While the right is relishing the prospect of government, the left is marginalised and thoroughly demoralised. Kevin Bean, expelled secretary of Wavertree CLP, reports on the Liverpool conference
For Sir Keir Starmer everything seems to be going to plan – it seems he can do no wrong. Labour is riding high in the opinion polls and the prospects of a Labour government have grown stronger, as the economic crisis has dramatically worsened just in the last week. His widely applauded leader’s speech established his credentials as an alternative prime minster and rounded off a Labour conference which saw the left seemingly banished to the sidelines.
The long-trailed speech included few surprises and Starmer lived up to his advance billing as a Tony Blair tribute act. The policy commitments were studiedly modest, as if to contrast the responsibility and caution of the Labour leadership with the dangerous experimentation and wild adventurism of the Truss government’s mini-budget. As ever, Sir Keir had two important audiences for his speech: the capitalists at home and abroad; and the electorate he is hoping to persuade that (newish) Labour is a party they can trust. Increasingly he can take the benign acquiescence, if not the backing, of the capitalist class as read.
The broad thrust of Starmer’s economic strategy is entirely in line with mainstream bourgeois commentators, who regard Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget as a form of madness. It is clear now that the ruling class sees nothing to worry about – much less fear – in a Labour government headed by Sir Keir. Indeed, given the scale of the economic crisis facing Britain, key sections of the bourgeoisie can now see the distinct advantages of a Labour government in handling both the economic and political threats facing British capitalism.
However, this conference speech was largely targeted at potential voters – the mythical centre ground that Starmer’s triangulation strategy has been pursuing since he became Labour leader. It was to this psephological construction that he was talking, when he claimed that Labour was now “the political wing of the British people”. Sir Keir’s speech writers have done well, covering all the major points under mainstream discussion, from home ownership and enterprise through to patriotic values and helping Britain to ‘stand tall’ again. There were some specific policy commitments, such as a publicly owned renewable energy company, but these were rather modest and offered no serious solutions to the energy crisis. Similarly, promises to help first-time home buyers and use restored higher rates of taxation to fund more nurses said all the right things, but offered little detail. What Starmer was doing here was setting the mood music. This was Labour’s moment, we were told – equivalent, it seems, in its own way, to 1945 or 1997.
This all went down well with the Labour bureaucrats and the toadies in the conference hall. There were frequent outbursts of stage-managed, ‘spontaneous’ applause – the references to rooting out ‘anti-Semitism’ within the party were especially well-received, on cue for the cameras. In contrast to Brighton last year, there were no heckles and few dissenting voices in the debates (such as they were). This was a first-class performance of ‘consensus’ and ‘unity’, in which a watching world saw a party leader project himself and his party as a prime minister and government in waiting.
The sense that the leadership were in control was palpable to anyone who was around the conference centre. The well-padded apparatchiks felt they were masters of all they surveyed, while the young, aspiring bureaucrats and would-be MPs in their fashionable suits trailed in their wake, disdainfully eyeing mere CLP delegates as a lesser breed. All along the line – from attempts to refer back reports to enable debate on Palestine and Nato, through to demands to nationalise key industries – the left lost out. Although some MPs and supporters of the official left were claiming that important parts of the party’s policy had been shaped by the left, this was less a reflection of the left’s strength and more its further retreat into monumental self-delusion. The ‘Green New Deal’, much heralded by the left, is, in essence, managed capitalism, and certainly not any kind of break with it. The fact that Starmer and the right can nod to this policy in their rhetoric shows just how limited this ‘radical’ policy really is.
If you really wanted to see the state of the left and how successfully it had been marginalised, you only had to look at the monarchist pantomime at the opening of the conference. For the first time ever at a Labour conference delegates began their deliberations with a rendition of ‘God save the king’ (albeit with the aid of song sheets to prompt their patriotic memories). Although Sir Keir might have been a little worried whether this display of loyal fervour would come off, he had no need to fear. If the delegates’ singing left something to be desired, Starmer got his media opportunity as the conference showed its loyalism.
Certainly, many left delegates could not stomach this revolting spectacle and stayed away. But individual disgust and ‘protest’ by absence is not enough. Where were the walk-outs and the heckles when Starmer ran through the virtues of our late sovereign lady and demonstrated his fealty to the constitutional order and the capitalist system? It was all in marked contrast to recent conferences, where the pro-capitalists at the top of the party faced a noisy reception from the left: remember when the late, unlamented deputy leader, Tom Watson, was so afraid, he ran away rather than speak to a hostile party conference? And even last year the left could still make its voice heard, despite Starmer’s summary expulsions and suspensions of scores of delegates.
While the left may be in a very much weakened state, Labour is not dead yet. Keir Starmer may be one of the most rightwing leaders in the history of the party, but he is by no means unique in that regard. Remember Tony Blair or James Callaghan in the 1970s? What about Ramsay MacDonald in 1931? These are just some of the long line of careerists who have made Labour a reliable second eleven for capitalism since the party’s foundation in 1900. Likewise, the current weakness of the left is not that unusual. Again, think historically. There has never been a golden age for the Labour left. It was under the cosh during the Blair years and the right has always been dominant in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the bureaucracy and even amongst the trade union leadership. While the 1970s and 1980s, like the Corbyn years, saw the growth of the left in the CLPs and at conference, Neil Kinnock’s counter-attack from 1985 onwards only paved the way for Blair and the New Labour reactionaries in the 1990s and 2000s. Corbynism was the exception, not the rule, in Labour’s history. So, given this dismal record for socialism in the party, shouldn’t we just give it up as a bad job altogether?
It is not surprising that many leftwing activists have concluded that it is pointless remaining in the Labour Party. Membership has fallen – partly through expulsions, but also through demoralisation and disorientation. Some on the left have simply become inactive and disillusioned, while many others are talking about various alternatives to Labour. The recent upsurge in strikes and working class struggle has revived ideas that industrial militancy and forms of syndicalism are the way forward for socialists. As we saw at the fringe in Liverpool, others are talking about setting up new parties and new initiatives. These take different forms, but what unites these new ideas is that most of them are framed as setting up a Labour Party mark two – and all are rooted in the broad politics of Labourism, which attempts to unite reformists and so-called Marxists in one organisation and ‘unity’ around essentially left reformist politics of the lowest common denominator that gives up on anything resembling a revolutionary programme in favour of ‘realistic’ reforms.
Agreed that the record of both Labour leaders and Labour governments in siding with capitalism and attacking the working class is pretty dreadful, but, no matter how bad the party has proven to be, socialists in Britain cannot simply wish Labour out of existence. Historically, it has been a contradictory party with an openly pro-capitalist leadership with close ties to the establishment and a base rooted in the organised working class through the trade unions. Despite the recent strains in that relationship, it is likely to continue, if only because the union leaders believe that it is possible to do business with a Labour government and make some gains for their members.
So, because of this trade union link, many working class people continue to see Labour as their party, and, as history has shown, when they want radical change, many flock into Labour. However, as the Corbyn period showed, this is not an automatic process producing a serious and consistent leftwing, capable of transforming Labour into an instrument for socialist politics. The house-trained ‘official left’, such as Momentum and the Socialist Campaign Group, prefers surrender to a battle with the Labour right.
Of course, the left can see through Starmer’s rhetoric of a fresh start and his favourable references to the Blair and Brown governments. We know why he hopes to recapture the supposed optimism and enthusiasm of the 1990s. However, it will take much more than reheated rhetoric to deal with the multiple crises facing any new government. These are not the relatively favourable economic conditions that formed the backdrop to the much-hyped electoral and political successes of the Blair years; an incoming Starmer government will have no such luxury and will have to attack the conditions and rights of the working class from day one.
As the loyal servants of capitalism and its state, the Labour leadership will have no choice but to do this; their commitment to capitalism means they can do nothing else. However, as partisans of militant working class politics, we have to take the fight to these members of the political wing of British capitalism and drive them out of our movement. Despite their dominance, Labour is not dead yet.
Our fight is still one of forging Labour as a united front of all socialist and working class organisations, which goes hand in hand with building an independent Marxist party, committed to a revolutionary programme of working class self-emancipation, the overthrow of capitalism and the struggle for socialism internationally.