The social crises thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic make internal battles in the Labour Party increasingly irrelevant, argues Max Stein.
Keir Starmer’s victory in the Labour leadership election has left him in a strong position within the party. Nothing suggests that there will be another leadership contest within the next few years. Even if there were, the right-wing party elites that allowed Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy to go forward on a procedural level in 2015 will certainly not be so complacent a second time.
Most socialists in Labour will already be familiar with Keir Starmer’s personal record. As Director of the Crown Prosecution Service, he played along enthusiastically with Tory hate campaigns against benefit claimants, and sabotaged attempts to bring police officers to justice for murder. As an MP, he was a consistent saboteur of the Corbyn project, and the leading author of the party’s catastrophic stance on Brexit in last year’s election. Assuming the leadership at a time when the country is clocking 700 deaths per day from a disastrously mishandled viral pandemic, Starmer’s priority has been to assure the government responsible that he will offer them his ‘constructive engagement’, rather than what he terms ‘opposition for opposition’s sake’.
Socialists within the Labour Party will now be deciding whether to stay in the party, or leave. They face this decision in bizarre and unexpected circumstances, with coronavirus putting normal political life, including face-to-face party meetings, on hold. With the scope for discussion between ordinary members significantly reduced, the voices of prominent Corbynite commentators in the media dominate discussion on the left. These voices – including the Momentum leadership, prominent journalist Owen Jones, and the editors of left-wing media outlets such as Tribune, Novara Media, and the New Socialist, as well as Corbyn himself – unanimously advocate a course of remaining actively engaged in Labour.
I have not been personally a member of the Labour Party for most of the last few years, although I did campaign actively for the party at the last election, and voted for Rebecca Long-Bailey in the recent leadership contest as a levy-paying union member. I will not attempt to give instructions to those who have given huge chunks of their time and energy to the Corbyn project. However, it does seem important to take issue with the grounds on which many of the aforementioned opinion leaders are arguing for remaining in the Labour Party.
The case for staying engaged with Labour often takes the form of a warlike exhortation to ‘stay and fight’, in order to protect the position of the left within the party. This is a sunk-cost fallacy, a commitment to throwing good money after bad. The main available means of carrying out a ‘fight’ within Labour over the last four years has been to organise small cores of activists to vote in internal elections to committees and boards such as the National Executive Committee. While these battles did have a purpose within the internal logic of the Labour Party – namely to provide some procedural and political room for manoeuvre to the leadership – they were invisible to most members and to almost all of the general population (except for when they resulted in hysterical right-wing backlashes, faithfully amplified by the mainstream media).
Even over the last four years, with a huge and buoyant Corbynite membership and a supportive parliamentary leadership, these struggles have been gruelling and often unrewarding. The new PLP leadership is now jointly committed, with the internal bureaucracy, to rolling back the left’s gains, and the grassroots left has been objectively greatly weakened by the events of recent months. The calculus of how this situation will develop over time is not complicated, and only points in one direction. There is no victory to be had here, only a pit that will absorb the time and energy of many capable activists, even while the country as a whole undergoes a period of unprecedented crisis and contestation in the wake of coronavirus.
Another argument being made in some quarters is that leaving the Labour Party cannot be the correct course of action for left-wing members, because such an exodus is exactly what the Labour right most desire. This impulse is understandable, but it is not a vision of how we can achieve social change. It may be true that the PLP and Labour’s permanent bureaucracy would like to once again have the run of the party to themselves. But pursuing a feud with this small group is not a strategy; nor should the very specific interests of one clique of apparatchiks be taken as a stand-in for the power of the ruling class writ large. In fact, the containment of most of the country’s left-wing activists within the party – as subs-payers and canvassing infantry, with little input into the party’s course – could work out very well indeed for the new centrist leadership. Starmer’s left flank will certainly be well-protected, in this instance, by the rigged internal structures and processes of the party.
Some optimists envision the opposite scenario: that a persistent left-wing membership will be able to discipline the PLP and the new party leadership. But nothing in the record of recent years gives any grounds for this optimism. The Corbyn leadership moved the party’s platform to the left on many issues, but it never did so under duress from the grassroots. When an admirable motion was passed democratically at party conference in September last year, committing the party to a strident anti-racist defence of migrants and refugees, this was flatly ignored in the party’s manifesto only two months later. When anti-racist activists at the base of the party were subjected to vile and spurious accusations of antisemitism by the PLP and its media outriders, the leadership triangulated, prevaricated and, ultimately, for the most part, hung these activists out to dry.
In other words, it was generally not possible to use member engagement to prompt Labour to adopt left-wing policies and stances, even with a left-wing leadership in place whose individual members most probably personally supported these policies and stances. What basis can there be for the notion that the same tactic will succeed now?
For all these reasons, I believe it is time to leave Labour. But ‘leaving Labour’ may have more meanings than one. Cancelling a direct debit, or not doing so, is not the most important distinction here. What is important is for activists to sharply transfer focus and energy to direct social struggle rather than elections, and to take a decision to prioritise the former over the latter at every opportunity. In this sense, many of us who are not party members, but who have oriented some degree of our activity around the Corbyn leadership over the last four years, will also be ‘leaving Labour’ to a greater or lesser extent in the weeks to come.
For those thinking of leaving who do have party membership cards, now is the time to start strategising concretely towards an exit that will allow blocks of members to maintain some cohesion and organisation outside the party. Many Labour members are now setting their own personal ‘red lines’: boundaries of principle which, if crossed, will be the trigger for one’s departure. This kind of exercise will be far more valuable if done collectively, by groups of comrades, campaigns and groupings within the party, or large layers of members within Momentum and other constituent organisations. Rather than leaving in dribs and drabs over a sequence of different personal tipping points, members should look to secede in large groups which can form a basis for future organisation outside of Labour.
There could not be a better moment to take such a decision: the coronavirus pandemic is unleashing a dizzying variety of social contestations, from impromptu workplace walk-outs to embryonic rent strike movements, furious demands for better healthcare resourcing, and struggles to push back against state authoritarianism. Even Keir Starmer’s most enthusiastic supporter – and, of course, there are many sincere socialists in Labour who supported his candidacy – could not mistake a Starmer-led Labour for an adequate vehicle for these struggles.
We are in the opening phases of an epochal economic and social crisis, and the progression of that crisis will not pace itself for Westminster’s electoral cycle. In four years’ time, the dust will have settled from the fallout of the current coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying economic cataclysm. The stakes are huge: a massive realignment of modern capitalist society now seems inevitable, and like any major crisis, this will either be resolved by the forces of right-wing repression, or by the forces of left-wing social solidarity. Keir Starmer will be a bystander to this process at best, and sticking behind him means sticking on the sidelines.