With the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, hopes of achieving change through the Labour Party look increasingly remote. But new struggles are emerging in new ways. So, for the thousands leaving Labour, the key is not just to leave, writes Colin Wilson – it’s to leave with a plan to build something different.
The last week has seen two events that sum up the current political situation. On Thursday, Keir Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey as Education Secretary. On Saturday, meanwhile, some ten thousand people took part in the Black Trans Lives Matter march in central London – a total which would have been, no doubt, higher if not for the pandemic. It’s an important step forward after years of attacks on trans people, mostly from the right, but sometimes involving the left – attacks which have drawn considered responses from organisations like Stonewall and Mermaids, but little in the way of public protest. It’s great to see such lively opposition to transphobia – but this was also a Black Lives Matter demonstration. It’s clear that there’s a substantial number of young people for whom fighting all oppression is taken for granted as part of their politics – and in many cases, climate issues are too. The slogan raised by the anti-capitalist movement almost twenty years ago – that ‘another world is possible’ – seems relevant once again.
Meanwhile, Starmer’s plan for the Labour Party has nothing to do with relating to such people. Instead, his aim is the erasure of almost everything associated with the Corbyn project. Last Tuesday, as Johnson announced the effective end of lockdown with the British death toll the highest in Europe, Starmer commented that: ‘I believe the Government is trying to do the right thing and we will support them.’ This is not about lack of charisma or incompetence on Starmer’s part, it’s a deliberate strategy. It’s no part of that plan for Starmer to act as some good-faith figure who brings different wings of the Labour Party together – as Len McCluskey implied when he tweeted in response to Long-Bailey’s sacking that: ‘Unity is too important to be risked like this.’ Nor is Starmer moving rightwards in the hope of winning votes.
His key goal, rather, is to demonstrate that the Labour Party can be trusted to run the British state – demonstrating this not to voters, but to the ruling class of top industrialists and financiers, senior civil servants, military top brass and so on. These people were of course completely opposed to Corbyn’s policies for redistribution of wealth, such as their paying more taxes. But they were even more concerned about his foreign policy because Corbyn was in many ways a principled internationalist, whose first act as Labour leader was to show solidarity with migrants, who opposed nuclear weapons and who had actively opposed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Starmer wants to show that, unlike Corbyn, he can be trusted to run the British state, including its armed forces. This is the main reason why on Saturday he relaunched Labour Friends of the Forces, declaring ‘I am proud of my country and proud of those who serve it’, and explaining that he wants the military to have a bigger say in Labour.
Reorienting Labour in this way involves driving out the left, and accusations of antisemitism are now being used to achieve this. As Barnaby Raine has written for Novara Media, these accusations have very little to do with the real and increasing oppression of Jews. This use of antisemitism against the Labour left should not come as a surprise. All the Labour leadership contenders accepted the Board of Deputies’ ten pledges – including that Labour give up control over the disciplinary procedure of their party, and that anyone who questioned a person being suspended from the party would be suspended themselves. Any criticism of Israel, however factually accurate, can now be described as harmful to the ‘Jewish community’ – this stereotype of Jews as a monolithic bloc of Zionists, not affected by the variety of political opinion that exists among any group of people, is itself antisemitic. And you don’t even have to have committed the offence yourself – sharing a platform with the accused, or even failing to condemn them, can be used against you.
No wonder many socialists have left the Labour Party in disgust, or because they realise that the party is becoming uninhabitable for them. But this raises the question of what they should do now. Is there another electoral party they should join instead of Labour? Certainly, in England, no such alternative exists. There is no sign of Starmer’s attacks prompting the creation of a new left organisation – what would be, in effect, a Corbynite party outside of Labour. Of course, various left organisations exist. In rs21 we aim to provide a space for debate and coordinated activity among people who agree on the need for revolution – anyone who agrees with our politics is very welcome to join.
The truth is that nothing really can fill the gap left for Labour members by the end of Corbynism – there is no alternative party with half a million members and a principled leader who might become PM in the foreseeable future. Many who have committed to that project will find this deeply painful – and the danger is that people’s understandable current pain and anger will turn into longer-term political demoralisation and inactivity. The way to avoid that is for people to continue political involvement in campaign groups that aren’t directly linked to Labour. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen over 150 Black Lives Matter protests in Britain, for example, including Saturday’s Black Trans Lives Matter march. The NEU, the largest education union, has played a crucial role in pushing back against government plans to reopen schools – and has gained 20 thousand new members and two thousand workplace reps.
Many more campaigns exist, and as the Covid-19 pandemic continues – the greatest social crisis since World War Two, in a Britain where austerity has left millions in insecure jobs or housing – we can expect to see more protests and activism. There is no need to be a Labour member to get involved. In fact, Labour played very little part in the great protest movements of the last fifty years – that against the Vietnam War, the industrial struggles which threw out the Heath government in 1974, the Women’s or Gay Liberation Movements, the Poll Tax movement which helped bring down Thatcher in 1990 or the huge movement against the war in Iraq.
In the short term, the best way forward for former Corbynites seems to be to check out what exists in their area – what campaigns could you get involved in, or continue to be involved in? Of course, you needn’t do this alone – could you persuade other people, formerly or still Labour Party members, to collaborate with you? Or perhaps you aren’t attracted to local campaigns, or you want to clarify your political ideas – maybe through a reading group – rather than developing movement-building skills. Whatever you choose to do, there is every sign that we’ll need every one of you in future.