Deserting the fight

Plans to close Labour Against the Witchhunt and form yet another amorphous broad-left outfit are not only, by definition, unprincipled: they are bound to fail, writes Paul Demarty

As I write, things are looking up for Keir Starmer.

The government has succeeded in putting itself on the back foot, by the traditional means of open political corruption, which has given Labour a lead in some polls – how sustainable remains to be seen. It is certainly taken, in the Labour leader’s office, as a green light to rerun Tony Blair’s mid-1990s act. Blair seized upon a series of scandals in John Major’s government while discreetly building ties with various big capitalists, notably Rupert Murdoch. So we also find Starmer making toe-curling overtures to the Confederation of British Industry, whom he assured (in the light of Boris Johnson’s famous “fuck business” moment) that “the only F words I will be using are foreign investment, fair trade, fiscal policy and fiduciary duty”.

The flipside to such brown-nosing is, naturally, further assaults on the left. We will merely mention the recent case of Graham Bash, editor of Labour Briefing and Labour member since time immemorial, whose signature on a Labour Against the Witchhunt petition several years ago was considered grounds for expulsion, despite the fact that LAW has only very recently been proscribed by the Starmer regime. Natural justice matters as little to Starmer and friends as does seeming to be remotely human.

In this rather chillier environment, it is not terrifically surprising that – among the Labour left organisations that put up any fight at all against the slanderous accusations of anti-Semitism in the last few years – the question of future strategy looms large. The most concrete proposal to have emerged is an effective merger of LAW, the Labour In Exile Network (LIEN) (which organises those expelled on such charges) and the Labour Left Alliance. On first examination, the merger idea is not entirely stupid – after all, there is some overlap in the groups’ memberships and activities; and unity is, all things being equal, preferable to division.

The basis on which unity is proposed, however, has gone from being a rather pointless attempt to rearrange the deckchairs, as we originally feared. Instead, we have a call to abandon ship. This constitutes the effective basis of the motion, presented under the names of Tony Greenstein and Esther Giles, which will be debated at LAW’s all members’ meeting this Saturday. It begins with a quotation from Ken Loach – also recently offloaded from Labour for the crime of unconditional solidarity with the Palestinians:

Democracy is dead in the Labour Party … This is a political vacuum, this is the biggest challenge to the left in my lifetime. We do need a new political movement, across the whole left, inside the Labour Party and outside. It’s got to be ready to become a party when the time is right … Otherwise we fragment. People are leaving and we will fragment. At this critical moment when you have this mass of people just driven out of the party, where are they going to go? If we miss this opportunity it is a very black outlook.

Supposing an agreement to merge is obtained, “the steering committees of both organisations should meet as the new steering committee of the consolidated organisation”, which will be replaced in due course with a properly elected committee of the combined membership. The political basis of such a merger is not spelled out, but the kind of activity is:

The focus of the organisation should be both fighting the witch-hunt in the Labour Party and the politics of Starmer and bringing together socialists both inside and outside the Labour Party to build a socialist movement. We should also seek to work with grassroots mass movements such as over climate change [Extinction Rebellion] and racism [Black Lives Matter].

Weight

There are a number of problems with this proposal.

The most serious is that, despite the claim to have a “focus” on fighting the witch-hunt, that is precisely what will be ended – fighting the witch-hunt in the Labour Party. To produce a combined organisation for general political activity out of LAW and LIEN is to accept that there is no longer a need for a campaign focused on that priority. Remember that LAW is already committed to fighting to transform the Labour Party into a united front of a special kind – of all trade unions, working class partisans, socialist groups and parties. For unity to be worthwhile, for unity to be a net good, it would have to be on a serious basis that would supersede the otherwise separate existence of its components. That seriousness is partly a matter of immediate practicality and partly of principle.

To take the practicalities first: it is worth pointing out that, so far, the history of the Labour Party left has had a certain cycle to it (I hedge my bets, because political cycles can change dramatically – as happened, for instance, with the liquidation of the Italian Communist Party and the Tangentopoli scandals in the early 1990s, and may be happening now in post-Brexit Britain, but I do not propose to discuss this question here). It is striking to read Ken Loach’s words, only because he might have used exactly the same ones after the total bureaucratisation of the Blair years, or Kinnock’s purges of the entryists and marginalisation of the Bennites, and so forth.

Comrade Loach has been around a long time, and having turned his back on Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party, he embraced the politics of broad leftism and, as such, he has participated in at least two of these cycles; but it seems he finds it easier to expand his film-making aesthetic than his political thinking. Supposing that we are still in this cycle, then such regroupments on the basis of vague broad leftism – as per comrade Loach’s last great such initiative, Left Unity – will flounder and fail, because the Labour Party is a real party, and the grab-bags of sects and eccentrics that we saw in LU (and more recently at Chris Williamson’s Resist event) do not add up to such a thing.

In the absence of social weight, the only possible distinguishing feature of such a regroupment would have to be at the level of political programme. 150,000 people have left Labour, apparently, since Starmer’s triumph in the leadership election – but the idea that there is some real shared political basis uniting these individuals is fanciful. Green Party successes in recent local elections presumably reflect an influx in that direction; some have been absorbed into the existing sects; some will simply be demoralised. I do not pretend to know the proportions here, but my guess is the latter group is the largest.

So what political programme would unite them in the short term? The answer surely has to be: none. The various versions of ‘Continuity Corbynism’ touted around for this purpose are among the least plausible. They went and put their cross on a ballot paper in December 2019 for such a programme: the very sign under which their dreams were shattered.

Having mentioned Graham Bash at the outset, we are reminded again how often we would hear at meetings of his Labour Representation Committee (cited by the proposers as a potential partner) in the pre-Corbyn days that (say) Ed Miliband was committing electoral suicide by not adopting the ‘socialist’ policies of nationalising the railways, etc, etc, which had huge support in issue-by-issue polling. Owen Jones, then still a leftwinger, would tell us that the left had to concentrate on ‘working class’ issues like these and not ‘middle class’ ones like internationalism and so on.

Nothing has been so thoroughly tested to destruction as this perspective since the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge. To revive it less than two years after its obliteration in the face of political reality is enough to make one suspect that we have all died and been sent to the hell of endlessly repeated humiliation. The motion would not commit us to such a limbo state, but would commit us to unspecified further unifications with people who have ineradicable commitments to such politics; and on a political basis little clearer than ‘Starmer equals bad’.

Failure

Why did Corbynism fail? In the concrete, the ruling class successfully cornered Corbyn into a ‘remain’ position, which drained Labour’s support in parts of its heartland. This particular contingency reflects a fundamental flaw with the strategy: to wit, it assumes that adopting some popular policies will of itself force the political debate onto that favourable terrain. But the political debate is in the hands of the media, which is to say the class enemy; and so it actually took place on the bundle of anxieties represented by Brexit. When LRCites recounted the levels of popular support for more council houses, nationalisations of this or that industry, and so on, one very clear preference was always mysteriously forgotten: stricter border controls.

Even on that issue, however, the working class is sharply divided, as illustrated by George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain, which, with its fruity political combination of Blue Labour and Yezhovism, is founded on the basis that an extremely pro-Brexit position of nationalist-socialist autarky is the solution to the problem; nice try, comrades, but, had Corbyn taken a ‘leave’ position, he would have handed London over to the Greens and Liberal Democrats on a silver platter.

Labour Party Marxists argues for a fully worked-out Marxist programme with the open aim of communism and, prior to that, international socialist revolution; LPM does not suppose that this is an answer to the question of reuniting 150,000 atomised, demoralised Corbynites in time for the next electoral challenge, but a hundred votes for such a programme is worth 1,000 for For the many, not the few. It is a very different way of posing the question: around what we need, in the light of which we can take stock of what we have.

So what do we have? A Labour Party which still commands a large membership, which still unites the bulk of the union movement for political purposes, which has a substantial parliamentary fraction (though composed almost entirely of careerists and traitors) and is one of the two parties realistically contending for government in our woefully undemocratic electoral system. Within that, we have a subset of the Labour left – some who have been expelled, some still flying under the radar – who so far have been prepared to fight the witch-hunt. It is those organisations that we propose to merge on an as-yet undecided (but likely minimal) political basis.

The drafters of this proposal do not say it, but what they are calling for amounts to the liquidation of LAW and giving up on Labour as a site of struggle – particularly stupid with the witch-hunt finding ever new victims and the signs that Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and others of a similar ilk, might, at last, be willing to put up some kind of fight (note the excellent December 5 ‘Expulsion Rebellion’ initiative of Defend the Left). Organising ‘inside and outside Labour’ is simply smoke and mirrors, which blows away and shatters as soon as it is tested by the elementary questions of trade union affiliation and electoral choice. Do we, as comrade Greenstein has, call for trade unions to disaffiliate? Do we, as comrade Greenstein has, call for a vote for George Galloway? And to what point? Backing candidates of the nationalist Scottish Socialist Party, affiliating to Tusc, supporting the ‘left’ version of Brexit and immigration controls?

The likely result is a further political degeneration into the British left’s worst habits: the substitution of piecemeal activism ‘in the movements’ for high politics (the only vaguely concrete political basis offered is the unqualified affirmation of XR and BLM). Decades under the influence of this particular drug have left us entirely unable to cope with the attacks of our enemies, because we have lost our instinct for the importance of mass political organisation and institutional strength.

We had just the barest reminder of what that might look like in the Corbyn years. The capitulations of the Corbyn movement’s leadership are therefore all the less forgivable – and so would be the effective abandonment of the field of struggle by those few who ever saw the need to fight.

Time for a Rethink

Derek James rounds on John McDonnell for his pusillanimity and the official left for its silence over the expulsion of Graham Bash

News that veteran Labour left activist Graham Bash has been expelled by Labour for supporting Labour Against the Witchhunt had been long expected and was met with a predictable and entirely justified wave of protest from the left.[1] The fact that a Labour member of over 50 years standing, editor of Labour Briefing and a leading figure in organisations such as the Labour Representation Committee and Jewish Voice for Labour could be expelled for the ‘offence’ of signing a LAW petition before it was proscribed is Kafkaesque – but sadly not at all unusual nowadays.

That this form of retrospective charge, which runs counter to any democratic principles or sense of natural justice, can be so widely used by the Labour bureaucracy shows just how firm a grip they now have. While the usual suspects on the left vigorously protested about the expulsion of comrade Bash, the other usual suspects who claim to be on the left – the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, for example – kept to their now customary vow of silence. However, one valiant member of the SCG, John McDonnell, a long-time comrade did manage to tweet about his treatment:

I’ve known and campaigned alongside Graham Bash for over 40 years. He is one of the finest socialists I have met. I do not believe it can be just to expel someone from the Labour Party based upon actions or associations with an organisation before it has been proscribed.[2]

Given their political association within the London left in the late 1970s, and more recently through the LRC and Labour Briefing, for which McDonnell once wrote a regular column, these comforting words are the least that he could do for an old comrade – but they are not nearly enough. It might seem churlish to criticise this gesture of support: after all, given the vehemence of these attacks on the left should we not be grateful for even this rather lukewarm expression of solidarity?

No, we should not! This type of hand-wringing ‘support’ is simply not good enough, given the scale of the witch-hunt we now face. Leaving John McDonnell’s personal feelings aside, his tweet is not only woefully inadequate in defending comrade Bash, but is worse than useless in fighting back politically against the attacks of the Labour leadership. The type of statement McDonnell should have made would not simply have defended Graham Bash’s character and political reputation, nor would it merely raise a query about the ‘justice’ of the charges and procedure of his expulsion. What we need is more than a muted ‘condemnation’: the situation demands a political defence of party democracy and free speech and a real explanation of why Keir Starmer and the right are using trumped-up accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’ against the left.

However, as the last five years have shown, what the situation requires and what we get from the leaders of the official left are two very different things. Thus, John McDonnell’s rather tardy apologia on behalf of comrade Bash runs very much true to form in its oh so faint criticism of his expulsion. It also sheds light on the political duplicity and slavish compromises with the Labour right that characterise the politics of the official Labour left. So, McDonnell is concerned about the shabby treatment of his erstwhile comrade and rails, albeit sotto voce, against the terrible injustice that has been done to him. Comrade Bash is one of the finest socialists John McDonnell has ever met, so he tells us, and we agree that the expelled comrade is a genuine socialist who has been grotesquely smeared. But Graham Bash is not alone in facing persecution by the right: many other Jewish socialists are currently being attacked in this way. The question is: aren’t these and other leftwing comrades equally worthy of McDonnell’s support? Why the silence about the thousands of others who have been expelled? Are they not also ‘fine socialists’ who have been treated unjustly? Why no outcry about the reintroduction of bans and proscriptions?

The answer is that McDonnell is rather selective in whom he offers support to and who he is prepared to sacrifice when the right demands it. In conceding to the right that the left does have some form of anti-Semitism problem, as he did recently in Solidarity, the paper of the pro-witch-hunt Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, he is simply preparing the ground for yet more attacks and expulsions.[3] He ceded similar ground to the Labour right during the Corbyn leadership that only acted to undermine the left and embolden the witch-hunters.[4]

In this period he perfected an ability to speak out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. So, when activists were pushing to deselect rightwing anti-Corbyn MPs, McDonnell equivocated, offering a degree of public support for party democracy and the accountability of MPs to their Constituency Labour Parties, whilst at the same time privately urging restraint and attempting to broker compromise at every turn. John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn both acted behind the scenes to hold back the left in the CLPs. McDonnell in particular traded upon his left reputation in the CLPs: he was very active in personally persuading them that it was clever strategy not to move against rightwing MPs in a vain hope that such concessions would buy peace and secure the cooperation of the Parliamentary Labour Party. We all know how well that worked and where it ended up, don’t we?

Pointing out the contradictions and the failures of this strategy, and the disastrous role of the official left since 2015, is not simply point-scoring or a personal attack on McDonnell. Rather the failure of the Labour left – both during the Corbyn leadership and since – has not even been really discussed, much less understood, by the left. We know how those on the official left like McDonnell failed and continue to fail, both in taking the fight to the right and in really defending leftwingers like Graham Bash. For all his fine words, John McDonnell is quite willing to throw even his closest comrades under the bus.

This is not simply a flaw in his character or a personal betrayal. The fault lies not in the stars, but in the politics and the strategy of the official left and its inherent Labourism. Put simply, the sole strategy of this ‘left’ is to pursue ‘socialism’ (in reality a managed and reformed capitalism) through the election of a series of Labour governments and utilising the existing state to bring about the ‘transformation’ of society. Such a ‘strategy’ places a premium on the continued existence of Labour as an electoral force and a potential government and is in turn quite fundamentally predicated – in fact and ‘theory’ – on the essential unity of the left with the Labour right.

Maintaining that unity as a matter of course necessitates that the Labour left must make concessions and thus make itself completely subservient to the pro-capitalist right. The whole history of the left has been one of subordination to capitalism, the existing constitutional order and the Labour lieutenants of capital on the Labour right. Corbynism was no exception to that rule, as its failure and continued disintegration shows. However, until we understand these inherent historical and political flaws, and why it produces a completely useless strategy, the Labour left will continue to remain enchained by both its own politics and its trust in duplicitous ‘left’ MPs like John McDonnell.

Sadly those who fail to learn from their mistakes will be doomed to repeat them .

Notes

[1] www.thecanary.co/uk/analysis/2021/11/07/graham-bash-tells-the-canary-the-labour-witch-hunt-will-not-stop-until-it-guts-the-party.

[2] twitter.com/johnmcdonnellMP/status/1456923121215320070.

[3]www.workersliberty.org/index.php/story/2021-10-19/trade-union-struggle-and-political-struggle-interview-john-mcdonnell.

[4]www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-45035341.

Feeding the revolving door

Andrew Byrne, Gerald Wiley and Derek James report on an all too carefully choreographed event staged by the Socialist Appeal comrades

Last weekend’s Revolution festival, organised by Socialist Appeal and the International Marxist Tendency, provided a good snapshot of the politics and the state of the contemporary left, both inside and outside the Labour Party.

The IMT put on a tight show and talked a good talk: in contrast to many on the Labour left, the tone was buoyant, if downright apocalyptic, and morale seemed high. The casual observer who wandered in might easily have concluded that this was a group that was really starting to take off. Certainly, the leadership and committed members of the IMT must have been happy with both the turnout and the tenor – an overall attendance of 400-500, mostly young, people, who listened intently and, when the occasion demanded, warmly applauded the calls for revolution and the overthrow of capitalism. What’s not to like?

The mood was set by Rob Sewell, editor of Socialist Appeal, at the opening rally. He argued that “this is an age of convulsion, an age of turmoil and an age of crisis”, which will only “intensify, because it is rooted in the impasse of capitalism”, the “anarchy of the market” and the “capitalist system”. The result of this pressure on the working class, he predicted, will be a social explosion: a wave of strikes and “Titanic battles” on the horizon. For comrade Sewell, there is “enormous disenchantment in society, especially amongst young people”. The ruling class is “forcing down the lid, but this pressure is continually building up and building up …”

Having set the scene for this impending crisis, he then reviewed the recent history of the Labour left and Corbynism. Here comrade Sewell went over familiar and, for us, uncontroversial ground about the failure of the Corbyn leadership and the official left to take the fight to the right on open selection, along with the disastrous compromises and concessions it made during the witch-hunt against the left. He argued that such compromises and retreats were inherent in Labour left reformism, but did not explain the structural reasons why such conciliationism is inevitable. This was strong, barnstorming rhetoric and correct condemnation, but no analysis whatsoever, beyond ‘Corbyn movement good, left reformism bad’!

The culmination of the peroration went to the heart of the IMT’s politics and current strategy. Because there can be no lasting reforms during a capitalist crisis, the Labour right and trade union bureaucrats will crumble, since they cannot deliver anything for the working class, we were told. In the coming period the workers will look towards the industrial front to defend their living standards rather than the Labour Party and “we will be with them”. But the crisis will also produce radical changes from which, comrade Sewell assured the meeting in his conclusion, a new, stronger, more determined left will emerge. However, these developments, in and of themselves, were not enough to produce a socialist revolution:

We still need the forces of Marxism in order to steel it and direct it. Our task, surely, is to … be there … with the right ideas. We have to build our force of five or 10 thousand Marxists. At the moment we have about a 1,000. We have to get to 5,000, we have to get to 10,000. Then we can become a factor in the situation … we can provide not just the backbone, but also the ideas and perspectives. And these ideas can grow and develop on the basis of the events themselves.

Consciousness will change. It will be transformed. And the ideas of Marxism will become more and more attractive, despite the attacks of the right wing. We stand for the idea of socialist revolution … But it depends on us, no-one else … our task is to build the forces of Marxism and prepare for the future, lead a successful revolution in Britain as the stepping stone for a successful world revolution in the coming period (our emphasis).

Mechanistic

Whether discussing historical materialism or the lessons of the Paris Commune, variations on these themes would be heard in the various sessions throughout the weekend. This theory of crisis and the idea of spontaneous, economistic transformation of consciousness “on the basis of events themselves” has been very much the common currency of Trotskyism since the late 1930s at least and is all too familiar as a guiding strategy for many on the left today. Its combination of passivity produces a sense of inevitable determinism: for these comrades Marxist political consciousness is either generated spontaneously simply by the mere fact of exploitation in work or by “events”.

This mechanistic schema of how the consciousness of the working class will be transformed and thus produce the desired revolutionary outcome has now become the common sense of far too many of those claiming to be Marxists. As we see here with the IMT, paradoxically it is often combined with a heightened sense of urgency, agency and activism, which substitutes the building of a mass party of millions committed to the self-emancipation and self-activity of the working class with an enlightened group of a few thousand leading the bovine masses towards ‘revolution’.

This emphasis on ‘building the revolutionary party’ was the central theme and the main purpose of the whole event. It was clear from both the opening contributions and resulting discussions that the Revolution festival was part of a process of what one leading IMT comrade described as “building a revolutionary and theoretically trained cadre who could intervene in the struggles ahead and lead the masses to victory”. However, the ‘theory’ on offer was pretty thin gruel and ultimately rather unsatisfactory if you wanted more than the familiar slogans and appeals for action.

Thus, the session on ‘The life and ideas of Lenin’ was a rather potted and distorted account of Lenin’s politics and the development of Bolshevism during the Russian Revolution, which emphasised “the rapid growth of the party” in a few months from a small minority to a force capable of taking power. Similarly, ‘How to build a revolutionary party’ , although ranging far and wide over the history of revolutionary politics in the 20th century, just repeated many of the same canards about the nature of these parties and why they succeeded – or, in most cases, failed. The lesson was that “cadres are the bedrock of the revolutionary party and the key to a successful revolution” rather than the conscious hegemony of the class acting as class for itself. So the message here was loud and clear: “We need a party of thousands”, so, join, join, join!

Given the IMT’s origins in the old Militant Tendency, we were not surprised to see Militant’s historical economism rear its ugly head in a complete lack of serious analysis of the important political question of the state and constitution. In sessions whose topics ranged from the climate crisis to the monarchy, we found the same unMarxist formula, “the market dictates to the state, and not the other way round”. Whilst the IMT comrades were drilled well on the need to abolish the monarchy, the state, standing army, etc, speakers and chairs were vigilant in reminding listeners that such demands, whilst relatively popular now, should not be made in the current context, as such institutions can “only be overthrown by the socialist revolution”.

Thus, the IMT not only finds itself at odds with over 170 years of Marxist tradition: it also adopts a position with its own internal contradictions. The comrades simultaneously recognise that in times of revolutionary crisis state institutions like the monarchy are given “unlimited and unchecked power”, yet at the same time characterise it as a mere “reactionary relic” – something that is not really worth dealing with now. As one of the comrades put it, “We’re not going to abolish the monarchy under capitalism and, to be honest, abolishing the monarchy under capitalism wouldn’t change anything.”

As an event, this was all about recruitment and consolidating the IMT’s periphery, especially the students around the Marxist Student Federation, as well as getting existing members to “step up” and commit themselves fully to the group. It was not really designed for the seasoned cadre and made no attempt to engage with the wider left, who were frequently disparaged as mere discussion circles. Most of the sessions were ‘introductions’ to the relevant topics and seemed to assume quite a low level of prior knowledge. Moreover, the sessions were clearly highly choreographed, and scripted in a rather obvious and crude way.

Thus, in the session on the revolutionary party seven IMT comrades, one after another, were called in to the ‘discussion’ simply to amplify the main points addressed by the speaker. How do we know this? Because the chair called them by their first names and they read from prepared scripts, which was a feature common to the other sessions as well! In the sessions where we were successful in getting into the discussion, our contributions were curtailed by the chair and our very polite, democratic heckles were regarded as disruptive interruptions to the smooth running of the event!

Despite these limitations, it was worthwhile. But where were the rest of the left? Shouldn’t we be talking to each other about the way forward? In the corridors and outside during the breaks we engaged with many of those who attended, distributed copies of the Weekly Worker and had many interesting conversations with some genuinely friendly comrades. If we are going to build a genuine Marxist party, refusing to talk to, debate and work with those who already identify themselves as Marxist is not going to be the way to go about it.

On this showing, in its calls to build a revolutionary party, Socialist Appeal has moved to the left and away from its previous unremitting Labour loyalism. However, if this new focus on working outside the Labour Party has meant some changes in orientation and demands, the underlying political assumptions about the nature of crisis as a trigger for the growth of revolutionary consciousness have remained the same as the Militant forebears of the IMT over half a century ago.

What has changed? Simply, a new round of recruits has entered what is too often a revolving door!

Right firmly in control

The Labour left is still clutching at unity and refusing to face up to defeat. Derek James looks at the sorry results

The smell of decay and disintegration that has hung over the Labour left since the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn has only got stronger since last month’s party conference. Although some on the left have tried to spin the conference votes on Israel/Palestine, Aukus and the Green New Deal as victories, the truth is that Sir Keir and the Labour right are now in complete control of both the party machine and policy, and can safely ignore such left votes.

Taking some small comfort from passing resolutions is understandable, given the continuing dominance of the right, but it really does not do anybody any favours to pretend that the Labour left is in any state to fight back against Starmer. As the party continues to haemorrhage members, the Labour left simply does not have the numbers to effectively fight back, but – most importantly – it does not have either the strategy or the coherent politics to resist.

If we are going to build an authentic, militant left in the Labour Party, we have to tell the truth, not tell ourselves fairy stories. So, despite attempts to talk up the continuing strength of the left in the Constituency Labour Parties, it is plain that Corbynism cannot be revived: we have to be honest and admit that its moment has passed, and that no amount of wishing it back into existence or hoping that the king over the water will return to lead us, will bring it back to life again.

The Socialist Campaign Group of MPs and the Momentum leadership constitute simply the official, licensed left, which can be relied on to say nothing and do even less in the face of the witch-hunt and the proscriptions against the left as a whole. A combination of careerist opportunism and a political ‘strategy’ that prizes party unity and the election of a Labour government above all else means that these ‘leftwingers’ will continue to keep their heads down and accommodate to the Labour right on every occasion. They are wedded to the idea that any Labour government, no matter how rightwing and pro-capitalist, is better than the Tories and that ‘socialism’ can be delivered incrementally through a series of left Labour governments.

The latest incarnation of this tendency is Labour Left For Socialism – primarily an initiative of left trade union bureaucrats and assorted hangers-on, which has distanced itself from proscribed groups, such as Labour Against the Witchhunt, despite its verbal opposition to bans and proscriptions. Like the official left as a whole, there they stand: they can do no other; compromise and subordination to the pro-capitalist leadership are in their very DNA.

If the official Labour left has shown its true colours, what of the various groups of activists that have arisen to try to rally the left in the aftermath of the defeat of Corbynism? Although made up of genuine and committed comrades, the discussions within groups such as the Labour Left Alliance, Labour in Exile Network and LAW show that many comrades still have not really come to terms with why Corbynism failed and the nature of the current moment.

Amidst the rather contradictory trends and moods expressed during the online meetings since the conference, two broad currents can be discerned: those comrades who cling on to the glory days of Corbynism and seek to revive it through ‘grassroots campaigning’ against austerity or in defence of the NHS; as opposed to those who either want to form a new party immediately or believe we are already in a transitional phase in which such a party is in the process of being formed. Chris Williamson’s Resist is just the latest such attempt at a new direction and if, as seems likely, it takes the form of a broad left amalgam of the lowest common denominator or an unprincipled popular front, it too will follow Respect, Left Unity, and the Scottish Socialist Party into the dustbin of history.[1] Repeating the mistakes of these failed left parties of the past is no answer. But neither is simply recreating a Labour Party mark two, as the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition has so lamentably failed to do.

Socialist Appeal

What is lacking in both positions is a clear understanding of the nature of the Labour Party, both as an historical formation and in its contemporary form. Supporters of Labour Party Marxists have argued for a continuing strategic orientation towards the Labour Party, given its links with the trade unions, its base of support in the working class and the identification of the class with Labour as an electoral force. Given this, we cannot simply wish Labour away: our strategy must be to work through the Labour Party if we are to build a genuine Marxist party.

However, we have no illusions in the nature of the party or that, as presently constituted, it can be a ready-made instrument for achieving socialism. Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party with a pro-capitalist leadership and working class base: both in organisational and political form it is committed to capitalism. Even under Corbyn’s ‘left’ leadership, the party’s manifesto in 2019 merely stood for a form of managed capitalism and the continuation of the constitutional status quo, not the self-emancipation of the working class and the socialist transformation of society.

In calling on Labour members to stay and fight, LPM is not simply repeating the mantra of Labour loyalists or arguing for staying put faute de mieux (for want of a better alternative). Our argument is that the fight for a Marxist party goes hand in hand with the demand for the refoundation of Labour as a united front of a special kind, open to all socialist and working class organisations. Moreover, given the nature of Labourism and its focus on purely electoral politics, if such a process is to be successful, it cannot be simply generated spontaneously or organically within the Labour Party itself. The history of the party from its very foundation in 1900 shows that such a transformation requires the development of a hegemonic Marxist party and a revolutionary programme that can act externally as a galvanising force and a pole of attraction for the inchoate Labour left.

Debating this strategy is now vital for the genuine left, both within and without the Labour Party. In particular, it is a question that Socialist Appeal supporters are now facing, as they suffer one expulsion from the party after another following their proscription by Labour’s national executive committee. We agree with them that we cannot simply ignore Labour or abandon the fight within the party. What about this argument?

What is needed is a powerful Marxist tendency, to provide a genuine, bold strategy to defeat the right. Only the forces of Marxism can provide the necessary backbone for the left. We fully understand that there can be no compromise with capitalism or their rightwing agents. We have no truck with patching up capitalism. We stand for revolutionary change in society; for the abolition of capitalist rule.[2]

Despite this apparent rousing call to arms, Socialist Appeal has not actually had a Marxist strategy towards Labour at all. In reality its comrades have been content to act as Labour loyalists, arguing that their rather economistic version of ‘Marxism’ is fully in accord with the old, Fabian-inspired 1918 clause four. In framing its politics around the election of a Labour government committed to a socialist programme, Socialist Appeal clearly stays within the framework of ‘parliamentary socialism’, with politics that are simply a logical extension of existing left reformism.

Moreover, although sharply critical of the current state of the Labour left, Socialist Appeal’s own politics cannot explain the structural reasons why the Labour left continues to hang on to the coat-tails of the right and is thus ultimately tied to the capitalist class. So, rather than analysing the left’s failure to overthrow the right as an inevitable result of their reformist politics and electoralism, the surrender of the left is merely attributed to an inexplicable unwillingness to fight and vague “political weakness”.[3]

Until we seriously explain why Corbynism failed and analyse how the Labour left continues to subordinate itself in practice to capitalism, we are doomed to simply repeat the tried-and-failed politics of the past. And that is not going to take us very far forward at all, is it?


Notes

[1] ‘Unity without principle’ Weekly Worker October 21: www.weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1368/unity-without-principle.

[2] R Sewell, ‘Where is Labour heading?’ Socialist Appeal October 15 2021.

[3] Ibid.

 

Sir Keir’s second eleven

Derek James says keeping heads down does not amount to a viable strategy

After a shaky start, and a few hiccups and protests along the way, Starmer has clearly emerged as the winner. He has secured his two main objectives: one, to prove to the ruling class that he is a reliable, safe pair of hands; two, to show that Corbynism is dead and safely buried.

Although the red card protest during his speech showed there are still a large number of left delegates from the Constituency Labour Parties, when it really mattered Starmer had the votes he needed to get over the line.

His success is not just measured in votes won or in changes to the party’s constitution and rule book that consolidate the power of the Labour right. No, his success also lies in the demoralisation and disorganisation in both the official left – as represented by the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs – and amongst left activists in the CLPs and trade unions. Left victories over the £15 minimum wage and other such questions will simply go ignored when it matters: drawing up the next general election manifesto.

That is not to say that the left were silent or simply acquiesced – far from it. There were angry speeches at fringe meetings – Richard Burgon’s contribution at the final SCG rally was a particularly well-received example, along with some excellent interventions by left delegates from the CLPs during the stage-managed conference debates. But what was lacking on the left at all levels of the party – and what ensured Starmer’s victory, in the final analysis – was a clear strategy for a serious, militant Labour left that really takes the fight to the right.

For Starmer and the Labour right, conference was vital, in all senses of the word, in their campaign to finally purge the taint of Corbynism. Although the focus was on winning the next election, the primary audience for this performance was not potential Labour voters catching the headlines on the evening news. No, the people to whom Sir Keir has to prove himself is not the electorate, but the real wielders of power: the ruling class in London and Washington. The reliability Starmer has to demonstrate, of course, lies in upholding the capitalist economic system and repudiating the excesses of Corbynism, such as public ownership of the utilities. Thus, the shadow chancellor, the unspeakable Rachel Reeves (a politician with the voice, but not the warmth and empathy, of a Dalek) reassured the ruling class that Labour had finally said goodbye to Corbyn’s legacy and was now “the party of long-term economic stability, of secure public finances and of economic growth”.1

However, the most important reassurance that the Labour leadership had to offer was to the imperialist hegemon, the United States, and its clients. They got it when John Healey, Labour’s defence spokesman, echoed Boris Johnson in his call for a “new and powerful role for Britain in the world” and reiterated Sir Keir’s unconditional support for Nato and the US-imposed international order.2

In the saddle

There were other signs that Starmer and the right were firmly in the saddle. Despite criticism from the left, David Evans was ratified as general secretary with a 59% vote in favour. There was also a marked shift within Labour’s internal regime, where Starmer succeeded in imposing major rule changes, which undermined party democracy and accountability by doubling the threshold of MP nominations needed for candidates to reach future leadership ballots, and by making it harder for CLPs to deselect MPs. These were attacks clearly aimed at the left and were designed, as Peter Mandelson put it, to ensure that there will be no repeat of Corbynism. Well, to show that there will be no repeat of Corbynism, might be a better way of putting it.

The other key rule change endorsed a new ‘independent’ complaints process, initiated following the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on ‘anti-Semitism’ in the party. All part of the ritual humiliation of the left. Conference performed an act of collective penance, in which the lies equating anti-Zionism and the left with anti-Semitism were yet again repeated as verity by Margaret Hodge and Ruth Smeeth. This is now the official version of Labour’s recent history.

The explanation most widely heard in Brighton to account for Starmer’s successes was the support of the trade union right and the bloc votes of the GMB and Unison. The figures support that analysis up to a point. The successes that the left had in card votes came on the rare occasions when key delegations switched sides. The pressure the union leaders exerted on Starmer over last weekend that forced him to water down his proposed ‘reforms’ of the leadership election system also shows the key role of the trade unions in the party.

Although the left remains strong in the CLPs, its position is not overwhelming. Through various manoeuvres, suspensions and expulsions (in some cases while delegates were actually at the conference!) the right has a sizable presence in the CLPs – which rarely speaks in debates, but knows when to put its hands up. The stage management, manipulation and suppression of debate and points of order by such blatantly partisan chairs as Margaret Beckett had to be seen to be believed, and proved decisive in swinging votes. Although the left could point to some victories, such as the condemnation of the Aukus deal and the overwhelming support for a motion attacking Israel as an apartheid state, these were crumbs of comfort in an otherwise grim conference for the left. It was clear, however, that like the £15 minimum pay, they will not find their way into any Labour manifesto.

Much of what happened was not only expected: it was easily predictable and so could have been more effectively countered. For all the powerful cards that Starmer and the right hold in their hands, they are not invincible, as some of the conference votes showed. No, in assessing what happened at Brighton, the left needs to ask how we got here.

A long series of defeats since 2019 have allowed the Starmer leadership and his Victoria Street bureaucracy to get a tight grip over the party. The exodus of 100,000 or more matters not to them. In point of fact it is music to their ears. But it is the compromises, the retreats, the betrayals of the official left in the SCG and Momentum leadership, that have been the major factor in the disorientation and to some extent the disintegration of the left.

Left response

In the aftermath of the real defeats inflicted on the left and the further attacks promised in Starmer’s speech, debate on the Labour left remains confused and inchoate. However, both in the pre-conference period and on the fringe at Brighton, two broad positions seem to be emerging.

One is simply to double down on Labour loyalism and cling on to party membership for dear life. The ‘theoretical’ justification for this approach is the belief that the only road to socialism lies through the election of a Labour government and the ‘transformation’ of capitalist society through incremental reform. Such a strategy relies not only in maintaining Labour as a broad party, uniting both the left and the right, but also necessitates compromise and effective subordination by the left to the right to preserve that unity. In effect the Labour left functions as a licensed ‘official opposition’ within the party at the sufferance of the right, taking solace from their self-imposed impotence with the comfort blanket of ‘resolutionary socialism’ and the self-reassurance that they really are dangerous leftists after all. The whole history of the Labour left, at least since 1918, has been to play second fiddle to the right – the open agents of capitalism within the workers’ movement.

The second strand calls for new parties and movements, either completely separate from Labour or a combination of inside/outside organisation. Given the trajectory of Labour after this conference, the call for a ‘new party’ of some type will surely grow: the disaffiliation of the Bakers Union (BFAWU) can only add further impetus to these demands and spark similar moves to break the links with Labour in other unions.

But the history of such initiatives is not an encouraging one and any attempt to exploit the current hostility to Starmer amongst leftwing trade unionists is likely to produce stillborn initiatives, which only create further demoralisation and disillusion. Any attempt to simply replicate the Labour Party through a ‘new party’ based on leftwing activists and disaffiliated unions, such as has been unsuccessfully attempted by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, is just a dead end and should not be attempted by any serious socialist, no matter how angry they are with Sir Keir and his crew. Emotional spasms of this type are not going to get us anywhere. Similarly, initiatives for a broad party that unites the left outside of Labour will go the way of Respect, the Scottish Socialist Party, Left Unity, and the countless other unity projects that sought to bring the ‘real left’ together by compromising principles and adopting the politics of the lowest common denominator.


Notes

  1. ‘Reeves vows to bury Corbyn’s fiscal legacy’ Financial Times September 28.↩︎
  2. labourlist.org/2021/09/a-new-and-powerful-role-for-britain-in-the-world-healeys-conference-speech.↩︎

Focus group goop

Left treated with blatant contempt. Right relishes its witch-hunt triumph. Andrew Kirkland of Labour Party Marxists reports from the Brighton conference hall

Braving the Covid risk, 1,300 delegates attended the five-day conference.

In her opening remarks the chair for the first session, Margaret Beckett, enthusiastically referenced Labour politicians from the pre-Corbyn era – by omission implying that the recent period was one best forgotten. This set the scene for conference, where various chairs would display an obvious bias in favour of pro-Starmer speakers, and treat the left delegates with a patronising contempt that was so blatant that it offended the few neutrals present.

Every day proceedings began with a short report from the conference arrangements committee (CAC). On the first day the question was asked: would there be a vote to approve the report to conference provided by the national executive committee? The reply appeared to be affirmative – more on this later.

The first big speaker was deputy leader Angela Rayner – one-time senior figure in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, now equally at home in the new regime. Her speech was all about Labour’s new green paper on employment rights, which she acknowledged was the work of Andy MacDonald – the same Andy who resigned from the shadow cabinet later during conference. As is the custom for Labour politicians, she raided the history of left struggles to appropriate convenient heroes for her speech. This time it was the Shrewsbury pickets. (Obviously she failed to mention the shameful record of previous Labour governments, which refused to intervene on their behalf.)

Next we had the report from the general secretary, David Evans. He pre-empted left attempts to force a vote on endorsement of his appointment by announcing that he wanted to be approved by a card vote. He gave us a few biographical details, and then asked the rhetorical question: “Everyone remembers why they joined Labour – what was it for you?” Before he could answer his own question, he received a barrage of replies from the floor: “Jeremy Corbyn!” Although clearly rattled by this intervention, he carried on, knowing that the arithmetic was on his side – pledged support from most unions, along with his own gerrymandering of constituency delegations, would see to that. With no regard for irony he went on to praise the dedication of those who work full time for the Labour Party, despite his own plan to abolish 90 positions.

After Evans we heard from Anneliese Dodds, the party chairperson, reporting on the ‘Stronger Together’ policy initiative that she has been fronting. I must admit this was a new one on me – yet another vehicle for bypassing the democratic policymaking structures of conference. All the emphasis is on ‘Labour is delivering now’. Apparently implementing the Tory government’s austerity at the local level is a real vote winner.

After the report from the treasurer, who managed to present the complete meltdown of the party’s finances as “remaining on target”, we witnessed a most dictatorial abuse of power by the chair, Margaret Beckett, that was to be challenged over and over during the rest of the conference. She bundled the finance report and the NEC report together and asked for “formal acceptance”.

Ignoring shouts from the floor, she moved on to the next item – merit awards – thus avoiding any debate or vote on the NEC report. This was highly significant, because it was the only opportunity conference would have to challenge the bans and proscriptions recently re-introduced and used for the latest wave in the witch-hunt against the left. Despite all the well-argued challenges that referenced the particular clauses in the rules requiring such a vote, none of the conference chairs were prepared to overturn this ruling.

Dodds

Dodds was soon back on her feet presenting the ‘Equalities Report’. This gives an indication of where the new leadership intend to move the party: namely identity politics. The shift away from the traditional class-based paradigm was also reflected in a large swathe of rule changes from the NEC. These introduced whole new chapters laying out party structures for women, BAME (that awkward combination of all people of colour, together with multiple white minorities) and disabled members. These rule changes were greeted enthusiastically by both left and right.

The NEC recommended that all the rule changes submitted by Constituency Labour Parties should be rejected. It was a major surprise then to learn that one of these changes had passed. This requires that for snap elections and by-elections there must be a local majority on the committee supervising the candidate selection process. It will be a welcome spanner thrown into the works of the now regular parachuting process used by the NEC to foist outside candidates on CLPs. However, in another session on the second day of conference, the CAC chair advised conference that, when the NEC proposes rule changes, they are allowed to bundle them up as they see fit, giving the NEC even more say over how conference is run, when in theory conference should be the highest body.

Ed Miliband returned to the big stage to tell us how to fight climate change, repeating the usual capitalist calls for Britain to “lead the world” in green technology – with the green industrial revolution generating a “people’s dividend”, however that works. He also called for offshored jobs to be brought back to Britain. Clearly he thinks we can fix the global crisis with a British solution.

As at the last conference, sectionalism within the unions led to two conflicting composite motions on the green industrial revolution. Delegates strongly argued in favour of one and against the other, but, in line with the new fashion for consensus, the delegates managed to pass both, which obviously devalues the whole exercise.

Composite one contains some very radical proposals, including a ban on fracking, free bus travel, rewilding of the countryside and introducing a right to asylum for climate refugees. Composite two, on the other hand, insists that policies must be developed with workers and trade unions, not imposed on them, and a future energy mix should include nuclear generation and ‘green gas’.

Other groupings of motions were able to agree a single composite text, but that does not mean there was any ideological unity. Pro-capitalist motions on “community wealth” and “business recovery” sat uncomfortably alongside demands for more public ownership and radical solutions to the housing crisis, but all were backed by most delegates.

For the final part of Sunday afternoon’s session, a sudden chilled atmosphere descended. The visitors’ gallery was invaded by triumphalist strangers appearing from nowhere.

The chair, Unison’s Mark Ferguson, made it clear he was taking no prisoners (or points of order). The second wave of rule changes from the NEC were to be considered by conference, and these would achieve two objectives. First, to comply with the state’s interference in the Labour Party – as enshrined in the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on anti-Semitism – we saw rule changes to introduce the external handling of disciplinary cases. And, second, changes to roll back some of the democratic reforms introduced when Corbyn was leader, and ensure that the threshold of Parliamentary Labour Party support required for a leadership candidate is immediately out of reach for a leftwinger.

After the details of the EHRC rule changes were outlined, the horror show began. The chair ‘randomly’ selected the first two speakers: Ruth Smeeth and Margaret Hodge. The left sat in stunned silence, as the Jewish Labour Movement Zionists formally declared the end of Corbynism and the ‘anti-Jew racism’ associated with it.

When the session moved to the other changes, the left could breathe again. Dave Ward of the CWU spoke first and made it clear that the trade unions were not consulted over the changes. As he called on Starmer to withdraw the new leadership threshold, so that a consensus could be agreed, the left delegates once again cheered out loud. But Starmer was unmoved. He may have retreated over reintroducing the electoral college for leadership elections, but he was happy to move forward on the other changes despite opposition from some unions.

Speakers opposing the changes homed in on the new 20% PLP requirement for leadership nominations. The case was forcefully made, with one delegate directly confronting Starmer, who sat just a few metres from the podium. However, it was all to no avail – all the rule changes were approved. The state was once more fully in control of its alternative party of government. Actually there was some truth in the final summing up from NEC member Shabana Mahmood, when she declared that a candidate who was unable to assemble nominations from 20% of the PLP would be unlikely to command the support of the PLP in the House of Commons.

The CAC was asked by a delegate to provide details of how many approved conference delegates had been suspended or expelled from the party during the course of the conference. I never expected them to reply, but on Tuesday the figure of 20 was furnished. To this should be added all those excluded during the approval process before credentials were issued. Starmer had left nothing to chance.

A portent of things to come was slipped into the agenda for late Tuesday afternoon – the return of the platform panel discussion. Billed as ‘Metro mayors in conversation’, a private media ‘facilitator’ questioned three of Labour’s northern stars. This can only be viewed as another step backwards, appropriating precious time from conference policy debates.

In the international session the conference once again revealed the political confusion of most of the CLPs and affiliates. Delegates proudly passed a motion on Palestine that went much further in criticising Israel than those passed when Corbyn was leader. Was this the same conference that only hours earlier had condemned such views as anti-Semitic poison? Not only that, but the same session heard from John Healy, shadow defence minister, who promised Labour would deliver a powerful new role for Britain in the world, and pledged total loyalty to Nato and our “essential ally”, the USA. Add to this the motion on Afghanistan: no, Labour was not condemning the imperialist intervention – this motion was all about criticising the government’s role in the emergency evacuation, and praising the British occupying troops and their Afghan collaborators.

End of dream?

Wednesday saw Sir Keir’s big moment. Ninety minutes of focus group-scripted family background goop; how his father was a humble factory worker; how his mother got ill; how, unlike that trickster, Boris Johnson, he was not a privileged posh boy. All designed to show his emotional side. Nothing about his Pabloite past, of course. The deep entry strategy of the International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency and his role as one of the editors of Socialist Alternatives. That would hardly fit with the banning of Labour Against the Witchhunt, Socialist Appeal, etc, and the round after round of expulsions.

There was a sprinkle of much expected policy announcements: mental health, green jobs, combating climate change and retrofitting houses. All properly costed. Naturally.

Amongst the delegates there were those who bravely waved red cards and dared to heckle. Sir Keir was more than well prepared: “shouting slogans or changing lives conference”, he snapped back to wide applause. A line that must have been readied by a whole committee of advisors. Like Brecht’s Arturo Ui he doubtless practised the line in front of a professional acting coach time and time again.

But it worked. And not only for those in the conference hall … those who want a Labour government, any damn kind of Labour government. No, more importantly, much more importantly, it showed the capitalist media that Sir Keir’s Labour is now a different party. It can be trusted by the capitalist class and the state machine. That, of course, is what the completely unnecessary rule changes were all about, what the high profile welcoming back of Louise Ellman, the nonsense about seeing the back of anti-Semitism and the law and order promises were all about.

Yes, there were a few votes where the left scored victories, but overall, this conference was the logical outcome of Starmer’s leadership win in April 2020. For many comrades this marks the end of their dream. For others it points to the need to find a better strategy for transforming Labour and winning socialism. A key issue here is the twin-track approach advocated by LPM: build a mass Marxist party, while at the same time fighting in Labour and the trade unions.

Around conference left

LPM comrades William Sarsfield, Andrew Byrne and Stan Keable report on fringe meetings, hubs and bulletins

Where to go from here? That was the question facing the Labour left – not least those comrades expelled or anticipating imminent expulsion.

While conference itself was taken up with media-pleasing displays by shadow ministers and crude attempts to stifle the rank and file by session chairs, a whole series of events on the fringe at least provided space for debate. There were also fringe hubs, the most important being the Resist event at the Rialto, supported by groups such as Labour Left Alliance, Labour Against the Witchhunt and Labour Party Marxists. And, of course, there was Momentum’s World Transformed.

Resisting

The damage inflicted on the Labour left by the witch-hunt was on display at the Defend the Left rally on September 27. In the same large venue in 2019 there had been standing room only, but the numbers for 2021, while not embarrassingly low, were significantly down. Starting her contribution, Jackie Walker urged us to look at the empty seats. “People are terrified to come,” comrade Walker said. “The venue of this meeting could not be revealed in any normal way … Previous meetings of this kind have been the targets of the threats to bomb, threats to kill …”

This is no surprise, of course. The right of the party – in concert with their allies in the venal mainstream media – has bullied and battered the left. Ironically this was facilitated by the timidity of Corbyn and his close advisors, even to the extent of throwing their own comrades onto the flames of the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ big lie.

So, it was encouraging that a good number of comrades attended in defiance of the threats, both official and unofficial. Also, there seems to be an admission from comrades – including from the top table – that there needs to be a frank debate about the “errors” (!) made by the leadership of the Labour left.

Tina Werkmann, chair of Labour Against the Witchhunt, argued that “the situation before this conference was pretty bad; after it is a lot worse”. She claimed that the last few months have seen “the biggest attack on the left in the labour movement for decades, if not ever”. Hyperbole, surely.

The refusal to accept communist affiliation in 1921 and the subsequent banning of CLP’s supporting CPGB members as Labour parliamentary candidates, the expulsion of thousands, the closing of the London Labour Party were pretty big attacks on the left. More to the point: the anti-communist witch-hunt put an end to the Labour Party as a united front of the working class. A historic defeat from which we have yet to recover.

Comrade Werkmann warned against simply regarding “what is happening in the party in isolation” and linked attacks on free speech to the “massive efforts of the international ruling class to punish Julian Assange and other whistle-blowers” – desperate initiatives to bolster a “system in decline”. But “unfortunately it’s working”, she bluntly stated, citing the “pathetic response of much of the Labour left”, the near total silence of Momentum and the MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group – an attempt to save their own skins. Comrade Werkmann emphasised that Defend the Left was in solidarity not only with the four organisations that been explicitly proscribed, but also with the hundreds, the thousands of innocent comrades who had been smeared by the Labour leadership.

The first speaker in discussion – Graham Bash of the Labour Representation Committee – underlined how he saw the leadership election rule change. It is an attempt to permanently “lock out the left”. True, today the rule change locks out careerists like the pathetic Rebecca Long-Bailey. But that is to miss the significance of the rule change. It has nothing to do with fending off the official left. They no longer represent any kind of threat. No, the rule change is there to draw a line in the sand. It symbolises the end, the complete defeat, of Corbyn and the whole Corbyn project. It is about sending a message to the bourgeois establishment: Labour is ready to serve.

Of course, the new rule requires that a leadership candidate must be nominated by 20% of MPs. That would hardly represent an insuperable barrier to a well organised, Marxist-led, Labour left. But that would need a mass Marxist party already in place that organises throughout the labour movement and digs deep roots in wider society.

Comrade Bash rightly insisted that to complain about the crude injustice that we have seen throughout the course of the witch-hunt was insufficient: “What we see in this conflict from the enemies on the right is class war.” The comrade intriguingly suggested that “new ways of working” would have to be learned if socialists were to be of use to our class.

Rob Sewell, editor of Socialist Appeal, quite correctly criticised the “naive view” in some quarters that the left could ever co-exist with people who were “stabbing us in the back”. He pointed out that we had “missed a few tricks in 2016” and that softness had cost us dearly. However, once again showing a weak grasp of labour movement history, he claimed that the “greatest betrayal in the Labour Party” was Ramsay MacDonald in 1931. Not support for World War I, not defence of the British empire, not the banning of communists. What MacDonald did in 1931 was fully in accord with the rotten tradition of the pro-capitalist right: defending the interests of capitalism, not the interests of the working class.

Showing a distinct lack of imagination, the comrade drew “parallels” between today and MacDonald’s National Labour-Tory-Liberal national government. Other than reminding readers that “betrayal is not new in the Labour Party, unfortunately”, he did not elaborate. Well, comrade Sewell, is Sir Keir about to jump ship? Join a coalition along with Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Sajid Javid? No, he wants to be a successful Labour prime minister in the mould of Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair.

Showing how the comrade remains trapped within the narrow thought-world of Labourism, he insisted that the old clause four was a “socialist aspiration” driven by the politically most advanced working class people in Britain. In 1918, horrified by World War I and inspired by the Russian Revolution, it seems that the most politically advanced workers “aspired” to socialism. Doubtless, that was the case. The most politically advanced part of the working class formed the CPGB in July-August 1920. But what they got from the Labour Party was Sidney Webb’s Fabian clause four. Not the aim of working class rule and ending wage slavery. No, instead what Webb offered was a formulation that was implicitly anti-Marxist, pro-imperialist – not socialist, but state capitalist.

We need a new, Marxist clause four. We should not seek to revive a stinking Fabian corpse.

Transformed?

The World Transformed festival featured around 100 different sessions that ranged from ‘The frontiers of liberation’ (dealing with the history of LGBTQ+) through to ‘Can Labour win?’ However quantity does not necessarily mean quality.

Whilst retaining its hipster-millennial charm, TWT seeks to revive the original enthusiasm of Momentum through an eclectic and contradictory amalgam of utopianism, movementism and opportunism. Some attempts were made to shepherd the ‘silent majority’ of those Corbynistas who never formally engaged with the organised left into unity with the right by stressing the importance of the “next Labour government”.

In previous years TWT had ‘big name’ Labour left speakers and a clear orientation towards the Corbyn project, but now that that moment has passed, the focus is less clear. References to “the other conference – the one we don’t talk about” – highlight the divergence between TWT and the Labour Party since 2019.

The size of the sessions varied considerably, depending on the topic and speakers. Some were no more impressive than a hippie gathering round a campfire, whilst others saw several hundred eager punters surging through the doors, with a number of overflow sessions and queues being directed to other sessions. The more seriously political meetings – or the closest that they came to such a thing – generally averaged around 200 participants.

Likewise, the age profiles of attendees varied, depending on the intended audience for the topic. Those sessions inclined towards movementism or identity politics averaged about 25 (with some specific sessions overwhelmingly younger), whilst those aimed at Labourites drew in comrades whose profile was more in line with the rest of the left. Needless to say, despite sharing the same place – and mutual worship of Jeremy – they did not engage with each other politically.

A common trend throughout many of the sessions was of a particular kind of anarchism that fetishises local organising and mutual aid, as opposed to the serious political organisation of the working class as a whole. Suggestions for direct action ranged from picking up dog shit to bring down the Tories, through to sending out emails to end trans oppression! This form of ‘immediate struggle’, which is detached from any serious strategy for achieving socialism, was a disease that affected the ostensibly sophisticated and theoretically naive alike.

In denial

An important feature of the left at Labour conferences is the proliferation of leaflets, journals and bulletins handed out by a swarm of activists. This year was no exception. Despite the diminished strength of the left, we had: Jewish Voice for Labour, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Labour for a Republic, Socialist Appeal, CLDP’s Yellow Pages and, of course, Labour Party Marxists No27.

The LRC’s Labour Briefing is worth a comment. Its editorial insists that the struggle for the Labour Party is not over. Quite so. “There is a fightback in the party – seen by the excellent results in elections in the constituency sections for the National Women’s Committee and for the conference arrangements committee.” And then: “There is a struggle too in the world outside the Labour Party.” The editorial refers to trade unions – the new left NEC in Unison, and Sharon Graham’s election in Unite – as well as climate change protests and Black Lives Matter. “Connecting these struggles and giving them a political expression” means, “for the foreseeable future, the Labour Party”.

So, the “new ways” of socialists working in service of our class amount to tailism and carrying on carrying on in the old – and failed – ways. The abject defeat of the Corbyn leadership and its complete surrender before, indeed connivance with, the witch-hunt does not seem to have registered. As for the idea that BLM protesters and XR activists will flock into Sir Keir’s party to put the conference arrangements committee into the hands of official left careerists, well that seems more like the forlorn hope that the cavalry will come to our rescue. It is certainly not a viable strategy for socialism.

Then there is the Resist Movement for a People’s Party set up by Chris Williamson – the only Labour MP to stand up to the witch-hunt. This has the advantage, for refugees from Labour, of actually offering them somewhere to go – but it cannot be recommended. Although neither the politics nor the organisational form of the imagined party is yet spelled out, we can reasonably predict that a party born of running away from the struggle in Labour will be unable to fight any other struggles effectively.

According to its leaflet, “Our mission is to develop activities that build trust, capacity and skills, to promote industrial democracy and reduce inequality, eradicate poverty and improve the quality of daily life for all, around essential and innovative environmental policies.” Not the working class politics of the struggle for socialism, but a People’s Party that promises the good life without overthrowing the capitalist state and expropriating the capitalist class.

Refound Labour as a permanent united front of the working class

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