Labour: socialists and witch-hunters

Ian Allinson and Rachel Eborall take up the issue of Starmer’s purges in the Labour Party and respond to Conti and Woody’s claim that the party represents the progressive petty bourgeoisie.

Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer. Keywords: antisemitism anti-semitism Labour Party racist racism

We welcome the contribution of comrades Conti and Woody in trying to understand the nature of the Labour Party post Corbyn. How socialists relate to the Labour Party is an important discussion. Many of us, including the writers of this article, were surprised and heartened by the Corbyn project. Since the election of Starmer, the Labour right almost completely control it, but have failed to be an opposition or an attractive electoral proposition. Defining the Labour Party as the party of the progressive petty bourgeois, as Conti and Woody do, is mistaken. This description fails to understand the relationship of the Labour Party to either the working class or the capitalist class. We believe that describing the Labour Party as a capitalist workers party is more accurate and more useful in trying to understand the contradictions and the dynamics of the post-Corbyn Labour Party.

A failed opposition to the Tories

We are in the midst of a pandemic the Tories have responded to with a deadly mixture of corruption, incompetence, laziness, dishonesty and capitulation to the short-term demands of particular sections of business. Ordinary people are paying the price, many have lost work, with more jobs under threat as furlough ends. Employers have taken advantage of fire and rehire to cut terms and conditions, affecting around 10% of the workforce. While billions go to outfits like Serco our public services are starved of resources and workers have their pay suppressed. The climate crisis is becoming ever more obvious with every heatwave, flood and wildfire. The Tories are pushing through the repressive Policing Bill and the viciously anti-migrant Nationality and Borders Bill. Despite the attacks and incompetence of the Tories, Starmer has failed to mount any opposition. 

It’s not that the Tories are invincible – their U-turns under pressure are almost countless. But the opposition isn’t coming from Starmer’s Labour – it has come from people protesting on the streets for Black Lives or against gendered and police violence; from workers and their unions refusing unsafe work. Marcus Rashford is often described as the opposition as he challenges racism and poverty. His campaign for free meals for kids has been more effective than anything from Labour.

The Labour Party under Starmer has tried to show that it is respectable and therefore electable they have been outflanked by the Tories on the NHS pay rise (the Labour Party offered 2.1% and the government offered 3%). Labour opposed any increase in corporation tax as the Tories raised it from 19% to 25%.

Before Corbyn, Labour had for so long been seen as a party of neo-liberal economics, war and migrant-bashing that its right wing nature seemed self-evident. His election as Labour leader offered hope to millions that change was possible. Hundreds of thousands joined to support him, campaigning for socialist policies and in elections. This happened without much discussion about the nature of the Labour Party, and consequent lack of clarity is disorientating people as Labour moves back to the right.

What is the Labour Party?

The Labour Party was founded as a result of a process which came to a head with the Taff Vale railway strike in 1901. Courts ruled that companies could sue unions for losses, effectively bankrupting them if they struck. Union leaders decided they needed a voice in parliament to restore their right to operate. Union leaders are neither workers nor bosses, they are an intermediary layer who negotiate the terms of workers’ exploitation and who have their own interests.

The trade union bureaucracy isn’t a revolutionary force. It negotiates between bosses and workers, encouraging both resistance and accommodation. However, every deal leaves intact the inequality and exploitation of the employment relationship. Union leaders and their political representatives aim to administer the national capitalist state, not replace it.

The Labour Party has always been an attempt to reconcile irreconcilable loyalties of class and nation, with nation coming out on top whenever push comes to shove. Historically the union leaders have played as big a role as the Parliamentary Labour Party (MPs) in preventing radicals in Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) shifting the party left. During the New Labour era, the Parliamentary Labour Party moved so far to the right that the conservative role of the union leaders was obscured. The union link has been weakened in recent decades, as the Labour right relied on it less and found it embarrassing. In particular, the move towards One Member One Vote and away from block votes weakened the power of union leaders. But they remain an important component of Labour – politically, financially and organisationally – that’s why all wings of the Labour Party interfere in union leadership elections, as currently in Unite. Union leaders played an important role in defending Corbyn from the right while he was in office, but they also applied pressure which prevented CLP members from winning radical positions on issues from Trident to climate change.

Another feature of the relationship between Labour and the unions is a separation between economics and politics. Union leaders can avoid organising action over political issues by directing energies towards the Labour Party. Labour leaders can duck taking positions on workplace issues by saying they are unions’ responsibility. The effect of the separation is to weaken workers – political power can be used against us in workplace struggles yet it’s not seen as legitimate to use our workplace power to challenge political power.

The influence of the trade union bureaucracy is not dependent on a particular constitutional arrangement. Leaders of many unions which aren’t affiliated to Labour are almost as tied to Labour as the rest. And if we look globally, the history and structure of reformist parties varies considerably. Some parties predate unions and set them up, rather than the other way round. Some have no affiliation or constitutional link. But reformist parties and union bureaucracies have so much in common that relationships emerge anyway. Both share the illusion that the capitalist state isn’t inherently partisan in the struggles between workers and employers, see having nicer people managing the national capitalist state is the limit of our aspirations, and benefit from a separation between economics and politics.

Reformist ideas are not something alien to the working class, solely originating from the trade union bureaucracy, a privileged layer of the working class (an ‘aristocracy of labour’), a middle class or the media. Reformist ideas arise from the experience of life under capitalism and are the dominant consciousness of the working class outside revolutionary periods. To survive, we have to fight within the society we live in, within the capitalist framework. And it’s only natural that workers’ first reaction to grievances is to reject symptoms of capitalism rather than the system itself. If you have a sore toe, you don’t amputate your leg until you have tried less drastic alternatives.

While most of the Labour Party’s support comes from the working class, it would be wrong to characterise it simply as a workers’ party. It pursues policies that incorporate workers into the system for the benefit of the ruling class. It only improves the lives of workers to the extent that this is compatible with profits and the health of the system. But it would be just as wrong to simply characterise it as a capitalist party because it expresses, however imperfectly, reformist ideas that are widespread within the working class and relies mainly on the working class for its support. In the early 20th century the revolutionary Lenin described the Labour Party: 

most of the Labour Party’s members are working men. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only that determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers

This captures the contradictory nature of the Labour Party – a capitalist workers’ party – much better than seeing it as a party of the progressive petty bourgeoisie as Conti and Woody argued on this site recently.

What do they mean by the progressive petty bourgeoisie? Small business owners? Middle class people with professional or managerial roles, particularly from the public sector and Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs)? It was always true that Labour’s leadership was far less working class in its origins than its base of support. But trying to find a class origin or Labour’s rotten politics in the backgrounds of its leaders obscures the point. Even if every one of them had come from the working class, Labour would still serve the interests of the capitalist class while relying on a working class base. The interests it serves are not those of a ‘progressive petty bourgeoisie’, they are those of the capitalist class, red in tooth and claw. Conti and Woody’s description is not only inaccurate, it is far too generous.

The dual nature of Labour as a capitalist workers party, rather than a petty bourgeois party, has important implications, both in terms of understanding the dynamics at play and in terms of how socialists should respond.

Labour after Corbyn

One the reasons that Corbyn’s Labour failed to win the 2019 election was that, under constant barrage from the right, the Labour left focused on internal battles to defend his leadership, win positions and policies, and did little to build working class resistance beyond the electoral battlefield. It is worth remembering that when Cameron’s Tories won their surprise majority in 2015 there was a powerful reaction. Large meetings and protests sprang up around the country, often called by people unknown to the organised left. The turning point was the huge People’s Assembly demonstration in London in June which expressed the same mood, but saw its energy channelled into Corbyn’s candidacy. Despite the fact that Corbyn supported non-electoral campaigning, it was not the focus. Despite the renewed energy and cohesion his leadership gave to the left, it sucked oxygen away from other struggles rather than contributing to them.

Participation in collective resistance is vital for building working class confidence and challenging the dominant ideas in capitalist society. The weakness of collective resistance meant the Labour left was fighting to win votes with mass canvassing but on relatively unfertile terrain. Unfortunately this was not the dominant understanding of the reasons for the Tories’ 2019 election victory. Many Labour supporters concluded that they had to move to the right and be more respectable to win public support, hence Starmer’s comfortable defeat of Rebecca Long-Bailey for the leadership.

The window of opportunity that Corbyn represented is firmly closed. Even while holding the leadership, the Labour left always prized unity with the Labour right over fighting for socialist politics. The right kept control of most of the party apparatus and used it to undermine Corbyn at every turn. The idea that the left are going to seize control of the apparatus and democratise the Labour Party now is absurd.

Starmer only became an MP in 2015 and didn’t come from the Labour right. He stood claiming that he would maintain the radicalism of the Corbyn era but add the magic ingredients of unity and ‘electability’. He was never going to be radical – his candidacy relied on the support of a Labour right who were determined to bury the very memory of Corbynism. So far, he has been such a failure on the electability front that criticism of him is not restricted to the left. Rather than trying to win popular support by painting a vision of a better life, Starmer’s priority has been to prove to the establishment that Labour can be trusted to loyally administer the British state, hoping that the Tories will screw up so badly that he will be propelled into office merely by appearing comparatively harmless. Starmer immediately got busy purging the left. He sacked left-wing shadow ministers and removed the whip from Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer’s latest purges are a continuation of this process.

Though many on Labour’s right would love to eradicate the left entirely, many of them grasp the important role the left plays in giving them legitimacy and a base. It is the left that inspires and recruits people into the party, that is most effective in discouraging a breakaway to the left which would sink Labour’s electoral prospects, and which helps keep the cash and support flowing from the unions. Attacking the left has meant Labour haemorrhaged members and money, forcing them to sack many of its workers. The Labour right’s preference is not to eradicate the left, but, as Conti and Woody correctly suggest, to pacify it. But their incorrect characterisation of Labour enables them to draw the wrong conclusions about the likely course of the purges.

Conti and Woody are right to grasp that the current purges are unlikely to be the end of the matter. The purges are an attempt to cow the whole left irrespective of the groups targeted. It is wrong just to focus solidarity on groups that claim to be Marxist. The right not only succeeded in suspending Corbyn but in bullying the ‘stay and fight’ Labour left into staying silent about it for fear of suspension. They know that they haven’t yet buried Corbynism. For example, there were a number of new Corbynite Labour councillors elected in May 2021. Starmer has felt able to move on to purging four groups within Labour, not because they pose any particular threat or because of their particular politics, but because they are big enough to send a clear message but not so big that it will cause too much damage. Conti and Woody are wrong to think ‘If Starmer’s support base tastes blood, then putting a stop to this process will be near impossible’. The groups they really want to pacify are Momentum and the Socialist Campaign Group. Both are still organising despite the purges, but the issues they tackle and how they do it are shaped by fear of reprisals from the leadership. Because Labour needs its left and its working class base, the pattern of previous purges is that they don’t continue until the right have completely killed their enemies as Conti and Woody suggest, but that they reach a point where the benefits of keeping a pacified left inside the tent outweigh the temptation for more expulsions. Battles between the left and right of Labour won’t end with total victory for either side – they are intrinsic to the nature of Labourism.

While the whole left should oppose the purges, we should also have something to say about where energies are best spent. The reality is that ‘stay and fight’ in the Labour Party means some combination of spending energies on internal battles rather than building working class power, and being unable to speak out openly whether on Palestine, the failures of the leadership, or in defence of purged comrades. The logic of ‘stay and fight’ means subordinating the fight for socialism to Labour Party unity.

There is an alternative to reformism. Growing numbers in Britain and around the world recognise that the problems we face, from poverty to climate breakdown to imperialist war, are not accidental failures but are caused by the very nature of the capitalist system, and that we need a revolution to replace it with a free society with real democracy that includes all of economic life rather than leaving it to the power of money through market mechanisms. And ironically, once you abandon a commitment to managing the capitalist state, to patching up a failed system, you are much better able to fight for reforms than reformist parties will ever be. Revolutionaries need to organise independently from those who want to nurse capitalism back to health. But we also need to work with Labour supporters where we can, not just in order to achieve the united action required to win, but also to win them away from reformist politics and the influence of Labour. Understanding the contradiction of Labour as a capitalist workers party rather than dismissing it as petty bourgeois is much more helpful in guiding our actions.

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