Labour under Starmer’s leadership remains a place where the class struggle is happening, and it is mistake for socialists in England to leave it argues Andy Stowe.
Is it only three years ago that Jeremy Corbyn stood on the main stage at Glastonbury as hundreds of thousands of festival goers sang their support for what he represented to them?
British politics hadn’t seen a mass movement like Corbynism before. It offered a radically different set of answers to austerity, an economy built on job insecurity and low wages and climate change. After years in which it was often hard to find significant areas of disagreement between the Tories and the Labour right Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott expressed what millions of people felt was necessary.
This step forward has not been undone. It is hard to imagine that the pandemic furlough scheme could have been introduced without Corbynism. Boris Johnson, who in the space of a week is variously Churchill, Putin and Roosevelt is now talking about averting a recession through large scale public spending. It is peanuts compared to what McDonnell was proposing but it is a real change from what Cameron and May were doing.
Corbynism offered hope to tens of thousands of socialists who’d felt that they’d been in the wilderness for most of their political lives, many of whom had tried to build left alternatives to Labour such as the Socialist Alliance, Respect (marks 1 and 2) and Left Unity. Supporters of Socialist Resistance were involved in all of them from their optimistic births to their dispiriting ends.
Tedium, drudgery and viciousness
Much more importantly, it pulled into structured political activity hundreds of thousands of people who’d not joined a party before. This has plusses and negatives.
Many were young, enthusiastic and passionate. Corbyn articulated what they felt British society needed and they turned out in their thousands during elections campaigns. What these new activists were not prepared for was the tedium, drudgery and occasional viciousness of life inside Labour. The majority of them choose not to engage with it and were encouraged in that attitude by a Momentum leadership which saw them mainly as canvassers and phone bankers.
Ward meetings, general committees, executive committees, conference motions, regional party organisations were generally dominated by people who hadn’t had that much of a problem with Tony Blair. They made no secret of the fact that they considered the Corbyn leadership to be illegitimate and a nightmare they would one day awake from.
Not content with using every dirty trick in the book, they even wrote a couple of new books of dirty tricks, the most successful of which was to brand the entire Labour left as Jew haters.
It worked. Corbyn has gone and his only supporter in the new shadow cabinet was sacked for retweeting an article from a national paper which contained a factual error by a prominent actor.
Starmer is pushing the party sharply to the right. He has set up Labour Friends of the Armed Forces to appeal to the English nationalists in Labour and the British working class; is junking the zero carbon emissions by 2030 commitment; his default response to Johnson’s handling of the pandemic is to agree with him and he’s considered sufficiently trustworthy by the Daily Telegraph to be allowed to write front page articles for a paper that lied about Corbyn on virtually every day of his leadership.
Starmer’s overturning of Corbyn and McDonnell’s opening to support for self-determination for Scotland on the same day he sacked Long-Bailey, by ruling out any Labour support for a second independence referendum flies in the face of the policy of its largest Scottish affiliated union, Unison, the Scottish TUC and a large proportion of its remaining voters, and seems set to confine Labour to the margins of politics in the next Scottish elections
The machine that dedicated every waking moment to smashing Corbyn is now back in control of Labour. The left is bruised and demoralised and small far left currents which have never been in Labour are counselling them to join their ranks of a few dozen people, having just walked out of a party where many constituencies had 5000 members.
Starmer’s victory, his current trajectory and the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey have been defeats for the left. However, as John McDonnell commented:
“But despite the setbacks, we must remember that the Labour left is so much stronger now than we were in 2015. Jeremy barely made it onto the ballot then. Now the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs is much larger than before.
Labour is still the home of hundreds of thousands of dedicated socialists and we must keep it that way. Together we have incredible power, but only if we get organised.”
There is absolutely no prospect of a new left alternative to Labour emerging from the defeat of Corbynism. But as McDonnell says there is still a large audience inside Labour for radical socialist politics and this has the support of a new intake of left MPs.
After a defeat on the scale of the 2019 election it’s inevitable that the left will be demoralised. It is too early to say where its resurgence will come from, but already MPs like Apsana Begum and Richard Burgon are showing that they are willing to give a lead to those inside and outside the party who understand that strikes resisting austerity imposed by Labour councils and actions on the streets opposing racism are more as much part of what socialists should be doing as winning votes at some meeting.
Corbynism showed that even for many who see themselves as being on the radical, class struggle left the Labour Party is the political home they look to. There are still tens of thousands of them in the Starmer-led party and it is a serious sectarian mistake to walk away from them in the forlorn hope they will rally to the red flag of a small propaganda group.
For the foreseeable future the Labour Party will be a site of serious class struggle, not the only one, but definitely where socialists in England should be to build support for Palestine, Black Lives Matter and workers and communities fighting austerity.