To defeat the right-wing politics of Keir Starmer and his allies, socialists need to take their fight outside of Labour’s rigged internal structures.
Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the Labour Party is a shameless act of factional intrigue.
Not only were the statements for which Corbyn was suspended not antisemitic; they were unquestionably factually correct. Throughout the years of Corbyn’s leadership, right-wing figures in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party’s paid staff systematically circulated exaggerated claims of a ‘crisis of antisemitism’ within Labour, despite an abundance of statistical and other evidence showing this claim to be unfounded. The 800-page dossier of internal party information that was leaked in April contained hard evidence of this fact, as did Al Jazeera’s 2017 undercover documentary The Lobby.
Corbyn’s carefully worded statement also explicitly acknowledged the existence of real cases of antisemitism within Labour, underscoring that his own leadership team invariably aimed to toughen, rather than dilute, Labour’s disciplinary procedures. That Keir Starmer and his allies feel confident in suspending Corbyn over such a moderate and even-handed set of comments can only be understood in terms of the spiralling, escalating dynamic of the witch-hunt of recent years. Whereas, a few years ago, Labour left figures were targeted, rightly or wrongly, over specific comments they had made which were alleged to be antisemitic, now Starmer seeks to expel MPs simply for dissenting from the exact contours of his official narrative about the handling of antisemitism within the party.
Labour members have every right to be furious at these events. Starmer has set out to insult and humiliate the thousands of people who elected Corbyn leader of the Labour Party in 2015 and 2016, and the millions who put their hopes in him in 2017 and 2019. In doing so, he has amplified the voices of right-wing racists and anti-Palestine activists, and handed ammunition to the Tory government and its media outriders.
The question is, what should left-wing Labour members do now?
No leadership is forthcoming from Corbyn’s allies in the PLP. John McDonnell’s reaction statement stopped at the suggestion that ‘In interests of party unity let’s find a way of undoing [and] resolving this.’ Diane Abbott and Richard Burgon have expressed opposition to Corbyn’s suspension, and an intention to ‘work for his reinstatement’. At the time of writing, many other MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group have yet to make any statement at all. The same is true of many of the journalists and political aides who formerly acted as linchpins and leading strategists of the Corbyn movement.
At the grassroots, many left-wing groups within Labour have responded by simply repeating their previous advice to members to ‘stay and fight’ within the party. However, the period since March has given no indication that this approach can be effective – or even of what it looks like in practice. The institutional avenues for left-wing Labour members to ‘fight’ against Starmer’s ongoing purge of the party have proved ineffective. As the subject matter of the recent controversy shows, Labour’s official institutions and administrative channels remained mostly undemocratic, and mostly controlled by the party’s right wing, even during Corbyn’s leadership, when the left had a broad majority on most elected bodies.
The grim reality is that there is no strategy that is likely to succeed in rolling back Starmer’s conquest of the party. And, correspondingly, there will be no final public vindication for maligned and insulted Corbynite members, and no ultimate redress of the many injustices done to them by the media, the party bureaucracy and the PLP.
Socialists in Labour urgently need to discuss, collectively and rigorously, how to respond to this profoundly bitter and disturbing outcome. They have every democratic right to hold meetings, discussions and forums on that topic, and should go ahead and organise these – in violation of the party leadership’s ludicrous attempt to implement a blanket ban on members holding critical discussions of the topic. Trade unionists in Labour-affiliated unions should also insist on discussing Starmer’s actions, and must hold serious discussions on disaffiliating from the party, or withholding union funds from it. Even aside from the attack on Corbyn, this course of action is more than merited by Starmer’s repugnant recent antics in parliament, where he insisted that Labour MPs abstain on a Tory bill giving the state wide latitude to infiltrate, surveil and abuse trade unionists.
With the Covid pandemic continuing, and the global economy entering into a disastrous crash, this collective discussion cannot be limited to how best to contest Starmer’s recent attacks on Labour left politicians. Instead, we need to urgently address the larger question of whether Labour is now a viable vehicle for any kind of socialist project. However bruising the last year has been, left-wing Labour members still number in the many thousands, and the networks, experience and organisations they have gained in the last several years do not need to be discarded in the event of their leaving the party. Freed from Starmer’s stifling internal Labour regime, these networks could make all the difference in organising a powerful mass fightback against the disgraceful policies being implemented by the Tories with Starmer’s backing. And we may find that this turn of events would, in turn, allow the formation of new political instruments and organisations outside of the Labour Party.
Those who have registered real political victories against the Conservative government’s agenda, and against Starmer’s enablement of it, have been movements and campaigns that have organised direct activity in workplaces and on the streets. We can look back to April, when Starmer made a major political intervention on schools – not to support National Education Union members, who were demanding schools only reopen with proper safety measures in place, but rather to demand that the government go even further and faster in the forced, unsafe reopening of schools while Covid was still rampant. In the event, a wave of action by education workers ensured that schools stayed closed until much later, overriding both Boris Johnson’s declared deadline, and Starmer’s pathetic attempt to outflank him from the right.
We can also look back to the summer, when Starmer belittled and ridiculed the Black Lives Matter movement, dismissing one of its core demands of defunding the police as ‘nonsense’. The strength and perseverance of the mass protest movement on the streets quickly encouraged Starmer to hold his tongue, and a week later he made a (rightly ridiculed) gesture of penance by submitting himself to ‘unconscious bias training’.
Although Starmer’s leadership only began in March, there is already a clear pattern: the left is disenfranchised and disempowered within the rigged structures and channels of internal Labour Party procedure, but we do have huge power over Starmer when we organise concrete power and resistance in our workplaces and communities. And not only Starmer: building this kind of independent power is building leverage, not only over Labour, but over the government and the political system as a whole. To keep ourselves and our communities safe while the Covid pandemic rages on, we will need to use this power many more times yet.