Political, not legal, action is the way forward, argues James Harvey of Labour Party Marxists
Whenever two or three leftwingers are gathered together to discuss fighting back against the current witch-hunt, it is usually not long before thoughts turn to consulting ‘m’learned friends’ and undertaking legal action to challenge suspensions and expulsions. For example, at a recent Labour Against the Witchhunt meeting a comrade suggested that a group of suspended and expelled Labour members should launch a class action against the party. Moreover, it is not just rank-and-file members who contemplate having their day in court: it is reported that Jeremy Corbyn is considering his own legal action over the suspension of the Labour whip.
Whilst the exact nature of any possible legal action remains unclear, initially it seemed that Corbyn would argue that Labour did not follow its own rules in suspending him from both ordinary and parliamentary party membership. Subsequent reports suggest that the aim of any action might be more political than a purely legal attempt to seek redress for any wrong committed by the party. The suggestion is that the real purpose is to apply pressure on the party leadership and bureaucracy through a pre-action disclosure application to the high court. Corbyn’s supporters believe that this application will place evidence into the public domain that there was indeed a deal to readmit Corbyn into the party, as well as showing that Starmer’s office reneged on that deal.
While these legal intricacies are doubtless of interest to readers of Law Reports, it is the politics that concerns us. Although the threat of legal action of this kind is often portrayed as the ‘nuclear option’, in this context it is actually something of a damp squib, applying somewhat limited pressure rather than bringing the whole edifice down. These threats of legal action from the Corbyn camp seem to be part of a negotiating strategy, which, they hope, will allow Jeremy Corbyn to regain his place in the Parliamentary Labour Party after a brief period of nominal penitence. As such this combination of legal manoeuvring and media management is pretty well much of a piece with the strategy of compromise and conciliation that Corbyn, John McDonnell et al have been following from the very first days of the witch-hunt. It is this rather dismal grand strategy of Labour’s official left rather than the specific tactical question of using bourgeois courts that is the central issue here.
Marxists have long understood the nature of the courts and legal system generally. Bourgeois law is designed to maintain the system of private property and defend the structures of the capitalist system. Judges play a key role in upholding the economic, social and political status quo: they are not neutral arbiters of right or impartial dispensers of justice. Even if there are widespread reformist illusions about the nature of the constitution and the state, and its potential role as a neutral instrument to further working class interests, historical experience, especially in relation to anti-trade union laws, has kept alive a healthy suspicion and hostility within the labour movement to the courts and ‘Tory judges’. Above all there has often been a marked reluctance to use the law to settle internal disputes or to conduct political campaigns against political opponents within our movement.
The involvement of socialists with the courts historically has taken various forms, but the majority of cases have either centred on the defence of personal or political reputation in, say, libel or defamation cases, or the seeking of injunctions to ensure natural justice is upheld in, for example, expulsion or other party disciplinary cases.
One of the most famous examples of the former are Marx’s actions for defamation in 1860 against the National-Zeitung and The Daily Telegraph as part of his political campaign against French police spy Karl Vogt; whilst other, less illustrious cases include Tommy Sheridan’s defamation action versus News Group Newspapers, and subsequent conviction for perjury in 2010. That both Marx and Sheridan failed in their legal cases, albeit for very different reasons, shows the pitfalls facing socialists who try to use the bourgeois courts either as a political platform or a tribunal to arbitrate on the truth of accusations made against them. Unlike Sheridan, however, Marx ultimately succeeded in establishing his revolutionary bona fides and historical reputation in the only court that mattered – the labour movement.
The defensive use of the courts to ensure that Labour followed its own rules and acted in accordance with natural justice was a feature of the campaign against the expulsion of the Militant editorial board and supporters of the Militant Tendency in the 1980s and 1990s. Although the various legal challenges slowed things up, the Neil Kinnock leadership – through its control of the party bureaucracy and alliance with the trade union leadership, which had a decisive majority at the party conference – was eventually able to carry out a purge of Militant’s editors and supporters.
However, in response to the various legal actions initiated against the party, Labour’s leadership tightened up its disciplinary processes and established a system that met the objections about the lack of natural justice and fairness. The party bureaucracy has been able to amend its procedures to meet any legal challenges, whilst the courts, for obvious reasons, have generally been unwilling to find in favour of complainants.
The lessons from these attempts to use arguments about natural justice and ‘failure to follow party rules’ against suspensions and expulsions are clear: as the case of Chris Williamson proved, these legal tactics can, at best, only delay disciplinary procedure. Thus, while the use of legal measures is a question of tactics rather than principle for Marxists, both historical and more recent experience suggests that ‘relying on the courts’ is the wrong approach in the fightback against the witch-hunt.
The real weaknesses of the legal route are political rather than principled. The central problem of using the courts is that its advocates fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the witch-hunt and the aims of the current Labour leadership. The witch-hunt is an all-out war on the Labour left conducted by the right, with the goal of completing the Blairite project and breaking the party’s links with the organised working class. It will only end with the principled left being finally driven out of the party, whilst the official Labour left looks on largely in cowed silence.
If we cannot rely on the courts to fight that battle, neither should we put our trust in the fake left in the Socialist Campaign Group, Momentum, the Labour Representation Committee, etc. The seriousness of the crisis facing the Labour left is now clear to everyone – except, it appears, the leaders of the official left itself! The strength of the forces arrayed against the left cannot be overstated: they are drawn not only from the party leadership, the PLP and the Labour bureaucracy, but also from elements of the state, which want to restore Labour as a safe second eleven for British capitalism.
Whilst there is still a significant left amongst the party membership, as the recent elections to the national executive committee showed, it is becoming increasingly disorganised and demoralised by the lack of real leadership. In this struggle we must use all the weapons at our disposal, but the main one must be the political mobilisation of the Labour left in the CLPs and the trade unions. Campaigning organisations such as Labour Against the Witchhunt and the principled revolutionaries organised around Labour Party Marxists have pointed the way forward for a real fightback:
- No compromises with the Starmer leadership.
- Reject the EHRC report in its entirety.
- No false appeals to ‘party unity’.
- Drive out the pro-capitalist leadership.
- Refound Labour as a real party of the working class.