From the leaked report on the Labour Party’s handling of antisemitism complaints within the party to the abysmal performance of the Keir Starmer-led opposition following the defeat in the General election in December 2019, a lively discussion about the viability of Corbynism and the way forward ensued among socialists in and out of Labour. Derek Fraser presents a perspective in this debate on the role of the Labour right and the lack of internal democracy.
The leaked report into the handling of antisemitism allegations by the Labour Party has demonstrated that the party was never as much under the control of the left as activists might have supposed under Corbyn’s leadership. It illustrates in black and white the power wielded by a Blairite bureaucracy within Labour, which actively sabotaged attempts of the left of the party in effective leadership, that likely cost them the 2017 General Election.
Snippets from the report are peppered with obsessive or even paranoid references to ‘Trots’ trying to take over the party, meaning anyone even slightly to the left of Ed Miliband. Other parts reveal sexist and racist comments in WhatsApp conversations between workers in the Labour National Office, ranging from name-calling to wishing death on Corbynite activists and left MPs. These revelations have made many Labour Party members question their commitment to the party, whereas others have used it as a spur to fight on for party democracy.
Thousands of Labour members came to believe between 2015-2019 that socialism could come through joining Labour with Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. I was one of them. With membership increasing from 180,000 in 2015 under Ed Milliband, it became the largest social democratic party in Europe under Corbyn with 600,000 members. Corbyn seemed to offer a parliamentary road to socialism. A member-led revolution was in the air, or so many members thought. But one problem that was hidden from members was that the well-positioned bureaucrats within Labour would never allow a left leadership to succeed and, more importantly, would do everything to stop a left-wing government intent on challenging the neoliberal consensus. The report revealed the power of unelected functionaries working for Labour and who had always worked in such roles in Labour or in the union movement.
A large proportion of right-wing MPs had risen to their positions under the leadership of Blair and Brown and thus represented an acceptance of much of the neoliberal argument that workers terms and conditions would have to be lowered in order to attract investment and employment to the UK economy. The right of the Parliamentary Labour Party made consistent efforts to undermine Corbyn and his ‘radical’ ideas and attempts to democratise the Labour Party. In spite of increasing opposition from his own MPs and an internal bureaucracy working against Corbyn and his advisors, the party membership continued to grow and membership involvement at CLP, regional and council level increased with every passing month(although getting left members into councillor positions was still difficult and fraught with rules and regulation used by the right to stop such candidates standing).
The referendum result was used by right-wing forces within Labour to try to force Corbyn from power in June 2016 when 171 Labour MPs tried to get him to stand down in the infamous ‘chicken coup’. They said Labour could never win a General Election with him at the helm; how right they were, but for very different reasons. The attempts by the PLP to subordinate the interests of the majority of the membership illustrated the first public sign that Corbyn would have a major problem in trying to ‘unite’ the party. This attempt took a personal note when my own former MP, Liz McInnes was part of the coup against a Corbyn-led Labour Party. Straightaway, the left in our CLP organised a petition supporting Jeremy Corbyn and asked all CLP members to sign when they attended Mayoral elections in 2016. Out of 54 members who attended, 34 signed the petition, pitting the majority of attendees to the meeting against our Labour MP. I remember our MP saying to me after I confronted her at her weekly surgery about her participation in the ‘chicken coup’, ‘if you don’t agree with me, get rid of me’, to which I replied, ‘we don’t have the means by which to do that though do we?’
When Corbyn attempted to democratise Labour with the ‘Democracy Review’, which saw Chris Williamson touring the country with other supporters of Corbyn trying to engage members in asking them their views about how to make the party more accountable, many Labour MPs were hostile, fearing deselection. The call for mandatory reselection was eventually watered down to the compromise option of the trigger ballot system, which made it much more difficult to get any vote for a challenge to the incumbent MP. Conversations with other members illustrated much cynicism to local councillors’ willingness to fight austerity at least on the local level, and evasive attitudes to accountability to members.
I and many others in Labour have started to question if this vehicle is the correct means by which to fight for change in society. This feeling has only deepened in light of the 2019 General Election defeat, especially given how the leadership debates and Starmer’s victory have solidified the idea that Labour lost because of their ‘radical’ policies or the personality of Corbyn. Starmer ran on a platform of preserving the key aspects of the 2019 manifesto, but even his short time as leader has demonstrated what a lie that was, and how conciliatory and uninspiring his politics really are. His opposition to rent waivers, repudiation of the struggle in Kashmir and rejection of ‘opposition for opposition’s sake’ are indicative.
Corbyn and the left in Labour were constantly called upon to ‘unite’ with all sections of the party from 2015-19, but what has become apparent is the right and left have very different visions of such unity. Ken Loach summed up the right-wing of the Labour Party very well recently when he said, ‘a broad church doesn’t work when the choir is trying to stab the vicar in the back’.
The Corbyn experience has shown me and countless others that the fight for a socialist society will need much more than a parliamentary path. Even though Labour came so close to victory, the barriers put in the way of people arguing for even a modest social democratic programme shows us what we are up against.
Where do we go now? Supporting workers in various struggles and building up communities that can fight against local cuts in conjunction with socialists and trade unionists is an immediate task. Workers have already started to question this government’s totally inadequate response to the Covid-19 crisis, but also call into question the system that puts profit over peoples. These sparks of resistance have taken place outside of a parliamentary system which many people have been so badly let down by. Organisation is slowly taking place across various sections of society – that organisation can form part of the fight for a different system.