself in the broad anti-austerity and anti-war movements.

Comments (11)

  • Michael Westcombe says:

    You call me naive?

    We will see who is naive, and who looks incredibly foolish, in a few years time.

  • Doug says:

    You answered your own question, mass support for Corbynism still exists
    How can the right hang on to power against the wishes of the members, unions and supporters
    Stop members leaving, recruit more members, then get them to vote in union elections, keep on keeping on at every level until you regain control
    You then sit down with Red Tories and tell them there is no room for them in the Labour party
    Let them leave and form this mythical centrist party
    The reason there is still mass support, is the country was crying out for clear red water, that’s the legacy we have to protect

  • Rachel Lever says:

    Some of us are thinking of the need in the coming months and years to forge a more effective national opposition movement to take on the Tories. They have given us an open goal but we lack the team to take them on. Fighting both Starmer and Johnson on two fronts is less effective. We need a broad but focused movement outside of parliament to build that, a non-party, non-electoral to act together when possible. Have a look at this new initiative, neither Labour nor CP, whose 10-point plan sets out the main issues for the working class

  • Doug says:

    Would agree need to change to a more effective anti Tory alliance, but see that coming through electoral reform, in meantime heed the wise words of ‘Maximus Peake ‘
    If you ain’t in the tent voting Labour then your a Tory

  • ruby lescott says:

    What concessions will Starmer make to Murdoch?

  • Brian Burden says:

    According to the Mail, there is now tremendous financial pressure on Starmer to expel Jeremy from the party altogether. May I once again reiterate that it is essential for the “Corbyn intake”, who comprise roughly two thirds of the membership, stay in the party and exert what power they have when the opportunity arises. As Shelley said: “We are many, they are few.” And remember that we might well have had a majority in the 2017 election had all sections of the party machine pulled together.

  • Peter Mason says:

    The answer to the question of how the right has been and will be able to maintain control, particularly of the Parliamentary Labour Party-within-a-party, is simple — the destruction of functioning democracy, using the method of witchhunt and expulsion. Brighton is one example of a great many. If a constituency gets sufficient momentum, to coin a phrase, to go for reselection, the right may decide simply to suspend it, or expel the leading members of the constituency, on the premise of some complaint from the threatened MP, usually of bullying and intimidation, but dressed where possible with this new element of accusations of racism.

    I was disappointed that this otherwise excellent article did not dwell on this to a greater extent.

    I think the reason members are leaving is because they have correctly drawn the conclusion, either directly from their own local experience or from observing other constituencies, that there is no way forward within the labour party.

    I suggest that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition be urged by prominent lefts within or outside the Labour Party, to convene a delegate based conference to discuss the refounding of a party of Labour, that is, of the 99%, but most particularly of organised labour, based on the trade unions, inviting all socialists.

    Clearly even raising that demand from within labour risks expulsion, but that is the nature of the bureaucratic centralist party that it is, and precisely poses the question of the need to replace it.

    Those who say it will be hard, embarrassing, or impossible, should study the life of Kier Hardy.

  • As Corbyn voters are still the majority why not band together to form a new party along genuine democratic and socialist lines? Mr Starmer has no interest in what the main Labour Party want. His only agenda is to appease right wing and Israeli interests.
    I do not think anyone should leave the Labour Party. The Labour Party should leave Mr Starmer!!

  • Brian Burden says:

    So long as those inspired by Corbyn to join Labour make up two thirds of party membership, they must stay in there and exert what influence the rules allow them. Otherwise there is no hope for an effective socialist opposition.

  • Stephen Mitchell says:

    Watch the two BBC documentaries currently showing.. The two are linked. I don’t know if this is deliberate. One is about the invasion of Iraq and on ebaout the rise of Murdoch.. They show what happens when a “moderate ” Labour Party is in power. The Iraqi people have lost millions of lives and still suffer. A media mogu was given 24 hour access to a British Prime Minister . Despite a massive majority the Labour Government changed very little. They followed neo liberalism thus making sure the Cameron Tories carte blanche to introduce austerity and pass the 2012 Health Act. Failure to regulate the banks caused the banking crisis. I say to members who yearn for a move to the Right to be very careful what they wish for. Do you want a repeat of New Labour and a PM who is possible a war criminal?

  • Kim Sanders-Fisher says:

    A well organized progressive Socialist Party already exists in the UK; you are all welcome to join the Green Party. If Starmer does chuck Jeremy Corbyn out of the Labour Party he could become a Green Party MP. If there was a sudden massive drop in Labour membership as several progressive Left MPs became Green Party MPs and scores of former Labour supporters all joined the Green Party, Starmer might just get the hint. If the Labour Party catastrophically fails to represent the values and needs of Union members the Labour Party could and should lose major Union funding just as Len Mc.Clusky has warned. If the Unite Union were to shift its funding to the Green Party for better representation of Socialist values other Unions might follow.

    Bad enough that after pledging to keep the progressive agenda championed by Corbyn, the second Starmer was elected he started to row back on promises just like a Tory. He has capitulated to the BoD and thrown Corbyn under the bus; I believe he is a Trojan horse and he has exposed Labour to multiple opportunistic lawsuits that will eventually bankrupt the Party! The most recent development was particularly painful for me as a genuine Whistleblower who experienced having my entire career destroyed in retaliation for reporting negligent practice; I am simply horrified by Starmer’s betrayal. It is really disgusting to hear that the only people who don’t suffer after blowing the whistle are those who fabricate complaints to deliberately defame a very decent person: they are “Poison Dartblowers!” We must all write to Labour MPs express our strong feelings on this issue.

    So many of you believe that the Tories won a “landslide victory” because the Tory liars, the BBC and the crooked right wing media kept telling you they had won. For multiple reasons this result was so completely illogical, totally unfathomable that I’m still unable to accept the Tories could possibly have won the Covert 2019 Rigged Election. A number of us are still gathering evidence to force an investigation into industrial scale fraud in the postal vote. Please visit the Discussion Forum on Craig Murray’s blog: that deals with the Elections Aftermath and sign the Petition calling for an immediate investigation. Our Electoral Commission remains totally powerless to protect our vote: A Watchdog that cannot watch is just a dog! Sign this Petition to “Rescue our Watchdog:” https://tinyurl.com/w4u9dwm

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