Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader is a serious defeat for the left, writes Veronica Fagan, and is further compounded by the results of the deputy leadership election, the NEC elections and the less discussed Scottish Labour deputy leadership election.
The first consequences of the set back can be seen in who is in and who is out of the new Shadow Cabinet. The symbolism is clear – Lisa Nandy, who came third in the leadership contest, gets one of the key offices of state as Foreign Secretary, while Rebecca Long-Bailey, coming second, only gets Education. This means Nandy is in the Shadow C-19 committee, which will obviously play a vital role in the next weeks and months, while Long-Bailey is out.
Miliband back in a prominent position is definitely noteworthy as is the fact that few have heard of the new Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds. Ashworth, never a Corbynite, retains his role at Health while Healey gets a promotion to defence. Richard Burgon, who ran a politically combative campaign for the Labour leadership and did an excellent job as Shadow Justice Secretary, is sacked and replaced by David Lammy. Shami Chakrabarti has gone, replaced by Blair’s flat mate Charlie Falconer.
This first Shadow Cabinet does not represent the talent available to Starmer by a long way. Many Corbyn supporters who had been fulfilling their brief well have gone from his team, while people like Rebecca Long-Bailey are moved to places that don’t seem to fit their interests and skills. Starmer certainly seems more concerned to keep those to his right close than to give any meaningful role to those on his left.
How those Labour members who previously supported Corbyn, but backed Starmer this time view this, is not clear. That group is anyway divided into those on the soft left who backed the last Labour leader without real conviction and those who were genuine Corbynistas who despaired at last year’s election defeat and see Starmer, rather than Long-Bailey, as the answer.
The size of that latter group is a grim testimony to the fact that RLB’s campaign was weak but also to the uneven level of political debate and political education within the Labour Party and more broadly. Too many people saw Corbyn as an individual as having all the answers – and a magic wand which could undo all the devastation wreaked on the labour movement by Thatcherism and then by New Labour. Many failed to get involved either in Labour Party structures and or in the wider movement intervening primarily through social media. When Labour was trounced by the Tories in December they were more likely to become demoralised and disorientated than those with political anchors in the real world – including the lived or known experience of previous bitter losses.
Stay and fight
But bad as Starmer’s victory is, as his Shadow Cabinet confirms, Socialist Resistance is strongly of the view that people should not be leaving the Labour Party. The impulse to do so is understandable, but wrong.
Labour remains the biggest party in Europe, built to that remarkable strength by Corbyn’s leadership. In policy terms, the manifestos of 2017 and 2019 are remarkably strong documents, based on socialist policies particularly around the economy, the environment, defence of our public services, of the most disadvantaged and on internationalism. All those things remain Labour policy despite the change of leader. And all those things are absolutely worth fighting for in the context of a Tory government, which while it has been forced by public opinion and by Labour to make certain limited concessions, remains absolutely committed to protecting the Few not the Many.
Labour remains a place where significant numbers of people, in every community at least in England and Wales, are committed to opposing austerity and fighting for social justice at home and abroad. (In Scotland, many of those people are in or around the Scottish National Party. Scottish Labour is more and more of a shell – and Matt Kerr’s defeat as Deputy leader will further that decline). In England and Wales, Labour remains the key political framework for struggle. It becomes even more important than before to strengthen the links – in all directions – between Labour, the unions and campaigns.
However much we regret Starmer’s election, and we certainly do, we also need to remember that he won on the basis of claiming at least part of Corbyn’s mantle. His election statement includes this: “I’ll retain the radicalism of the last four years. We are an anti-austerity party. We believe in common ownership. We want a fairer and more peaceful world. We have led the way on climate change and the need for a Green New Deal.” Holding him to this will be a key job for the left over the weeks and months ahead.
One of the groups of people concerned that Starmer has them in his sights are those championing the rights of the Palestinian people, centrally including non- and anti-Zionist Jews. One of his first actions as newly elected Labour leader was to write to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Their positive response contrasts strongly with their attitude to Corbyn; all the time he was Labour they had him in their sights.
But no Labour leader controls everything. It’s true that even under Corbyn people were suspended or expelled from the party, sometimes on completely trumped up charges and on other occasions when they made genuine mistakes, unthinkingly or unknowingly repeating antisemitic tropes, particularly on social media. But its also true that alternative Jewish voices have become louder over the last period. That’s true internationally – and it’s true in Britain including specifically inside the Labour Party with the launch and growth of Jewish Voice for Labour.
Jews who dissent from the deadhand of the Jewish Labour Movement, together with sections of the left, have won important victories thus far. The most recent and significant was forcing the second reinstatement of Liverpool Councillor Jo Bird, scandalously suspended when she was standing for Labour’s NEC.
With Starmer at the helm, that dynamic needs to continue. Those of us who are not Palestinian, are not Jewish and for whom pro-Palestinian activism is not our primary area of activity cannot give up the fight and abandon those for whom this is a central struggle. Anti-Zionism and antisemitism are two entirely different things.
No National Government
And we absolutely need to build on one of Corbyn’s last acts as Labour leader. In his first ever interview for the Telegraph he put forward many reasons why Labour should not join a National government but must hold the Tories to account. To go down that road would be a political as well as an electoral disaster.
Corbyn has been supporting the defence of our NHS – and the rights of those who work there – all his political life. When he joins the applause for the NHS in his street every Thursday evening it builds on that work. Very different from the #ToxicTories who are denying essential workers in health, social care and beyond the life saving PPE they need to save the lives of others.
If Labour is to remain an anti-austerity party, one committed to peace and social justice, there can be no argument but that it needs to retain its political independence from the Tories who have presided over the destruction and immiseration of working class communities up and down Britain.
Of course current context of the C19 crisis poses new challenges for the left. It’s right that no physical meetings can take place. It’s a stretch to transfer political discussion and decision making on line, and particularly to facilitate the involvement of those without smart phones or computers and those with some impairments. But it can be done – by the Labour Party, by trade unions, by campaigns as well as by the brilliant and burgeoning Mutual Aid network thriving in so many of the most deprived communities across Britain.
Where those mechanisms are working; the left need to be fully participating. We should be persuading others to get involved in mutual aid – the genuine social movement that Corbyn advocated – and often seemed to promise – but did not in the end deliver except in this shape at the very end of his leadership. We should be finding ways of developing political education – setting up book groups, holding webinars (it’s much easier to invite international speakers or those in different corners of Britain when they can speak from the comfort of their own home), doing virtual local history walks and much more.
And where the structures we are normally involved in are not meeting, we should argue that they should. If we fail, we need to find other ways of organising – both to make sure that the most isolated and or disadvantaged in our communities are receiving support and to further discussion on the left. Starmer’s election would be a challenge at any time, and we need to make sure that people don’t drift away believing that everything we have won since Corbyn first was elected leader is swept away overnight.