Derek James assesses Sir Keir’s new shadow cabinet, the cowardice of the official left and the danger of both Corbyn and McDonnell being expelled
While Keir Starmer’s reshuffle of his shadow cabinet was surrounded by the usual political speculation and gossip about who was in and who was out, the re-emergence of a number of figures from the Blair era is significant in showing the direction that Starmer is going.
It also shows how tightly he now controls both the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party machine – that and the weakness and demoralisation of the Labour left at all levels. Cat Smith – former Socialist Campaign Group member and shadow minister for democracy and young people – presumably jumped before being pushed. She was the last ‘leftwinger’ on Labour’s front bench. Clearly, though, Sir Keir’s whole approach, and not only when it comes to the shadow cabinet, is designed to win the next election.
Arguments coming from not a few that Starmer is so fixated on rooting out the Labour left that he is prepared to destroy the party and risk yet another electoral defeat are plainly nonsensical. As a dedicated careerist, Sir Keir understands that his route to Downing Street can only be achieved with the support of the bourgeoisie and its media. He must prove that he is a safe pair of hands that can provide a reliable alternative government when the first eleven, the Tories, are no longer able to do the job. Hence his pledge, once safely elected as Labour leader, to continue the attacks on the left under the guise of rooting out the so-called scourge of anti-Semitism. Hence his eagerness to ritualistically sacrifice Jeremy Corbyn. Hence his reshuffle. All designed to show Sir Keir’s hostility to any hint of socialism and prove his commitment to the Atlanticist consensus and support for Israel, US imperialism’s most important asset in the Middle East.
The reshuffle moves the Labour leadership still further to the right: given her role in the Blair government and acceptance of the Cameron government’s austerity strategy after 2010, the presence of Yvette Cooper alone would justify that description. However, high-profile appointments, such as David Lammy as shadow foreign secretary and Wes Streeting at health, confirm the shift. Then there is Jonathan Reynolds taking over the business brief from Ed Miliband. While the latter made some vague and clearly unacceptable suggestions about ‘public control’ of energy supply, Reynolds is on record as supporting ‘market-led solutions’ to the energy crisis. Lisa Nandy is now shadowing Michael Gove on the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. She has clearly read the Blue Labour playbook and argues that Labour must position itself as a “patriotic and responsible” party to win back the ‘red wall’ voters who deserted the party during the Corbyn period.
The return of Blairite veterans and the complete takeover by the right was warmly welcomed by many media commentators and added to the momentum Starmer gained following his fawningly pro-business, ever so grown-up speech to the November conference of the Confederation of British Industry – which was positively contrasted with Johnson’s incoherent Peppa Pig ramblings. The continuing headlines about sleaze, government incompetence over Afghanistan, outright lies about Christmas parties and the tearful resignation of Allegra Stratton have all helped to boost Labour in the polls. A Labour government can no longer be discounted, that is for sure.
The carefully calculated snub Sir Keir administered to his deputy, Angela Rayner, in announcing the reshuffle at the same time as she gave a major speech only goes to show the commanding position that the Labour leader now enjoys. As a directly elected deputy, Rayner cannot be removed, but she can be sidelined and humiliated, as the occasion requires. From Starmer’s point of view, the politics behind this are relatively simple. She is yet another symbolic target, who offers an opportunity to prove both his domination of the party and his electoral credibility.
Others, however, see her differently. In a series of interviews and media interventions Rayner has played up her background and life story to position herself as the voice (quite literally) of the Labour heartlands and the working class. In reality she is a former trade union bureaucrat and political opportunist of the first water, using her union contacts to climb the greasy pole and to quickly abandon the Corbyn project when the tide turned. She is so blatant a careerist that even the most gullible party member should be able to see through her rather threadbare act.
But no! Even if they are not really taken in, some on the left claim to see her as some type of leftwinger, perhaps mistaking her demotic rhetoric and personal spat with Starmer for principled opposition and socialist politics. If they genuinely do see her in this light, it just shows how far the Labour left has degenerated politically – and if they are only pretending, it truly reveals how desperate and opportunist the official left has become.
The official left, in the form of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs and the leadership of Momentum, have cut a sorry figure throughout the witch-hunt. Their policy of compromise and keeping heads down has not only been unprincipled: it has proved to be singularly ineffective. Their pathetic little careers are what really matters to them.
Given the complete abdication of leadership from the official left, the mood amongst its rank and file in the Constituency Labour Parties is one of demoralisation and confusion. As we have reported on several occasions in the last few months, the organised left does not know which way to turn in the face of the witch-hunt. In fact, with ever more comrades being expelled, with nothing approaching an agreed common strategy, it is going in all sorts of contradictory directions.
For example, the Labour Left for Socialism initiative – ie, the Chatham House left – has run out of steam and is effectively dead, while Labour Against the Witchhunt has been liquidated into yet another grouping which has a definite trajectory away from the fight in the Labour Party and into the useless, ineffective and utterly ridiculous territory of Corbynism without Corbyn. But whether it is in the Labour Party or out of the Labour Party, the left is incapable of learning from its repeated failures. It remains trapped in Labourism.
All this was on display at Expulsion Rebellion – an online meeting held on Sunday December 5 to celebrate those members who had been expelled or suspended. Chaired by Crispin Flintoff of Labour Grassroots, the event had an upbeat feel with speeches by purged comrades, along with video clips, poetry and songs. Speakers outlined their various experiences of the witch-hunt and some offered their perspectives on the way forward.
For Graham Bash, the purge of the left was a form of class war inside Labour, carried out by a leadership that feared the membership more than the Tories. He argued that this was the greatest crisis the Labour left has faced in the entire history of the Labour Party – no exaggeration. Instead of advocating giving up on Labour, he called on comrades to stay and fight. There were still more socialists within Labour, he said, than outside. This, of course, depends on what defines a socialist, but it is certainly the case that Labour remains a party with a mass working class base in terms of members, trade union affiliates and voters. Correctly, comrade Bash stressed that there was no hierarchy of those expelled and suspended, that it was vital to stand by and speak up for not only Jeremy Corbyn, but all victims of the witch-hunt, including, by implication, those thrown under the bus when Corbyn was Labour leader and Jennie Formby was general secretary.
Similar points were made by Pam Fitzpatrick and two members of Jewish Voice for Labour, Leah Levane and Richard Kuper. They also conclusively nailed the Starmer leadership’s lies about anti-Semitism and exposed the Kafkaesque situation, where expelling Jewish members was described as ‘dealing with anti-Semitism’ in the party! However, whilst there was a degree of unity in opposition to the injustices of the witch-hunt, no speakers proposed a clear way forward. Expelled Labour councillor Jo Bird, for example, expressed her relief at being purged and suggested the totally futile strategy that other councillors in her position should stand for re-election as independents and thus build a grassroots campaign. Such an approach represents a political dead-end, a recipe for individualistic gestures, and has no chance whatsoever of long-term success.
As to the meeting overall, while it is good to be defiant and positive in the face of Starmer’s purge, we need much more than speeches of solidarity – we need a militant strategy and a clear alternative to seeking unity with the pro-capitalist leadership of the Labour Party. Many who attended this meeting, along with others who were part of the wider Corbyn movement, still look to the official left to provide some kind of fighting lead.
So it was with some anticipation that the meeting awaited the messages received from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. When they were read out by the chair, the disappointment was palpable. Corbyn restated his commitment to Labour principles and his own continued membership of the party. His focus was on the need for party unity to fight the Tories. Likewise, John McDonnell reiterated his original statement in support of Graham Bash, but there was no explanation of why the witch-hunt was being carried out and no calls for solidarity with all those who have been expelled. Corbyn and McDonnell probably hope that they said enough to reassure the rank-and-file left that they remain on their side, whilst at the same time saying nothing that would justify action against them from the party machine.
What happens next remains to be seen. It is, though, far from impossible that Sir Keir and the Victoria Street apparatus will see an opportunity to prove themselves to their masters yet again by expelling both Corbyn and McDonnell. After all, they sent messages of support to a meeting ‘celebrating’ the contributions of people who have been expelled. Nowadays a heinous crime.