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).
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.