Salvaging the wreck?

Kevin Bean assesses the parlous state of the official left:
illusions must be cast aside

If anyone was in any doubt about the political direction that Sir Keir is taking, his speech at last weekend’s London Labour conference should have settled the question once and for all. As might be expected, he aimed his remarks squarely at the capitalist class, not the audience in front of him.

Sir Keir’s message was clear. Labour has changed irrevocably. It is now the party of “sound money and public service”. It unequivocally backs Nato’s proxy war in Ukraine. It puts “country before party.”

Alongside this pro-business, pro-imperialist message there was another important theme: no let-up in the purge. That was the real meaning of his promises, that “Never again will Labour let hate go unchallenged”, and that this struggle will never end and never stop. Although it was suggested in some reports that there was opposition to the leadership’s line, what remains of the left was easily seen off.

With Starmer in full control, the poor showing of the Labour left only shows its current demoralisation and disorganisation. In the days before Starmer’s speech, Momentum circulated a briefing about how it planned to fight back against the right and ensure that ‘left’ positions became party policy.[1] So there will doubtless be worthy CLP motions on nationalising the energy industry, ending private-sector involvement in the NHS and backing striking workers, which will go into the bureaucratic quagmire of the party’s National Policy Forum (NPF) and perhaps reach the annual conference.

The official Labour left has tried to big up this stuff. Momentum, for example, boasts of support coming from the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs. Remember them? A rag-tag-and-bobtail bunch of supposed left MPs, who withdraw mildly critical statements on the Ukraine war when Starmer bids them and the rest of the time stay safe by keeping their heads down and avoiding any risk to their precious careers.

Any realistic assessment of the balance of forces will tell us that the ‘strategy’ advocated by Momentum is just so much whistling in the dark. Momentum’s much vaunted strength has been clearly on the wane since 2019 and its impact on Labour politics is much reduced. But ignore that for the moment and follow the argument they advance. Let us suppose the left actually succeeds in getting motions through the CLPs and then passed by NPF and party conference. Given the right’s control over the party machine, what happens next? Who is going to campaign for the policy or implement it? Labour leaders historically have ignored conference resolutions and Sir Keir is clearly no different. The Labour right overwhelmingly dominates the Parliamentary Labour Party and, amongst MPs, the left is probably at its weakest point since before World War I.

The record of the SCG is utterly dismal and, given the current state of its political disorientation and abject surrender, only the most wide-eyed optimist would expect militant leadership coming from that quarter. Any such ‘socialist’ strategy that banks on the SCG, Labour Representation Committee, Campaign for Labour Democracy, the Chatham House left, etc, is hopelessly delusional.

Left policies that are really left, will not find their way into the election manifesto, because Sir Keir and the right will have the last word. Moreover, there is no real countervailing force from the left to prevent that happening: the union leaderships and their conference block votes will, in the main, fall in behind the leadership.

While this is a well founded assessment of the impotence of the current official Labour left, it leaves out, perhaps, the fundamental, determining reasons for its historical weakness. The official Labour left is shaped by the nature of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party and its relationship to the organised working class. From its very beginnings the Labour leadership has been closely bound into the capitalist state and fully accepted the legitimacy of its constitutional and social order.

The official Labour left relies on trade union militants and elements of the trade union bureaucracy and CLP activists. But personal ambition, comfortable sinecures and reformist ideology sees its ‘socialism’ rendered into little more than a modified, state-regulated version of capitalism, to be achieved, and this is crucial, by the election of a Labour government. This binds the Labour left to the Labour right. Although the right and left appear to be antipodes, they are actually mutually reinforcing and dependent on each other within the framework of a bourgeois workers’ party.

If we are to really understand why the Labour left has suffered such a dramatic strategic defeat and how we might actually transform Labour, then we need to be clear about the real nature of the official left and its politics. Labour Party Marxists can and does place demands on leftwing leaders, eg: no serving in Sir Keir’s shadow cabinet as a matter of principle; and standing shoulder to shoulder with victims of the anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism witch-hunt.

LPM does not have any illusions in the politics and leadership of the official Labour left. We do not fall into the cosy belief that those on the official left are simply misguided friends. Far from it! Politically the official left can be just as dangerous as the hard right. Consider the capitulations and compromises that the Corbyn leadership made, actually initiating and joining in the witch-hunt against leftwing activists. If there is one lesson we all need to learn from the Corbyn period, it is that that type of Labour left is not only politically bankrupt: it is a serious obstacle to transforming Labour. Far from being the solution, it is actually part of the problem.

Many on the left are still struggling to understand and explain the defeat of the Corbyn movement, and why it failed to confront the witch-hunt and the smears against the Labour left. Talal Hangari’s article in last week’s Weekly Worker was a useful contribution to the debate and clearly outlined the nature of the witch-hunt and the type of campaigning demands the left should have advanced.[2] The operative past tense is the key here: this is what should have happened, but that time has now passed. Where are the forces of the left that can now carry out that fightback within the Labour Party? The official left joined in the witch-hunt and is committed to staying in the Labour Party no matter what. So, the central issue now is not trying to revive the flagging horse of the official left and refight yesterday’s battles, but rather to look to the tasks of the future.

If Labour retains its historic structure as a bourgeois workers’ party, it will continue to reflect the class struggle, no matter in how distorted a form, and will probably spontaneously generate a leftwing opposition. However, if this left remains ideologically trapped within the narrow, pro-capitalist, logic of Labourism, it will be impossible to challenge the Labour right and transform the party, let alone fundamentally break with capitalism. Only a mass Communist Party armed with a revolutionary programme, acting as a pole of attraction to the left currents that might well emerge within Labour at some point in the future, can offer the political coherence and strategic leadership to really transform a bourgeois workers’ party into a united front of a special kind.

The Labour Party remains, for the moment at least, the dominant political force in the working class movement. It can neither be ignored nor wished away. Transforming it remains a possibility, but only a possibility and not one we should rely upon. The key to everything is building a mass Communist Party.


[2]. ‘From amidst the wreckage’ Weekly Worker January 26: