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.

Eighteen theses on Labour

Disputation on the self-defeating common sense of governmentalism and the illusions of broad left alternatives

1. The December 2019 general election defeat and Sir Keir Starmer’s subsequent leadership victory shows the bankruptcy of the reformist strategy for socialism. With Jeremy Corbyn they had their ideal leader, with John McDonnell they had their ideal shadow chancellor, with It’s time for real change they had their ideal manifesto.

2. Labour’s poor performance in 2019 is not only explained by ‘getting Brexit done’. Jeremy Corbyn faced unremitting hostility from the mainstream media, which did everything it could to feed and promote the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign. But to have expected anything else would have been naive. The mainstream media “carry out a system-supportive propaganda function” (Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky). In the absence of a full-spectrum mass media in the hands of the labour movement, Corbyn was forced to undergo trial by the bourgeois establishment’s papers and journals, radio and TV stations, and news and blog sites. He was never going to win.

3. A Corbyn-led government was not a prospect that the ruling class was prepared to countenance. Economically, they deemed its programme grossly irresponsible. It could, they feared, trigger a crisis of expectations. More than that, they considered Corbyn and his close allies totally unreliable when it came to international politics. So, if by some fluke a Corbyn-led government had taken office, their response would have been such tactics as an organised run on the pound, wrecking operations by the Parliamentary Labour Party right, MI5 subversion, an army mutiny, US ‘pushback’, a royal-blessed coup, etc.

4. While the chances of a Corbyn-led government were always exceedingly remote, that cannot be said of the possibility of making changes to the Labour Party’s rules and structures. Yet, whereas Tony Blair carried out a (counter) revolution, all that Corbyn managed to achieve were a few tinkering reforms. That need not have been the case. With a more determined, more politically clear-sighted left, there really could have been a revolution in the party.

6. However, the left is politically weak. Too often it was determined to simply tail Corbyn, while Corbyn was determined to maintain unity with the openly pro-capitalist right in the PLP. That meant dropping open selection of parliamentary candidates, leaving Blair’s clause four untouched and refusing to confront and call out the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign.

7. Corbyn did not protest, even as friend after friend, ally after ally, was thrown to the wolves. Instead of taking the fight to the Zionist forces, such as Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement (formerly Poale Zion), and championing the Palestinian cause through promoting the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, on his watch there was a concerted drive to increase the number of expulsions and suspensions. The Corbyn-Formby regime itself became an agent of the witch-hunt. To even deny that Labour has a real, a significant, a widespread problem with anti-Semitism became a disciplinary offence in its own right.

8. Not surprisingly, with the December 2019 general election defeat, many disorientated former Corbyn supporters variously concluded that: there needs to be a safe, acceptable, suitably centrist Labour Party that can ‘rewin the trust’ of the so-called Jewish community; that Labour can never be changed; that the fight for radical social change lies not in permanent political organisation, but in ephemeral street protests, economic strikes, tenant campaigns; etc.

9. Also not surprisingly, Starmer – former member of the International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency and editor of Socialist Alternatives – stood for leader promising to remain fully committed to It’s time for real change. A cynical lie designed to pull wool over gullible eyes. Apart from getting himself into No10, he has no master plan nowadays. The latest round of the witch-hunt under Starmer owes nothing to defeating, finally seeing-off the left, that is for sure. With Corbyn gone, Rebecca Long-Bailey soundly beaten, David Evans as general secretary, a rightwing NEC majority, the PLP overwhelmingly dominated by the right and the three big union affiliates, GMB, Unite and Unison, unlikely to rock the boat, he has a controlling grip on the Labour Party.

10. No less to the point, the left in the CLPs is much reduced and organisations such as the Socialist Campaign Group, Momentum and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy are cowardly and display not the least appetite for a concerted fightback. Self-serving careerism counts for far more than the principle of solidarity: there is, for example, still a steadfast refusal to call out the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ big lie.

11. No, the suspensions and expulsions under Starmer are a matter of display. He wants to prove to the capitalist media, big business, the City, the establishment, the armed forces and the US state department that, as prime minister, he would be trustworthy, utterly loyal to the constitution, the UK state and its international alliances. That is why Starmer promises to “uproot” anti-Semitism, why Jeremy Corbyn remains suspended from the PLP, why Labour Against the Witchhunt, the Labour in Exile Network, Resist and Socialist Appeal have been banned and why Ken Loach was auto-expelled.

12. The failures, the cowardice, the treachery, the constantly repeated pattern of the official Labour left becoming the official Labour right has to be explained in materialist terms. It cannot be put down to individual oddity, personal weakness or some congenital tendency to betray. The Labour left is still the natural home for many trade union militants, socialist campaigners and those committed to radical social change. But Labour’s position as the alternative party of government also makes the official Labour left a breeding ground for careerists, who, often starting off with good intentions, slowly or speedily evolve to the right. The lure of elected positions, generous expense accounts, lucrative sinecures, sly backhanders, mixing with the great and good and eventually entry into the lower ranks of the bourgeoisie all smooth the way.

13. Both the official Labour left and the official Labour right share a ‘common sense’ that politics are about winning elections. Therefore, policies are limited to what can be ‘sold’ to the electorate. But it is the mainstream capitalist media that, ultimately, decides what is to be regarded as sensible and what is to be dismissed as sectarian craziness. Anything that gets in the way of winning elections must therefore be avoided like the plague. Hence it is not only the Labour right which attempts to restrict, muddy and segment debate, and impose bureaucratic limits and measures to sideline awkward minorities. The official Labour left behaves in exactly the same anti-democratic manner.

14. The Labour Party, as presently constituted, is certainly not a “true mass organisation of the working class”. Doubtless, although it is down by a hundred thousand, Labour still has a mass membership and relies on trade union money and working class voters. But, in the last analysis, what decides the class character of a political party is its leadership and its programme.

15. The election of Corbyn did not produce fundamental change here. Neither For the many, not the few (2017) nor It’s time for real change (2019) questioned the monarchical constitution, the standing army, judge-made law or the US-dominated international order, let alone the system of wage-slavery. So, even under Corbyn, Labour was neither a democratic nor a socialist party. It was, and remains, a bourgeois workers’ party, which has its place in capitalism’s many defensive moats, ramparts and walls.

16. Despite the failure of Corbyn and the election of Starmer, we remain committed to the complete transformation of the Labour Party, forging it into a permanent united front of the working class and equipping it with solid Marxist principles and a tried-and-tested Marxist leadership.

17. However, this positive perspective for Labour can only be realised through the struggle to unite the left inside and outside the Labour Party – but not into a broad front based on soggy, middle-ground compromises, like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, Left Unity, Respect or the Socialist Alliance. Sadly, all these have been wasted opportunities. No, we need to unite in building a mass Marxist party – a party that applies to affiliate to Labour, but can operate within the party despite bans and proscriptions.

18. Without a mass Marxist party, the left is doomed to suffer one Sisyphean defeat after another.

Labour as a united front

Once all working class and socialist organisations were welcome – obviously no longer. James Marshall looks at the past, present and future

We are in the midst of a terrible witch-hunt – a witch-hunt fully backed by the Labour right, the capitalist media, the courts, the Israeli embassy and the forces of the deep state. Three examples:

  • Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from membership of the Parliamentary Labour Party in October 2020, thereby preventing him from standing as a Labour candidate in the next general election. Why? He dared tell the truth: “accusations” of anti-Semitism have been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media”.1 Constituency Labour Party chairs and secretaries who allowed debates on, or resolutions protesting against, his treatment faced suspension or expulsion.
  • Hundreds, if not thousands, have been purged, many charged with anti-Semitism, and predictably a hugely disproportionate percentage of them are Jewish: eg, Jackie Walker, Tony Greenstein and Moshé Machover. Their real crime is opposing the Zionist colonial-settler state of Israel … and Labour’s pro-capitalist right wing.
  • The July 20 national executive committee banned Labour Against the Witchhunt, Resist, the Labour In Exile Network and Socialist Appeal. Anyone deemed a member or supporter of one of those proscribed organisations faces auto-expulsion. Amongst the first to fall foul of the new rule was celebrated film director Ken Loach. He refused to renounce support for LAW.

It is all too clear what Sir Keir Starmer and general secretary David Evans are up to. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory in September 2015 owed much to historical accident; little or nothing to the strategic acumen, ideological hegemony and organisational strength of the official left. With his ill-judged resignation following the December 2019 general election and the resounding defeat suffered by the hapless Rebecca Long-Bailey in the April 2020 leadership contest, the Labour right has been firmly back in the saddle. The witch-hunt is no longer about undermining Corbyn, driving him into complicity, forcing him to sacrifice one friend and one ally after another and ensuring that he never enters No10 Downing Street as prime minister.

No, the witch-hunt is about Sir Keir demonstrating his unquestioning loyalty to the UK state and its international allies – crucially the US and its most important strategic asset in the Middle East. Bans, expulsions, character assassination and riding roughshod over basic democratic norms have a potent symbolic value. They show that Starmer is worthy of the establishment’s trust. That way, he hopes to ingratiate himself with the capitalist media, boost Labour’s poll ratings and calm the fears of the army top brass, MI5, the City and the US state department. If – and it is a big if – Brexit comes to be commonly regarded as a Boris Johnson-driven car crash, then Sir Keir has the distinct possibility of getting that summons to Buckingham Palace and being asked to form a government by her majesty the queen.

Class against class

Labour Party Marxists has actively joined with those many others fighting the suspension and expulsion of socialists, trade union activists and anti-Zionists. All of them, without exception, should be immediately reinstated. There is surely nothing uncontroversial about Marxists making such a demand. After all, what is going on inside the Labour Party is a clear and unmistakable manifestation of the class struggle.

What then should we make of those self-declared ‘leftwingers’ who have turned a blind eye, excused, complied with or even promoted the witch-hunt? Painful though it may be for many, the fact of the matter is that it was under the pro-Corbyn regime of Jennie Formby that Labour HQ ‘fast-tracked’ expulsions. ‘Denialism’ – ie, what Corbyn was charged with – first became a crime with general secretary Formby (denialism, in this context, being a refusal go along with the big lie that Labour has a widespread, politically significant problem with anti-Semitism).

Yet, as the witch-hunt ripped through the ranks of the Labour left, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs maintained a studied silence. None of them defended Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson, Pete Willsman or Marc Wadsworth. The principle, ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’, became an alien concept. The Guardian’s house-trained Owen Jones was little different. Nor did Momentum lift a finger. Indeed Jackie Walker was surgically removed as its vice-chair.

Then there is Dan Randall and the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty outfit. They might as well be paid agents of the foreign office. Perhaps, though, the most revolting of all is Robert Griffiths, leader of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. He actually wrote to the Labour Party’s witch-hunter-in-chief, Iain McNicol, asking him to name the names of any members of his who had entered the Labour Party “or engaged in any similar subterfuge”, so that “action can be taken against them”.2 Not to leave a shadow of doubt, Griffiths signed off: “With comradely regards”.

Exactly how Griffiths’ sorry excuse for a communist organisation arrived at its ban on Labour Party members joining the CPB and the ban on CPB members joining the Labour Party need not concern us here. Its roots, though, surely lie in the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain and its turn to the cross-class politics of the popular front, sanctioned by the 7th Congress of the Communist International in 1935 under Stalin’s direct command.

Despite CPB claims to be the unbroken continuation of the CPGB going back to its foundation in 1920, nothing could be further from the truth. A fundamental break occurred. The same goes for the Labour Party.

Beginnings

From its beginning Labour was a federal party, which sought to unite all working class and socialist organisations. It was a united front of a special kind – special because, as with the soviets in Russia, unity was not tactical, fleeting or episodic. True, especially at first, political aims were decidedly limited.

JH Holmes, delegate of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, moved this historic resolution at the 1899 TUC:

That this Congress, having regard to its decisions in former years, and with a view to securing better representation of the interests of labour in the House of Commons, hereby instructs the Parliamentary Committee to invite the cooperation of all cooperative, socialistic, trade unions and other working class organisations to jointly cooperate on lines mutually agreed upon, in convening a special congress of representatives from such above-named organisations as may be willing to take part to devise ways and means of securing the return of an increased number of labour members in the next parliament.3

His resolution was opposed by the miners’ union on the basis of impracticability, but found support from the dockers, the railway servants and shop assistants. After a long debate the resolution was narrowly carried by 546,000 votes to 434,000.

The TUC’s parliamentary committee oversaw the founding conference of the Labour Representation Committee in February 1900. The 129 delegates, representing around 500,000 members, finally agreed to establish a distinct Labour Party in parliament, with its own whips, policies, finances, etc.

An executive committee was also elected. It would prepare lists of candidates, administer funds and convene an annual conference. Besides affiliated trade unions, the newly formed NEC would also include socialist societies. In fact, they, the socialist societies, were allocated five out of the 12 NEC seats (one for the right-reformist Fabians, two for the centrist Independent Labour Party and two for the openly revolutionary Social Democratic Federation). Given the diminutive size of these socialist societies compared with the trade unions, it is obvious that they were treated with considerable generosity. Presumably their “advanced” views were highly regarded.4

For Keir Hardie the formation of the Labour Party marked something of a tactical retreat. He had long sought some kind of socialist party. However, to secure an alliance with the trade unions he and other ILPers were prepared to programmatically limit the Labour Party to nothing more than furthering working class interests by getting “men sympathetic with the aims and demands of the labour movement” into the House of Commons.5

SDF delegates proposed that the newly established Labour Party commit itself to the “class war and having as its ultimate object the socialisation of the means of production and exchange” – a formulation rejected by a large majority. In the main the trade unions were still Liberal politically. Unfortunately, as a result of this vote, the next annual conference of the SDF voted by 54 to 14 to withdraw from the Labour Party. Many SDF leaders came to bitterly “regret” this sectarian decision.6

As might be expected, this was part of a wider pattern. For example, faced with the great industrial unrest of 1910-14, Henry Hyndman, the SDF’s autocratic leader, rhetorically asked: “Can anything be imagined more foolish, more harmful, more – in the widest sense of the word – unsocial than a strike?”7

Of course, it is quite possible to actively support trade unions in their struggles over wages, conditions, etc, and to patiently and steadfastly advocate republican democracy and international socialism. Indeed without doing just that there can be no hope for a mass socialist party here in Britain.

Nonetheless, the SDF is too often casually dismissed by historians. Eg, Henry Pelling describes it as “a rather weedy growth in the political garden”.8 True, its Marxism was typically crude and, with Hyndman, mixed with more than a tinge of anti-Semitism. For him the Boer war was instigated by “Jew financial cliques and their hangers-on”.9 Yet the SDF was “the first modern socialist organisation of national importance” in Britain.10

Karl Marx disliked it, Fredrick Engels despaired of it, William Morris, John Burns, Tom Mann and Edward Aveling split from it. But the SDF survived. The various breakaways – eg, the Socialist League, the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Labour Party – either disappeared, remained utterly impotent or could manage little more than regional influence. Meanwhile, the SDF continued as the “major representative” of what passed for Marxism in this country till 1911, when it merged with a range of local socialist societies to become the British Socialist Party.11

The first conference of the newly formed BSP voted, by an overwhelming majority, to “seek direct and independent affiliation” to the Second International.12 In other words, not through the Labour Party-dominated British section of the Second International. Despite that, however, the BSP began to overcome its Labour-phobia. Leading figures, such as Henry Hyndman, J Hunter Watts and Dan Irving, eventually came round to affiliation. That was vindication for Zelda Kahan and the internationalist left. Withdrawal from the Labour Party, she argued, had been a profound mistake. Outside the Labour Party the BSP was seen as hostile, fault-finding and antagonistic. Inside, the BSP would get a wider hearing and win over the “best” rank-and-file forces.13 Affiliation to the Labour Party was agreed, albeit by a relatively narrow majority. Efforts then began to put that into effect. The formal application for affiliation was submitted in June 1914. And in 1916 – things having been considerably delayed due to the outbreak of World War I – the BSP gained entry into the Labour Party. Almost simultaneously, in Easter 1916, the BSP in effect expelled the pro-war right wing. Hyndman went off to form his National Socialist Party.

Communist affiliation

The October revolution found militant and unstinting support in the BSP. A number of its émigré comrades from Russia returned home and took up important positions in the Soviet government. Bolshevik publications were soon being translated into English: eg, Lenin’s State and revolution. Money too flowed in.

The Leeds conference of the BSP in 1918 enthusiastically declared its solidarity with the Bolsheviks and a wish to emulate their methods and achievements. And under the influence of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin, etc, the BSP adopted a much more active, much more agitational role in the Labour Party and the trade unions. In the words of Fred Shaw, instead of standing aloof from the “existing organisations” of the working class, “win them for Marxism”.14

Needless to say, the BSP constituted the main body that went towards the historic formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain over July 31-August 1 1920. Given BSP affiliation four years earlier, and the fact that in 1918 the Labour Party introduced individual membership, there can be no doubt that the bulk of CPGBers were card-carrying Labour Party members. Dual membership was therefore the norm, as with the Fabians and ILP.

However, instead of simply informing Arthur Henderson, Labour’s secretary, that the BSP had changed its name, the CPGB, following Lenin’s advice, applied for affiliation. Lenin thought the CPGB was in a win-win situation. If affiliation was accepted, this would open up the Labour Party rank and file to communist influence. If affiliation was rejected, this would expose Labour leaders for what they really were: “the worst kind of reactionaries”.15

With 20:20 foresight it would probably have been better for the CPGB to have presented itself merely as the continuation of the BSP. True, that would have tested to the limits the CPGB’s own unity. Its First Congress had a surprisingly large minority opposed to Labour Party affiliation: eg, the Communist Unity Group.

Nevertheless, securing a divorce is undoubtedly far harder than turning down a would-be suitor. The Labour leadership would have had to expel a renamed existing affiliate rather than reject a brand new prospective affiliate. Note, the BSP was allowed to affiliate in 1916, despite its long established commitment to Marxism, and, as far as I know, there were no moves to expel the BSP because of its newly adopted opposition to the ongoing inter-imperialist war – a position shared, of course, by Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and the centrist ILP.

After World War I and the 1917 Russian Revolution, however, Labour’s grandees were determined to distance themselves from Bolshevism. The revolution had put terror into the soul of the bourgeoisie. Their system was mortal. In defence of their system of exploitation they reinvented capitalism as ‘democracy’, while the communists, in defence of the isolated Soviet republic, championed ‘dictatorship’. A strategic blunder. A gift. Arthur Henderson therefore replied to the CPGB’s first application for affiliation by counterposing democracy and dictatorship. The principles of the communists do not accord with those of the Labour Party, he flatly declared. To which the CPGB responded by pointing out that:

… it understood the Labour Party to be so catholic in composition and constitution that it could admit to its ranks all sections of the working class movement that accept the broad principle of independent working class political action, at the same time granting them freedom to propagate their own particular views as to the policy the Labour Party should pursue and the tactics it should adopt.16

A good many local Labour Parties, particularly in London, forthrightly rejected Henderson’s characterisation of the CPGB as, in effect, mad, bad and dangerous to know. Nonetheless, Labour’s apparatus experienced no difficulty in marshalling crushing majorities. Eg, in June 1921 there was an overwhelming 4,115,000 to 224,000 conference vote against CPGB affiliation.

A minority Labour government was now a real prospect. Towards that end Labour had to be made acceptable to the Liberal Party, the capitalist press, the army high command, the City and George V. Britain and its vast empire of exploitation, pillage and extermination would be safe in Labour hands. That was the essential message that the Labour and trade union bureaucracy wanted to convey by rejecting the CPGB.

Lenin had, in 1908, optimistically called Labour the “first step towards socialism and towards a class policy”.17 As it was, Labour took one step forward in 1900 and one step back with its support for British imperialism in World War I … and still another step back with its refusal to accept communist affiliation. The united front of the working class was thereby disunited. The Labour Party dishonestly continued to call itself by that name, but in reality Labour was sabotaged as a party going towards socialism and a class policy. It continues, of course, but akin to soviets without Bolsheviks: soviets subordinated to the capitalist state; soviets as a career ladder for colourless, clueless, professional politicians.

Bans and defiance

Not that the CPGB could be easily seen off. Affiliation might have been rejected, but there remained dual membership. In 1922, two CPGB members won parliamentary seats as Labour candidates: JT Walton Newbold (Motherwell and Wishaw) and Shapurji Saklatvala (Battersea North).

Subsequently, Labour’s NEC was forced to temporarily drop its attempt to bar CPGB members from being elected as annual conference delegates. The June 26-29 1923 Labour conference had 36 CPGB members as delegates, “as against six at Edinburgh” the previous year.18 Incidentally, the 1923 conference once again rejected CPGB affiliation, this time by a narrower 2,880,000 to 366,000 margin.

Nonetheless, the general election in December 1923 saw CPGBers Ellen Wilkinson (Ashton-under-Lyne), Shapurji Saklatvala (Battersea North), M Philips Price (Gloucester), William Paul (Manchester Rusholme) and Joe Vaughan (Bethnal Green SW) stand as official Labour candidates, while Alec Geddes (Greenock) and Aitken Ferguson (Glasgow Kelvingrove) were unofficial Labour candidates, there being no official Labour candidate in either constituency. Walton Newbold (Motherwell) and Willie Gallacher (Dundee) alone stood as CPGB candidates. Despite a considerable increase in the overall communist vote, none were elected.19

A ban on CPGB members standing as Labour Party candidates swiftly followed. Yet, though Labour Party organisations were instructed not to support CPGB candidates, this was met with defiance – not the fawning compliance nowadays personified by the miserable Robert Griffiths. In the run-up to the October 1924 general election, Battersea North Labour Party overwhelmingly endorsed Shapurji Saklatvala, Joe Vaughan was unanimously endorsed by Bethnal Green SW CLP and William Paul similarly by the Rusholme CLP executive committee. And Saklatvala was once again elected as an MP.

The 1924 Labour Party conference decision against CPGB members continuing with dual membership was reaffirmed in 1925. And, going further, trade unions were “asked not to nominate communists as delegates to Labour organisations”. In response, in December 1925, the National Left Wing Movement was formed. Its stated aim was not only to oppose bans on communists: it also sought to hold together disaffiliated CLPs. Basically a model which today’s LIEN seeks to emulate.

The NLWM insisted it had no wish or thought of superseding the Labour Party, but, instead, it sought to advance the generally held aspirations of Labour’s leftwing militants. In this it was considerably boosted by the newly established Sunday Worker. Despite being initiated, funded and edited by the CPGB, the Sunday Worker served as the authoritative voice of the NLWM. At its height it achieved a circulation of 100,000. The NLWM’s 1925 founding conference had nearly 100 Labour Party organisations sending delegates.

Following the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, the Labour apparatus and trade union bureaucracy wanted the movement to draw the conclusion that the only way to make progress would be through cooperating with the capitalist class in the national interest – Mondism. As a direct concomitant of this miserable class-collaborationism there was a renewed drive to exclude communists. Yet, despite these assaults on the Labour Party’s founding principles, at the end of 1926 the CPGB could report that 1,544 of its 7,900 members were still individual members of the Labour Party.

The struggle proved particularly sharp in London. In the capital city around half of the CPGB’s membership were active in their CLPs. And despite claiming that it was the communists who were “splitting the movement”, the labour leadership palpably strove to do just that. Battersea CLP was disaffiliated because it dared to back Saklatvala and refused to bar CPGB members. Similar measures were taken against Bethnal Green CLP, where the communist ex-mayor, Joe Vaughan, was held in particularly high regard.

Yet the Labour leadership’s campaign of disaffiliation and expulsion remorselessly ground on. The NLWM therefore found itself considerably weakened in terms of official Labour Party structures. Hence at its second annual conference in 1927 there were delegates from only 54 local Labour Parties and other Labour groups (representing a total of 150,000 individual party members). Militant union leaders, such as the miners’ AJ Cook, supported the conference.

However, external factors came into play – negatively. With the counterrevolution within the revolution in the Soviet Union, the CPGB was, in many ways willingly, reduced to being a slave of Stalin’s foreign policy. The CPGB’s attitude towards the Labour Party correspondingly wildly zigged and zagged. During the so-called ‘third period’ leaders such as Harry Pollitt and Rajani Palme Dutt denounced the Labour Party as nothing but “a third capitalist party” (shades of Peter Taaffe and Hannah Sell and their Socialist Party in England and Wales).20

As an integral part of this madness, in 1929 the Sunday Worker was closed down and the NLWM was wound up. In effect the CPGB returned to its SDF roots. Ralph Miliband comments that the CPGB’s so-called new line “brought it to the nadir of its influence”.21

Third period left sectarianism could only but spur on the Labour right’s witch-hunt. In 1930 there came the first proscribed list. Members of a whole variety of organisations became ineligible for individual membership of the Labour Party, and CLPs were instructed not to affiliate to proscribed organisations. Needless to say, most of them were associated in some way or another with the CPGB.

Latest round

What began as a witch-hunt against the CPGB in the 1920s nowadays not only includes LAW, LIEN and Socialist Appeal. There is the catch-all ban on “racist, abusive or foul language, abuse against women, homophobia or anti-Semitism at meetings, on social media or in any other context”. The Victoria Street thought-police can, at a whim, expel anyone. Members live in fear. They silence themselves. They keep their heads down. They fret, worry and sometimes experience profound mental distress over nothing more than past Zoom appearances, social media posts, likes and dislikes. Naturally, often they simply despair, and leave in disgust. They scatter to the four winds and turn to social dust.

However, there is a growing fightback. Twelve NEC members have declared the ban on the four proscribed groups “unfair”.22 The SCG even summed up the courage to organise a statement, signed by 20 Labour MPs and five Labour peers, urging that Ken Loach be reinstated as a member.23 In a similar fashion a range of groups have united as Defend the Left to oppose the bans and proscriptions – whatever the many political faults and inadequacies, a positive development. Even better, there are those now committed to the “refoundation of Labour as a united front of a special kind open to all socialist and working class organisations” (LAW).24

Here a really valuable lesson has been learnt. Yes, comrades, to fight against the witch-hunt we need a clear vision of what we are fighting for. The struggle continues.


  1. The Independent October 29 2020.↩︎
  2. Morning Star August 12 2016↩︎
  3. BC Roberts The Trade Union Congress 1868-1921 London 1958, p166.↩︎
  4. Ibid p167.↩︎
  5. Quoted in R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1960, p17.↩︎
  6. M Crick The history of the Social Democratic Federation Keel 1994, p97.↩︎
  7. Ibid p230↩︎
  8. H Pelling Origins of the Labour Party Oxford 1976, p172.↩︎
  9. M Crick The history of the Social Democratic Federation Keel 1994, p159.↩︎
  10. Ibid p8.↩︎
  11. Ibid p8.↩︎
  12. Ibid p8.↩︎
  13. Ibid p248.↩︎
  14. Quoted in M Crick The history of the Social Democratic Federation Keel 1994, p281.↩︎
  15. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, p258.↩︎
  16. Quoted in J Klugmann History of the Communist Party of Great Britain Vol 1, London 1968, p168.↩︎
  17. VI Lenin CW Vol 15, Moscow 1977, pp234-35.↩︎
  18. JT Murphy, ‘The Labour Party conference’ Communist Review August 1923, Vol 4, No4: www.marxists.org/archive/murphy-jt/1923/08/labour_conf.htm↩︎
  19. J Klugmann History of the Communist Party of Great Britain Vol 1, London 1968, pp361-62.↩︎
  20. N Branson History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941 London 1985, p5.↩︎
  21. R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1960, p153.↩︎
  22. labourlist.org/2021/09/labour-implementing-ban-on-groups-in-unfair-way-say-12-nec-members.↩︎
  23. labourlist.org/2021/08/socialist-campaign-group-of-mps-urges-labour-to-reinstate-ken-loach.↩︎
  24. www.labouragainstthewitchhunt.org.↩︎

We need system change

Capitalism cannot be trusted with the future of the planet, says David Sherrief. But be warned: governments could go for ‘climate socialism’

The key findings of the IPCC sixth report are alarming, widely known and well worth repeating: human-induced warming is “unequivocally” the cause of rapid changes to the climate and, unless dramatic and sustained action is taken, the 1.5°C limit will be exceeded in the early 2030s.1 The aim to limit global warming to “well below” 2°C, “preferably” to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels was, of course, agreed by the Paris 2015 Cop21 meeting and is signed off by 195 countries.2

Now, says the IPCC, it is “code red”. Human activity is changing the climate in ways “unprecedented” in thousands – or hundreds of thousands – of years. Some of the changes are likely to be “irreversible” over centuries or millennia – including the melting of polar ice, sea level rises and the acidification of the oceans.

Total warming is “dominated by past and future carbon emissions”, the report states, but cuts must also be made to the shorter-lived methane emissions – responsible for roughly 30% of post-industrial global warming and 80 times more potent when it comes to climate change. In terms of human activity, methane is released primarily through biomass/biofuel burning, gas/oil production, rotting waste in landfill sites and, of course, meat and dairy farming. Cutting methane emissions by 30% over the next decade is, reportedly, a US-EU-UK “priority” for November’s Cop26 in Glasgow.3

Tipping point

But, whatever happens with methane, not only do we seem well on course to hit the 1.5°C limit a lot sooner than first predicted, but there is the danger of reaching 2°C and going beyond. The IPCC warns that we are at or very near the tipping point. When quantity turns into quality, a “multiplier effect” kicks in and, through feedbacks and couplings, we get an entirely different climate system.4 Leave aside ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream, slowing down or switching off entirely,5 mid-latitude land masses are hit with searing, almost impossibly high, temperatures; meanwhile, polar regions get far less cold during the winter months.6

Keeping to the Paris 1.5°C limit to prevent runaway climate change will require, says the IPCC, “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions” in greenhouse gas emissions – of which there is no sign to date. For example, governments of all stripes leave urban sprawl, road building and the whole car economy going unquestioned. The much vaunted transition to electric vehicles is more a giant selling opportunity than any kind of a genuine solution. Not only does electricity still have to be generated – much still relying on coal, oil and gas power stations – there are also the steel, plastics, glass, computer chips, batteries, tyres, etc, that go towards making an electric vehicle. So, even if there is a 100% transition to renewable power sources, there will remain the large-scale release of greenhouse gases. The same applies to other major sources of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions: air flights, shipping, agriculture and industry. It is business as usual … and, needless to say, business is driven by the capitalist M-P-M’ imperative.

If emissions are not significantly reduced in the next decade, then reaching 3°C is all too conceivable – an apocalyptic scenario: though it would take thousands of years, the polar ice caps melt, sea levels head for a 10-metre rise, there is a further thaw of permafrost and another surge in global temperatures. There is, unavoidably, as a consequence, the mass extinction of flora and fauna. Countless cities are inundated: Alexandria, Dhaka, Jakarta, Bangkok, Kolkata, Miami, Houston, New Orleans, Rotterdam, Rio de Janeiro, Osaka and Shanghai. Along with much of Europe and western Asia, Britain eventually fragments into a series of islands. Oxford finds itself one of many new coastal towns. The North American wheat belt turns to desert. We effectively return to the conditions of the early Eocene 56-49 million years ago. As a bonus, true, the far north of America and Asia becomes habitable along with Antarctica. But what this presages is not exciting new opportunities for humanity, but rather a new dark age. Indeed there is the possibility that large parts of the planet becomes uninhabitable due to flammable air-methane concentrations.7 According to Tim Palmer, professor of climate physics at Oxford University, if we do not radically halt our emissions soon, our planet could well become “some kind of hell on Earth”.8

As the IPCC report emphasises, even if the capitalist ruling class somehow manages to get its act together by drastically reducing emissions, the climate will not return to the patterns we have been used to in the recent past. A 1.5°C warmer world will see an increase in “unprecedented” weather events. Disastrous floods, droughts, heatwaves and fires become far more frequent and far more intense.

Capitalocene

With its imperialist hierarchy, ruthless exploitation of nature and never satiated lust for profit, capitalism is the major driver of climate change – despite its different political economy, the Soviet Union and its ‘socialist’ bloc made no difference here. As for China – today the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses – it is, of course, fully integrated into the global capitalist economy. Some talk of the Anthropocene, as if it is an undifferentiated humanity that is responsible for climate change. But it is surely better, more accurate to talk of the Capitalocene.

For many on the left, not unreasonably, capitalism is defined, categorically, as incapable of dealing with the danger of runaway global warming. However, not even the most fabulously wealthy billionaire, or their ‘slave’ politicians and state actors, are so blind that they cannot see that something must urgently be done. Nonetheless, true, it is hard to imagine governments such as Boris Johnson’s Tories ever carrying out a programme that would actually achieve net zero emissions – after all, that would require a dramatic restructuring of power generation, industry, agriculture, transport, housing provision, etc. Therefore, so the reasoning goes, the corrupt, grasping, self-interested Tories will confine themselves to nothing more than empty gestures, cheap platform rhetoric and legislating for an electorally safe, distant future. Meantime they carry on as usual: more nuclear power, more roads, more air travel, more poor quality housing … crucially, more of everything: ie, more economic growth. Apropos the loathsome Tories: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” If not, then “neither can they do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”9

Yet, as seen with the ongoing Covid pandemic – and two world wars before that – the ruling class is prepared to allow governments to temporarily suspend the law of value. The normal workings of capitalism are overridden, curtailed or tightly directed in order to achieve agreed state aims.

The more intelligent sections of the left have written about how the Tories, and other governments too, introduced ‘Covid socialism’, roughly equivalent to the ‘war socialism’ put into effect by the German high command in 1916 – ie, the use of concentrated state power to deal with a dire emergency. The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is a good example. Developed double quick, produced on a non-profit basis, it was then rolled out by the NHS according to need.

In terms of the general interest – more particularly the general capitalist interest – governments will take what are usually regarded as extreme measures. Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak talked about tearing up his economic textbooks, doing what is necessary, thinking the unthinkable and all the rest of it. Though fraught with horrendous difficulties – not least because capitalism, from the level of the firm to that of the state, is characterised by internally generated rivalries – we should not discount the possibility that this will happen with the climate emergency. After all, the capitalist class lives on the same fragile planet as the rest of us (even if Elon Musk would like to rocket off to a frigid, lifeless, almost airless Mars).

No illusions

So climate socialism, enforced by a firefighter capitalist state – maybe with green advisors, enlightened technocrats and the armed forces playing a leading role – could conceivably impose draconian restrictions on emissions, reorganise industry, transport and agriculture and thereby limit the rise in global warming to “well below” 2°C, or even to 1.5°C.

Of course, that, or something like it, would have to happen in all the major countries. Adding to that little difficulty, the global hegemon, the United States, is in visible decline. There is, therefore, no effective power that can enforce the general capitalist interest. However, even on a purely national level, we should have no illusions about any eco or climate socialism introduced, overseen and enforced by the capitalist state (or, for that matter, the Xi Jinping regime in China). As with war socialism, there will be monumental blunders, severe restrictions on democratic rights, attempts to drive down popular living standards – all accompanied by endemic corruption and corresponding opportunities for well connected insiders to enrich themselves beyond the dreams of Croesus.

Nor will such a climate socialism peacefully, smoothly, evolve into proletarian socialism. True, we would reach a partial negation of capitalist production, the outer limits of capitalist society. But, because there is a swollen, parasitic, aggressively repressive bureaucratic state, what we have is the extreme opposite of proletarian socialism. Nonetheless, there is a relationship between climate socialism – in reality capitalism attempting to save itself on the backs on the working class – and proletarian socialism.

After all, we could substitute for the ‘firefighter capitalist state’ above the working class organised as the state power. Such a state, based on extreme democracy, closely coordinating with other such states across the globe, would radically reorganise power generation, industry, agriculture, transport, the housing stock, etc; it would be a state that reduces greenhouse gas emissions to net zero and then below; a state that subordinates production to need. Then, it is clear, such a state would be able to achieve far more than capitalist climate socialism to benefit the whole of humanity: it would represent the negation of capitalism and the first step towards a classless, moneyless, stateless and ecologically sustainable communism.


  1. www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf.↩︎
  2. unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement.↩︎
  3. Financial Times September 15 2021.↩︎
  4. CW Arnscheidt and DH Rothman, ‘Asymmetry of extreme Cenozoic climate-carbon cycle events’ Science Advances August 11 2021.↩︎
  5. theguardian.com/environment/2021/aug/05/climate-crisis-scientists-spot-warning-signs-of-gulf-stream-collapse.↩︎
  6. climate.nasa.gov/news/2865/a-degree-of-concern-why-global-temperatures-matter.↩︎
  7. globalwarming.berrens.nl/globalwarming.htm.↩︎
  8. ox.ac.uk/news/2021-08-09-oxford-climate-scientists-no-doubt-about-climate-change.↩︎
  9. Jeremiah xiii:23 – slightly rephrased.↩︎

Limbering up for Brighton

Derek James assesses the prospects for the left at the party’s annual conference. originally published in Weekly Worker 1363

What a difference an election defeat, a new leader and a pandemic makes! The last time the Labour Party met face to face in Brighton in 2019, the left seemed to be in the ascendancy, winning some key policy positions and seemingly up for a fight with the right, which dominated the Parliamentary Labour Party. A clear majority of the Constituency Labour Party delegations came from the left, Palestinian flags were everywhere and there was growing pressure on the rightwing deputy leader, Tom Watson, to resign.

However, as we approach this year’s conference, the picture could not be more different. The left is in complete disarray, after nearly two years of demoralising defeats across the board. Reports from CLPs throughout the county suggest many are either selecting pro-leadership delegations or simply not bothering to send anyone to Brighton at all. It is clear that the resurgent right in the CLPs, aided by regional officials, have used all sorts of manoeuvres to prevent the election of left delegates and to try to stitch up the conference for Keir Starmer. While these attempts to ‘manage’ the conference are underway, the purge and ‘auto-expulsions’ go on apace, with suspensions and expulsions for such heinous offences as appearing in a photograph with Ken Loach or attending an online meeting of a proscribed organisation like Labour Against the Witchhunt. It seems that a veritable army of Labour bureaucrats are trawling through social media accounts and recordings of online meeting to turn up evidence against the left, and then use it to exclude CLP delegates.

However, if all this points towards a very difficult conference for the left, some have noted a few bright spots on the horizon. They suggest that the unanimous decision of the Unite executive not to endorse the appointment of David Evans as Labour’s general secretary could mean that the main architect of the purge might be rejected by conference. Others also argue that similar votes on the national executive committee and conference arrangements committee reports could see defeats for the Labour leadership that offer some hope. The rumour mills are working overtime, speculating about how trade unions delegations might vote, in the light of a shift to the left on Unison’s NEC and the GMB’s new general secretary’s decision to scale back on political funding for Labour.

It all adds to the gaiety of the nation, but such micro-analysis of the internal balance of forces within the trade unions, or the CLPs for that matter, is a somewhat hopeless clutching at straws and in any case rather misses the point. In comparison with 2019, the left is in headlong retreat. Not only is it in no position to score any meaningful victories, but, in the face of the continued onslaught of the Labour right, it does not have either the politics or the strategy to do so.

Starmer has pursued the witch-hunt not because of the strength of the left but its weakness. Though there are, amazingly, those who fool themselves into thinking otherwise. The targets chosen so far, such as LAW or Socialist Appeal, have been ritual sacrifices, chosen because they are marginal, not because they pose some immediate threat to the leadership.

The conference will probably see an intensification of the purge, maybe with staged showdowns to demonstrate how the left has been put in its place: the mantra will be beating the Tories in the next general election, putting an end to off the cuff policy making and seeing the back of anti-Semitism (ie, anti-Zionism).

Mode

It is almost certain that Starmer’s speech on the last afternoon of conference will be designed in the mode of Neil Kinnock or Tony Blair, showing who is now really in charge of the party. As the current political cliché has it, Starmer will hope that his speech will be a ‘defining moment’ and set his leadership on the road to electoral success. Note, Labour has just scored its first opinion poll lead over the Tories after eight long months.

The prime audience for this speech, however, will not be in the conference hall or the living rooms of viewers catching the evening headlines. No, the main object of Starmer’s attention is the ruling class – both here in Britain and in the USA – and their media, to whom he wants to show that he can be trusted as a safe pair of hands, a reliable captain of capitalism’s second eleven. His attacks on the left are not some personal aberration or irrational vendetta: Starmer desperately wants to be prime minister and for him the war on the left is an essential part of that electoral strategy. As he works on his conference speech this week, these aims will be to the fore, but he will also be emboldened by the complete surrender of the official left in the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) and the Momentum leadership.

But their cowardly evasions and studiedly ambiguous statements in the face of the witch-hunt are unlikely to save them if Starmer deems it necessary to expel Jeremy Corbyn, proscribe Momentum or remove the whip from individual SCG MPs – all possible options to ram the point home.

If it is unclear exactly at which point we stand in this ‘strategy of tension’, we can at least safely predict how the official left will respond to any ratcheting up of the purge in Starmer’s leader’s speech at conference, if their pathetic capitulation to date is any guide. Thus the ‘Labour Left for Socialism’ amalgam – the ‘Chatham house left’ – now seems to be falling apart, as the left trade union bureaucrats and official left careerists who sponsored it either run for cover or, in effect, abjectly surrender before the assertive Starmer leadership. Likewise, the Momentum leadership has gone down the same road and has done absolutely nothing to oppose bans and proscriptions. They hope that by keeping quiet they too can cling on to party membership and become the face of the acceptable left. Given their record, we can expect no fight from them whatsoever.

The result of this is confusion. Large numbers have either resigned or lapsed into inactivity, allowing the Labour right to regain the initiative. We will see the fruits of these failures in the weakened position of the left at Brighton and the opportunity it will give Starmer to further step up his attacks. It will be a difficult conference with a very different mood in comparison with the last gathering at Brighton.

However, that will not stop Labour Party Marxists and their supporters intervening at the conference and working alongside other comrades on the left committed to actually fighting the witch-hunt. But the politics of LPM do not stop there: we link the struggle against the purge to the need for real party democracy and the refoundation of Labour as a united front of a special kind, open to all socialist and working class organisations. The whole history of the Labour left – especially in its most recent Corbynite incarnation – shows that such a transformation cannot be internally generated. All that Labourism can produce is yet another ‘broad left’ party based on the ‘politics’ of the lowest common denominator, or – worse still – simply a Labour Party mark two.

Without a mass Communist Party that rejects reformism and participation in bourgeois governments and is committed instead to the self-emancipation of the working class, all that will result will be yet more stillborn initiatives and wasted opportunities.

 

Refound Labour as a permanent united front of the working class

Share