The virus is out of control. Millions are devastated after the Tories’ five-day Christmas lockdown relaxation was cancelled at the last possible minute. Hospitals across the country are reaching, or have already reached, capacity. And the opposition is still not properly opposing.
New Labour leader Keir Starmer appeared on the BBC on 20 December condemning Boris Johnson for failing to get a grip on the pandemic. But Starmer’s Labour must shoulder much of the responsibility for the current situation. Gary Neville, the former Manchester United and England Defender, responded to a Tweet from the Labour leader, accusing him of hypocrisy for failing to oppose the government at the point where policy was being decided:
This is true. Back in August, when the National Education Union was warning about the need for a properly functioning test and trace system to be in place before schools could be reopened, Starmer wrote in the anti-worker Daily Mail: “I don’t just want all children back at school next month, I expect them back at school. No ifs, no buts, no equivocation.” But it is not just that the Labour leadership have failed to oppose. They have actively campaigned for many of the policies that have led us to where we are today. In September, when it was clear that the necessary steps to make school reopening safe had not been taken, Starmer pledged his unequivocal support for the government: “whatever measures the government takes, we will support it.”
Have they learned from this today? Absolutely not.
In an interview on the Andrew Marr show, Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, was asked whether she supported the National Education Union’s proposal to delay the post-Christmas school reopening until January 18. Her response was uncharacteristically clear: “No. We want schools to reopen and children to be back in the classroom.” This message was restated by Starmer when he was asked in a press conference if schools should move online in January to curb the virus. He replied: “There should be no more delay on return to schools.” It speaks to the class interests of the new Labour leadership that they openly and flagrantly disregard the view of organised workers, while providing uncritical support for the policies of a failing capitalist government.
But not only are Labour’s weak words to the government too little too late, it also smacks of opportunism. The point of a real workers’ party would not be to wait for the political establishment to come down on the Tories before joining the rumble. It is easy at that point to criticise the government. Even the arch-Conservative BBC ‘journalist’, Laura Kuenssberg rounded on Johnson yesterday for avoiding “painful decisions”, stating that “hoping for the best is not a substitute for a political plan.” The point of a workers’ party is to lead the discussion, to expose the naked class interests underpinning the capitalist system, and to point to an alternative approach to running society. But a workers’ party Labour ain’t.
Labour’s uncivil war
So what has the Labour leadership been doing if not opposing the capitalist government? Opposing their own socialist members of course.
The latest row, in reality a continuation of the long-running smear campaign against the left, was sparked after the publication of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in October.
The first thing to say about the report is that its authors are not politically neutral. The EHRC was set up in 2007, in the dying years of the New Labour Blair-Brown administration, bringing together three pre-existing anti-discrimination bodies. Formally it is independent of the British government, but in practice it is a public body and receives its funding from the state. It has faced astronomical cuts to its budget in recent years, from £63 million in 2010 to £17.4 million today. It is perhaps for these reasons that the EHRC is very selective in the sorts of discrimination it investigates – the Muslim Council of Britain has been trying to get the EHRC to investigate Islamophobia in the Conservative Party since May 2019 but to no avail.
The second thing to say about the report was that it did not find Labour guilty of institutional anti-Semitism. It did find “that the Labour Party breached the Equality Act 2010 by committing unlawful harassment through the acts of its agents in two of the complaints we investigated” but that, overall, the investigation found only four cases, two cases of harassment related to race, and two cases of indirect discrimination potentially worthy of disciplinary action. Of course, one anti-Semite is too many, but this hardly indicates an institutional problem, hence the outcome of the report
The former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn responded to the report by accepting its recommendations, and expressing “regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should,” but added that “the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party”. The response from the Labour right was to immediately suspend Corbyn from the party without an investigation and bypassing the party structures – ironically something which the EHRC report warned against. In fact, in typical Blairite fashion, his suspension was announced to the capitalist press before Corbyn himself had found out.
What followed was an outpouring of solidarity from Labour members and others, with motions being passed across dozens of Constituency Labour Party branches opposing Corbyn’s suspension. And predictably this was followed by a stepping up of the suspensions, including Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, a co-founder of Jewish Voice for Labour, and attempts to gag branches from discussing the issue, which the General Secretary David Evans described as “not competent business”. Again, the double standards of the Blairites, who openly brief the capitalist press about the former leader but demand silence from their branches, is astounding.
Lessons for the left
The experience of the pandemic so far has illuminated and intensified existing inequalities in a way that will have a lasting impact on consciousness. It is also increasingly clear to a large section of society, but particularly amongst young people, that capitalism is incapable of safeguarding public health or our planet. But there is a real danger here that in the absence of a socialist alternative being provided, the debate could shift onto grounds that are more favourable for the far right. In fact, the Tories are already laying the ground for such a manoeuvre with their baseless attacks on Black Lives Matter as a Marxist organisation, shifting the debate toward a culture war.
Keir Starmer’s complete refusal to challenge a blatant white nationalist trope on live radio last week should come as a warning to the left. Left commentators on Novara Media were very generous when they attributed his failure to challenge this racism as a mistake. But his response was eerily reminiscent of the Blairite political strategy of triangulation, i.e. occupying the political space normally held by the right so as to push your opponents further away from the centre. Moreover, his failure to challenge this trope also reflects the out of touch view, widely held on the Labour right, that racism is normal in working class communities.
One of the lessons from this saga is that the Labour right will betray any progressive political or organisational belief they claim to have if it means scoring a victory over the left. Case in point: up until the spring of 2018, the Labour Party headquarters was controlled by an intensely anti-socialist team who actively ignored anti-Semitism complaints and slowed-down investigations in order to undermine Corbyn’s authority as leader and, by extension, undermine the left.. As Wimborne-Idrissi, explains, their behaviour actually “undermines the fight against real anti-Semitism. This is one of the most frightening things for me, [that] people have been weaponizing accusations of antisemitism for political ends. The fact that that is going on seriously undermines and endangers our chances of dealing with genuine anti-Semitism which is a real threat.”
The events also demonstrate the urgent need for democracy within any workers’ party. Elected representatives, whether MPs, councillors, or constituency-level organisers, must be accountable to the members. At its peak, the Labour Party membership exploded to around half a million making it the largest political party in western Europe, with the majority of its members on the left. But at no point was this change in composition properly reflected in the party itself. This is why we raised the need for mandatory reselection as a bare minimum to help keep elected members toes to the fire. Unfortunately, this policy was not promoted by Labour’s left leaders and was even blocked by Unite delegates at the 2018 conference.
A further weakness of the response of the Labour left has been to attempt to appeal to the (non existent) good nature of Keir Starmer, urging him to end the attacks on Corbyn in the interests of ‘party unity’ and confining the response to the structures of the Labour Party. The leading figures in the Labour left should link calls for the reinstatement of the whip with the need to challenge Starmer’s leadership of the party – linking the need for democratic measures such as mandatory reselection with a far reaching and bold socialist programme. Furthermore, it would need to look beyond the Labour Party, and link up with mass discontentment that exists amongst working class people and those tens of thousands of socialists that have already left the Labour Party.
But perhaps the most urgent lesson of all is that the cleavage between capital and labour is fundamental and that there is no party where both forces can cohere without conflict breaking out. This is class war, after all. This episode underlines once again the need for working class political representation and organisation, made more urgent by the Covid-19 crisis.