Membership figures for the Labour Party haven’t been released since January 2020, but anecdotally it seems that people are flooding out. Firstly, when Keir Starmer was elected leader, many left and contacted groups like Socialist Alternative about joining a ‘real socialist’ organisation. Since then, there have been instances of waves of people leaving, such as after the leaked report showing the sabotage of the 2019 election by Labour Party officials, and more recently after the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey as Education Secretary.
Long-Bailey’s sacking happened on the flimsy basis of her having shared an interview with anti-cuts activist and actor Maxine Peake which correctly claimed that Israeli state forces were responsible for training US police in many of the brutal methods used against black people and BLM protesters today. By making criticisms of the actions of the Israeli state, Starmer decided, Peake automatically became an anti-semite and, by association, so did anybody who shared the article that nonetheless overwhelmingly focused on issues aside from Israel-Palestine. It’s clear that her original appointment to the shadow cabinet was a sop to the left and Starmer has acted at the first opportunity to remove her.
Whilst this was predictable, it was not inevitable. Socialist Alternative argued at the time that Starmer’s election represented a shift to the right in the Labour Party. It is the conclusion of ‘Project Anaconda’, coined by former deputy leader Tom Watson, who attempted to ‘strangle’ Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party. We warned that the right wing would not be as forgiving as the left had been for the last 5 years, and would not offer the olive branch of ‘unity’, but instead would work to push the left out of any meaningful position within the party – unless the left fought back.
Right wing tightening its grip
Unfortunately, the mistakes of the organised left within the Labour Party during the Corbyn era have been repeated under Starmer’s leadership. The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated both the victory of the right and the demise of the left. The NEC just voted on a constitutional change, which should happen at conference, to the election system for the NEC, which will make it harder for the left to win seats. At the same time, ‘Labour to Win’ has been launched out of a merger of the two Blairite trends ‘Labour First’ and ‘Progress’.
This move to the right will continue, under the pressure from the capitalist class for the Labour Party to once again become a safe pair of hands for their system. Meanwhile, the struggle is taking place on the streets and in workplaces, not inside the Labour Party. Protests, strikes and the anger of the working class and young people are only going to grow. Starmer and Angela Rayner’s cringeworthy taking of the knee in an office, days after 50,000 protested in London and 25,000 in Manchester for Black Lives Matter – only for Starmer to later publicly and repeatedly criticize the movement – sums it up. The Labour Party is absent as a visible or organised presence from protests and absent in the workplaces where workers have been organising to implement workplace lockdowns and winning safety equipment and sick pay.
The trade union leaders, some of whom supported Starmer in the leadership election, have also been, in the main, absent from these struggles. However, they will not be able to prevent the discussions rumbling throughout the trade unions about the labour movement’s political strategy now. Prior to Corbyn’s election, motions for disaffiliation from the Labour Party were a regular occurrence at trade union conferences. This may begin to return in the coming period and potentially on a higher level, given the speed at which the right have regained control of the Labour Party and the massive crisis facing working class people as a result of the Covid-triggered economic crisis.
There are some individual left MPs and councillors who have spoken out in support of the Black Lives Matter protests, but this is not enough! At a national level, the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs has had almost no impact since Starmer was elected. Their approach has unfortunately been reminiscent of its approach before Starmer was elected – making the odd radical sounding tweet with little concrete action to back it up. What is their strategy for pushing forward opposition to the Tory government? How are they going to raise the left-wing policies popularised by Corbyn under the current leadership if, for instance, Long-Bailey’s response to her sacking simply was to say she would “continue to support the Labour Party in Parliament under Keir Starmer’s leadership”?
What direction is Labour moving?
The more important question to be answered is: what direction is the Labour Party moving in? In the view of Socialist Alternative, it is moving further away from being a vehicle of struggle and is now unlikely to be a useful tool for workers and young people fighting back in the era of Covid and a new economic Great Depression.
Many of the same leading figures who have refused to take the fight to the Blairites in the party since 2015 are now all making high profile calls for left activists to ‘stay and fight’. It is no surprise that thousands fail to be convinced. While there are countless good Left activists remaining in the party, there has been a consistent lack of leadership provided. The simple truth is that the response of Rebecca Long-Bailey and other Left MPs to the past week’s events gives no indication that any serious resistance to the party’s rightward direction will be organised from above.
Since the original Blairite counter-revolution in the Labour Party, it has been an uphill battle to reshape it into something that is unequivocally on our side. The period under Corbyn’s leadership saw an influx of enthusiastic and politicised people join the party, but the leadership failed to seize the opportunity to make fundamental changes. This potential was thrown away by the leadership around Corbyn, and of organisations such as Momentum, as they refused to take decisive action against the old Blairite guard. In recent elections for the leading body of Momentum, the wing representing the continuation of the failed approach of leader Jon Lansman suffered a defeat, being removed from power by the new ‘Forward Momentum’ faction. This is a welcome step and we will support any progressive moves taken by this new leadership to strengthen the left inside and outside Labour, but it remains to be seen whether Forward Momentum will be able to draw the appropriate conclusions from events of recent years.
Bringing in policies such as mandatory reselection and demanding that councils set no-cuts budgets could have helped to put the left in a position of great political strength. But they weren’t utilised, in the interests of so-called ‘unity’. We’ve commented previously on these mistakes and others here.
Now, on the basis of the left being weakened within the Labour Party, it is even harder to achieve change within the party. Left activists will also find it increasingly unviable to ask young people to join, or stay in a party where its leader says things like the calls of the BLM movement in the US to defund the police are ‘nonsense’ whilst praising the work of the Tory government on dealing with Covid-19!
The labour movement, including trade union activists, anti-racist campaigners and those fighting to defend the NHS, will need to organise urgent discussions on the need for a political voice for the working class. Socialist Alternative has called for, and helped to organise, Conferences of Resistance since the 2019 general election. These types of conferences, organised in a democratic way at a local level, can meet to discuss the political demands necessary and organise to fight for them. Meetings such as these could be organised on a regular basis to help coordinate the various campaigns and develop a stronger political programme over time.
A political voice for workers and youth will have to be rooted in the struggle taking place on the streets and in the workplaces. It will need to unapologetically fight for a pay rise, an end to zero-hours contracts and free education, as part of a socialist programme. It will need to actively be part of the climate strikes and the Black Lives Matter protests, and not just visiting picket lines, but part of building and mobilising for strikes to win. It will have to be a mass organisation, committed to mobilising the widest number of people in its ranks – not just around elections – but week-to-week in all of the important movements up and down the country. It’s clear that workers and young people, frustrated by mainstream politics, will not sit back and wait but many will be at the forefront of building a genuine opposition to the Tories and for real change.
Those choosing to remain in the Labour party must now draw firm conclusions – the path of conciliation, retreats and silence in the name of “unity” can only lead to the “unity” of the graveyard. Only a combative, organised and determined fight for a really democratic and socialist party, free from Blairite saboteurs, can meet the needs of the stormy period opening up in Britain and internationally.
Socialist Alternative pledges to be part of any real attempt to build such an organisation of struggle, bringing to the table our experience as activists and trade unionists, our commitment to socialist politics and revolutionary change and our determination to win the world for the working class and the oppressed.
Further reading: What makes a workers’ party?