The left is disorientated, in denial and still suffering from an orchestrated campaign of suspensions and expulsions. Kevin Bean calls for reviving Labour Against the Witchhunt and some serious rethinking
I was part of the Labour Party Marxists team that attended the September 25-28 conference in Liverpool. My article last week was based on first impressions (‘Political wing of capitalist class’ ) and what follows are more considered thoughts.
It was a good week for Sir Keir Starmer. Not only was it a good party conference from his point of view, but Labour now has a tremendous lead over the Tories in the opinion polls. Of course, to some extent that results from the wider economic crisis, the disarray in the Truss government and the reaction of the markets to the mini-budget. But it is also a sign that the clearly defined Starmer strategy is paying off – he is certainly getting a lot of good press, with papers that were previously rather hostile now treating him very much as a prime minister in waiting.
I want to look at his strategy, but also the response of the left inside and outside the Labour Party. Like a lot of comrades who were present in Liverpool, I attended fringe meetings and took part in many discussions – particularly at a series of events under the title of Beyond the Fringe.
The conference can be summarised in some ways as a tale of two anthems. It opened with the singing of the national anthem, a first, while Ukraine’s was played before the debate on foreign policy. These two anthems symbolise where Labour is at under Starmer. Singing ‘God save the king’ was really hyped before the conference – a sign that this was a new, patriotic Labour Party, at ease with the constitutional order, but, above all, it was sending out a clear message: this is not Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party! This is a more acceptable Labour – the ‘extremism’ of the Corbyn years has been banished.
The anthems are also part of his triangulation strategy – that is, to locate Labour firmly on the ‘centre ground’. Class issues and working class politics are now completely marginalised in the way that Starmer presents things.
Starmer’s ‘safe pair of hands’ routine came out very clearly in his conference speech. Many comrades would have seen this on TV, and indeed the whole event – the giant Union Jack, the camerawork – was designed to be a televisual experience, carried out for effect, for appearance. His speech was the epitome of stage-management. For example, at a certain point Starmer received a standing ovation when he stated he was working to “purge the party of anti-Semitism” and “dangerous extremism”. In similar vein shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves emphasised “sound money”, “stability”, working with entrepreneurs and serving “the interests of the nation”.
Starmer used the death of Elizabeth Windsor to contrast his loyal patriotism with the uncertain loyalty of those on the left. In upholding the monarch as a symbol of duty, of service, of “public responsibility”, he was clearly trying to feed off the days of national mourning. Starmer also used Tony Blair’s phrase: Labour is the “political wing of the British people”.
A theme repeated by Reeves – we are “ready to work with business” and are certainly “not in hock to the trade unions”. We are indeed a “party ready for government”. And, of course, this type of message was aided by what was going on outside conference. Clearly the shadow ministers, instead of working off carefully scripted speeches, had been waiting for the reaction – not least from markets – to the mini-budget delivered by Kwasi Kwarteng. So, in a sense, all they really had to do was come out with platitudes about ‘responsibility’ and how they would balance the budget for their strategy to work.
Casting the Tories as ‘extremists’ who no longer spoke for the nation would have been difficult before last week’s ‘fiscal event’, but now there was plenty of raw material available. So both opinion polls and the current sense of governmental collapse into economic and political crisis made things much easier.
There was also another element in Sir Keir’s favour: the demoralisation, disorientation and marginalisation of the left. Personally I have been to the last four Labour conferences and what struck me about this one was the atmosphere. It was radically different. For example, in and around the conference arena most delegates were ‘suited and booted’ and it was clear that there was a much greater proportion of apparatchiks, bureaucrats and aspiring parliamentarians. Overall attendance was down compared with recent years, and the right was clearly dominant. The left was very much in the minority.
I spoke to people who had been sympathetic to the Corbyn project, but were now prepared to give Starmer the benefit of the doubt – we have to ‘rally behind the leadership to get the Tories out’. They thought that this is no time for voicing dissent – the main focus must be on winning a Labour government.
It is obvious that the left has lost, and lost badly. Lobbies and demonstrations – for instance that organised by Labour Black Socialists over the Forde report and the failure to deal with racism – were poorly attended, in marked contrast to previous years. In and around the conference arena, leftwing leafleting, paper sellers, interventions, etc were similarly at a much lower level.
In the hall itself, it was noticeable that the left was indeed highly marginalised. This, in part, resulted from manipulation by the chair, but there has also been a large number of exclusions. Stories were circulating throughout the week of delegates who turned up in Liverpool, only to be told that their credentials had been withdrawn and their membership suspended. There was, of course, the example of Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi – a newly elected NEC member suspended from the party just before conference. The most blatant example was the delegate from Leicester East, Angelo Sanchez, who spoke against Nato in the Ukraine debate. He was suspended immediately afterwards.
There was also a real lack of morale amongst the left. True, there was no great enthusiasm for singing ‘God save the king’, but where were the socialists, republicans, democrats who objected? Where were the objections to the constitutional loyalism? Last year, when Starmer spoke, delegates were standing up holding red cards and heckling. None of this now.
It has been argued that many people on the left, including trade union delegates, stayed away, while others say that the national anthem was not the issue to raise – there were more important questions than such petty matters! But for me both the singing of the anthem and the backing for what was essentially a warmongering policy for Ukraine (and the falling in behind a pro-Nato strategy with barely a peep of opposition) tells us a lot about the nature of today’s Labour Party, including its left.
Starmer’s economic and political policies were fairly clear and I believe he is going hell for leather (albeit in a quiet, understated way) to become prime minister. Those who have objected that he was risking electoral victory by focusing on the left have, I think, misunderstood his whole rationale. Starmer is part of a long line of Labour leaders who have openly lined up with the ruling class – nothing new there. Likewise he wants to demonstrate that he is not only a safe pair of hands, but also that he can deliver – not least that he can ensure that Labour is viewed as a reliable alternative government.
It is clear to me that Starmer is now seen by sections of the ruling class as not just an alternative, but actually a safer option, because of what is going on in the Tory Party. That applies not just in terms of economic management, but also in terms of the party’s relationship with the organised working class. So Starmer is not just playing an electoral game – not just appealing to that mythical ‘centre ground’ – but is appealing to the ruling class as well. The type of coverage he is getting in the less hysterical bourgeois papers indicates that he is succeeding.
One of the features of the fringe meetings I attended was a real failure to come to terms with what has happened. There were a series of events and rallies – some organised by new groupings, such as Enough is Enough, others by The World Transformed, as well as Tribune and the Socialist Campaign Group.
The first thing to note was the presence of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, plus a number of prominent trade union leaders. They helped attract quite large audiences – delegates and visitors, but overwhelmingly from Liverpool itself. One had probably around 1,000 people and even some of the smaller ones often numbered in the hundreds. The common theme was a type of ‘revivalism’. The reaction to Corbyn was overwhelmingly positive, as if Corbynism was still a living project.
But what was really lacking in all of those meetings and rallies was any realistic appreciation of what had gone wrong. Why was Corbynism a failure? How was it defeated? A good example was the meeting on the Forde report. If you remember, the Forde report declared that there was a major problem of factionalism within Labour, which, particularly from the rightwing apparatus, had undermined the party’s election campaigns. The report, however, seemed to suggest ‘a plague on all your houses’ and that we should all unite.
Corbyn and many others went along with that line. Far from seeing the attacks on the left for what they were (and, in particular, looking at the nature of the Labour bureaucracy), they took the Forde report at face value. Some agreed that factionalism on the left was also part of the problem! So the battle that should have been fought in the party – the need to defeat the pro-capitalist right – was not taken up at all. The central mistake that had actually resulted in the defeat of the Corbyn leadership was still being repeated – concessions to the right, arguments about the need for compromise – all were clearly in evidence.
This is connected to something else that actually goes back to the very foundation of the Labour Party. Comrades see the state as an instrument for achieving socialism. Arguments were put forward that, if Starmer adopted a leftwing programme, this would make him very popular and then we would be able to begin the task of building socialism in Britain.
Of course, we as Marxists recognise the nature of the capitalist state – it is not an instrument that can simply be laid hold of and used by the working class. In fact that state will be used against any government, however ‘moderate’, if the interests of capital demand it. And this, of course, is a fundamental element of official left Labourism: it not only sees the state as an instrument that can be utilised, but believes that ‘socialism’ can be achieved through a succession of Labour governments. So the focus is on unity and maintaining the Labour Party as it is currently constituted, even if that means being humiliated, taken for granted or purged.
In other words, the problem is not only the undemocratic, anti-left measures taken by Starmer: there is also the fundamental ideological weakness of the official left.
A number of measures favoured by the left were passed at conference – the minimum wage, some aspects of the Green New Deal and a rather ambiguous motion on public control of the railways – and heralded as some great triumph. It was even suggested by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy that the party’s agenda was now determined by the left. The problem is not only that the official left’s policies are so tame and pro-capitalist that they can be happily adopted by Starmer: it is also quite possible for Starmer to sometimes use radical language, when it meets a particular need.
It was very clear from a number of conference votes that the left still enjoys a certain position in the constituencies – it probably has the support of around 40% of Constituency Labour Parties. But contrast that with the situation a few years ago, when it was probably more like 80%-90%. So it is essential that the Labour left is realistic about its decline: the left has been very clearly defeated and the pro-capitalist wing is now firmly in control. Taking solace from some rather anaemic motion (which will be ignored by Starmer if it is not to his liking) is to deceive oneself and to deceive others.
The other question we have to look at relates to comrades who have adopted a rather different – indeed, opposite – conclusion: ie, that Labour is now dead and that what is needed is an alternative in the shape of some kind of Labour Party mark two. In a number of fringe meetings that type of question was raised – particularly in those organised by Beyond the Fringe.
A number of comrades from currents and traditions both within and outside the Labour Party took part and I spoke on behalf of Labour Party Marxists. What was interesting was that all present claimed to recognise the nature of Labour and they all accepted what for Marxists has been a longstanding truth: that Labour is a bourgeois workers’ party.
As I pointed out, this is not just a way of attacking the Labour leadership: it is actually a scientific description. Labour leaders have always been closely connected to the ruling class – often being drawn into it. In the case of Sir Keir, before entering parliament he was a key member of the state legal apparatus as director of public prosecutions.
There is, amongst most sections of the Labour left, an attachment to the past, when they believe that Labour was actually a workers’ party – referring to the party’s foundation in 1900 or the 1945 Labour government, for instance. So, whereas Labour was once a ‘socialist party’, it has now been taken over by the right.
The Marxist argument is that, unlike the European social democratic parties, Labour was not founded as a socialist, let alone a revolutionary organisation. It was, of course, supposed to represent the working class, so it does have links to the organised working class in the trade unions. Therefore it is a workers’ party in that sense. But the paradox is that the function of the elected representatives of the trade unions, for example, is actually to mediate between the labour and capital.
So, while Labour is a party supported by and with roots in the organised working class, it is, nevertheless, a bourgeois party. This raises the key question for Marxists: how do we orientate towards it? Many comrades were saying that Labour, as a bourgeois workers’ party, is now dead. Comrades from the Socialist Party in England and Wales, along with others, were arguing that we should now concentrate on building some kind of new organisation. There was a very similar set of arguments in the earlier meetings organised by Resist, in which they bizarrely announced that they had decided to join the virtually non-existent Socialist Labour Party. Founded by Arthur Scargill in 1996, it secured 494 votes in the 2019 general election and has a website that produces a can’t be reached message.
In all the above fringe meetings a great deal of emphasis was placed on the growth of working class militancy, demonstrated in the current wave of strikes – in particular, historical references to things like the anti-Poll Tax movement and a whole series of working class struggles. It was suggested that the current actions could throw up new possibilities for the left to develop a socialist alternative to Labour. That was also the message in some of the rallies, where the importance of new layers being drawn into struggle was stressed.
In other words, there was a great deal of emphasis on spontaneity, and the subsequent ‘rapid growth’ of the left as a result of militancy. Dave Nellist of SPEW, for example, stated that after a couple of years something like 25 million people were involved in a non-payment campaign against the poll tax. He repeated, with reference to the Russian Revolution, the myth that the Bolsheviks had expanded from a tiny group into a mass revolutionary party in a matter of weeks. The belief amongst these comrades on the left, of course, was that we now have to break from Labour.
The point was clear to me, however, that they might well be breaking with Labour, but they were not breaking with Labourism. In particular, they are not breaking with the historic model of the Labour Party – many were talking about a party that would have trade union affiliates, etc. Above all, they were not arguing that socialism can only be achieved through the leadership of a party with an explicitly Marxist programme, committed to revolutionary transformation. They still thought in terms of immediate, trade union-type struggles, which, according to their ‘transitional’ model, was the way to develop a socialist revolutionary consciousness.
This meant that the organisational model of a new formation would actually be similar to that of the original Labour Party. It also assumed that there was no need, for example, to develop a hegemonic Marxist party, but simply build consciousness through existing organisations and struggles. This ‘movementism’ informed all their politics.
So there were two linked aspects to the left’s view of conference. Firstly a failure to recognise the current weakness of the left and, secondly, an overstatement of the potential of some spontaneous protest and/or industrial movement, which would allegedly create some kind of revolutionary consciousness. It was also noticeable that the comrades advancing ideas for a new initiative on the left – already pushed for a number of years in the form of the SPEW-led Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, for example – could not give any real account of their failure to date.
So these were clear themes running through this conference – a failure to do any real stock-taking or make any historical analysis. No-one really wanted to look back – and, when they did, it was to the ‘good old days’. There was no critical engagement, only celebration – when there should have been a lot more thoughtful analysis.
The other element I would like to draw attention to relates to the future of the left. Once more, in comparison to any previous party conference I attended in the last few years, clearly the left was experiencing profound demoralisation, following a huge defeat. But now they have reached the crossroads.
The various initiatives, already undertaken or about to be, are likely to run out of steam. The cost-of-living crisis we are facing will pull people, as voters that is for sure, to rally to the Labour Party. The old slogan that ‘any Labour government is better than a Tory government’, will be heard again.
This is probably a bad time to launch any new initiative of the kind being suggested – indeed the majority of the official Labour left clearly intends to remain on board. A number of comrades believed that the Enough is Enough initiative might be the basis for some new mass party. Although it claims to have support from thousands of people, it is clear that there has been no break with Labourism.
In many areas, Enough is Enough is being run by the trade union bureaucracy and the official left – for example, by Momentum. It may mobilise people, drawing them into rallies, demonstrations and protests, but it does not resemble anything like a vehicle for a new party. Anyone who views it as a kind of forerunner of the Chartists is sadly mistaken (I certainly do not see Andy Burnham in the role of Feargus O’Connor!).
Clearly the official Labour left is incapable of imagining anything beyond the perspective of securing a Labour government. Towards that end even individuals who might occasionally be critical have silenced themselves – note the way they all fell into line over Ukraine and how obsequious they were around Elizabeth Windsor, and how they continue to remain silent on the witch-hunt.
What about the ‘other left’? The left which very much exists within rank-and-file activists and the CLPs – there were 4,686 first preference votes for Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi in the NEC elections, for instance. That part of the left was also represented within the fringe at Liverpool, those who are still looking for some sort of lead.
It can be quite dispiriting to hear arguments that were made 30 or 40 years ago: predictions about the growth of the left, including that a strike wave will spontaneously lead to a new leftwing party, which seems now to be the ‘common sense’ of many. In contrast, we argue that a Marxist party is central, if we are to develop and strengthen a working class revolutionary consciousness which will be fully aware of the class nature of the state and which poses the question of power.
The other issue (and this is where Labour Party Marxists still has an important role) relates to the fact that Labour cannot be ignored. As a bourgeois workers’ party, it still retains considerable support among the organised working class. So how should we orientate towards it, if our aim is to break people from Labourism; from reformism and from concessions to capitalism? The LPM argument has not been ‘Labour or nothing’. On the contrary, we insist on the centrality of a Marxist party with a Marxist programme.
At the same time there is a need to take the Labour Party seriously – but we do not call for unquestioning loyalty to it. Comrades need to fight to transform it into a united front of all socialists and working class organisations. And I would expect that perspective to get a hearing, partly because it recognises the current reality of the left, and that it can grow again.
But it also recognises that Labour as it currently exists is not an organisation capable of being transformed into a vehicle for revolutionary transformation. So long as the argument of many remains that the way to achieve socialism is through a series of Labour governments, the left will stay trapped within electoralism and constitutional loyalty.
Therefore there is a dialectic between developing the forces of Marxism and orientating towards the Labour Party – the point about transforming Labour into a united front, while at the same time building a Marxist party with a revolutionary programme, aimed at achieving the emancipation of the working class. The two go hand in hand.
What the left needs to do now is engage in some good, solid thinking about what went wrong – not to mention challenging some of its own basic assumptions. This is where LPM can play a leading role. We need, of course, to begin again the fight against the witch-hunt – Labour Against the Witchhunt, albeit under a new name, needs to be revived. It was a big mistake to close it down.
The absolutely criminal attacks on a newly elected member of the NEC, keeping Jeremy Corbyn out of the Parliamentary Labour Party, suspending a delegate simply because they dared speak against Nato’s proxy war in Ukraine, closing down CLPs and barring critical voices from conference – none of this must go unopposed.
This article is based on Kevin Bean’s talk to the October 2 Online Communist Forum, which can be found at youtu.be/duRO9HO1i04