Woman with spools for eyes

No theory, please – we’re Labour

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Activism, never mind the politics: unfortunately this just about sums up the general approach. James Harvey reports

Labour in Exile Network is yet another initiative in response to Keir Starmer’s attacks on party democracy: a sort of home “for all those suspended, expelled, silenced and alienated by the witch-hunt against the left”. The online launch conference on Saturday February 27 attracted over 200 participants, reflecting the success LIEN has had in the few months since it was conceived.1 However, if the attendance was one marker of a certain type of success, other aspects of the conference discussions and decisions point in an altogether different direction, by revealing the underlying weaknesses in the current politics and strategy of the Labour left.

The tone was set by the keynote speakers and leading figures from the Labour left, who introduced the various sessions on ‘The crisis in the Labour Party and the opportunities for change’, ‘The fight for justice in the Labour Party’ and ‘The fight for free speech’.

Graham Bash outlined the serious defeat inflicted on the left by the Starmer leadership and the developing campaign of resistance in Constituency Labour Parties. He argued that struggles in the party need to link up to other campaigns: we need to build “resistance on the ground” and link the “different wings of our movement” in the fight against the Tories. By bringing the class struggle into the Labour Party, comrade Bash suggested, we can create a “party fit for purpose”. Chris Knight focused on the idea of ‘exile’. We may be purged, he said, but “we are refusing to leave – we are not going anywhere: we don’t recognise your suspensions and expulsions. We are in exile, but we will be coming home!”

This underlying tone of Labour loyalism – ‘It’s our party and we’re reclaiming it’ – combined with a belief that Labour was a ready-made instrument for achieving socialism – was especially dominant in the discussion on the ‘Plan for Change’ proposed by the ad hoc steering committee. This correctly focused on the issues of party democracy, free speech and the need for Labour’s ranks to exert real power over our ‘leaders’. Whilst agreeing that these were important aspects of any left campaign, supporters of Labour Party Marxists argued in a series of amendments that more radical meat had to be put on the bare bones. So, in place of rather vague calls for undefined ‘socialism’ and parliamentary politics, LPM comrades wanted instead to transform Labour “from an alternative party of capitalist government and war into a genuine socialist party of the working class”. Other LPM amendments included calls for the ending of careerism and unaccountable bureaucracy within the party by making the annual conference the supreme body, abolishing the Bonapartist post of Labour leader and ensuring that Labour’s elected representatives are paid only the average wage of a skilled worker.

Lamentable

The response to these amendments and the ensuing debate tells us a lot about the lamentable state of the politics and political culture of the contemporary Labour left. Norman Thomas, in moving the ‘Plan for Change’, argued that time is not on our side: ‘We don’t have time to argue about details, so let’s just get out there and do things’.

Other comrades took up such calls for grassroots activism, combined with a rejection of political clarity. Their refrain was that we needed a “broad network” that was committed to ‘getting on and doing things, not arguing about the finer points of political theory’. Arguments for socialism and real democratic control in the party, we were told, made things complicated and put off ‘ordinary people’. No-one ‘disagreed’ with the amendments as such, but ‘now was not the time’ to make such demands.

Supporters of the LPM amendments strongly argued that the fight to transform Labour and fight the witch-hunt were inextricably linked: bureaucracy, parliamentary politics and attacks on the left went together and need to be fought as a whole, not by a piecemeal set of demands pitched at the lowest common denominator. It was anti-political and patronising to argue that principled politics and clarity did not matter or were off-putting: talking about politics and reaching a clear position was never a waste of time. The experience of the Corbyn moment and the subsequent defeats of the Labour left had shown that serious discussion and political demands were actually essential if we were ever going to succeed in launching a real fighting campaign against the witch-hunt.

Evidently, the majority of participants at the conference did not agree, because they supported a procedural motion to close the discussion early and move to a vote on the amendments and the Plan for Change. The votes for the LPM amendments averaged about 25%, although there were a large number of abstentions or participants who simply did not vote at all – reflecting in part the technical problems of Zoom meetings but more importantly the rather passive, ‘spectator’ mood that this medium can encourage amongst participants.

There were echoes of this division between lowest-common-denominator, anti-political ‘activism’ and strategic coherence in the discussion on the terms of reference for LIEN’s steering group. A minority of comrades favoured a ‘loose, flexible approach’ and the ‘consensus-building’ that has characterised contemporary movements such as Occupy and Extinction Rebellion, and regarded formal structures and membership as restrictive and potentially alienating for new supporters. However, in a series of amendments which were adopted by the conference, LPM supporters successfully argued for the widely accepted standards of labour movement democracy and accountability – a formal membership structure, an accountable steering group, simple majority voting and the ultimate sovereignty of the LIEN membership.2

Strategy?

The future of LIEN remains unclear. It is an attempt to rally the Labour left in the face of the witch-hunt and shows that some comrades are still prepared to organise and resist the purge. However, whilst militant speeches opposing Starmer’s purge received widespread support, there was much less clarity on what the Labour left actually stands for and how it should fight back. Amidst the wreckage of the hopes of the Corbyn moment, surely we need to be clear on these issues if we are going to build an alternative.

Most speakers did not want to face up to these questions, preferring instead a nostalgic return to a supposed golden age that existed before Starmer. No-one – no matter how strong their condemnation of the current state of affairs – addressed the fundamental structural weakness of the Labour left: namely its historical consistent accommodation to the pro-capitalist forces in the party. No-one pulled their punches when it came to Starmer, but on Corbyn’s concessions to the right during the witch-hunt or the limited reformist nature of his programme of managed capitalism, for most there was only silence.

Above all, many comrades in LIEN fail to understand the contradictory nature of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party and continue to see it, in its present form, as an instrument for socialist transformation. These politics demand the sort of political concessions and ‘unity at all costs’ approach that we saw under Corbyn – and they will continue to be repeated whilst the Labour left remains committed to some form of a constitutional road to socialism. However radically they phrase it, this strategy only reinforces the official Labour left’s symbiotic relationship with the Labour right and throws still further obstacles in the path of transforming Labour “from an alternative party of capitalist government and war into a genuine socialist party of the working class”.

Supporters of LPM who were elected to the LIEN steering group will continue to make this case and to argue that without a fundamental break from these Labourist politics, the left will continue to be bound to capitalism by chains of its own making. Anything else – as the defeat of Corbyn and the surrender of the official Labour left during the purge shows – will only lead to yet another dead end and a future of further demoralising defeats. The arguments of some comrades that such striving for political and strategic clarity is reminiscent of the scholastic nit-picking satirised in The life of Brian are disappointing.

Combined with a philistine focus on ‘activism’ and ‘getting things done’, these profoundly anti-political politics only play into the hands of the pro-capitalist Labour right. Far from encouraging ‘ordinary people’ to get involved, they will produce yet more of the confusion and demoralisation that resulted from the collapse of Corbynism. We cannot afford a repeat of that sorry tale.

Now is the time for serious comrades on the Labour left to look at the political and strategic problems we face. This means not only a serious discussion and analysis of the defeats of the last few years, but also, more importantly, we must fully understand the historical failures of the Labour left and its self-entrapment within Labourism. The refusal to address these questions now is not simply an intellectual failing: if you turn away from these issues you are betraying the best traditions of the workers’ movement and abandoning any pretence that you are fighting for socialism.


  1. For details of the conference and the decisions reached, see labour-in-exile.org.↩︎
  2. labour-in-exile.org/how-we-work/results-from-our-launch-conference-february-27-2021/#more-250.↩︎