Kevin Bean asks what lies behind Sir Keir and the NEC barring Jeremy Corbyn from standing as an official Labour candidate in Islington North
The motion passed by Labour’s national executive committee at its March 28 meeting, barring Jeremy Corbyn from standing as a Labour candidate in Islington North, was perhaps the most unsurprising political event of the year. The only real question was, what took Sir Keir and his allies so long to finally pronounce an anathema that had been flagged up since Corbyn lost the Labour whip in November 2020?
Given the way that Sir Keir and the Labour right have consolidated their hold and continued their attacks on party democracy since then, it was only a matter of time before Corbyn would finally get the boot. In the days that followed there was the inevitable media speculation about whether he would go quietly and accept the ban, or instead stand as an independent against the officially endorsed Labour candidate. Although Corbyn himself was keeping his counsel, there were plenty of others who were prepared to offer advice on what he should do.
Much of the speculation suggested that, should he stand, Corbyn would have a good chance of retaining his seat against an official Labour candidate. He has a strong base in the local Constituency Labour Party and would probably have enough supporters on the ground to mount an effective electoral campaign: the officers of Islington North CLP rejected the NEC’s “undue interference” and argued that local party members should “select their candidates for every election”. Corbyn is widely regarded as a good constituency MP and, while the importance of the ‘personal vote’ can be overstated, it could be a key factor in a closely contested election. Moreover, the precedents of ‘rebel candidates’, such as Ken Livingstone and George Galloway, successfully winning against the Labour machine seem to stand in Corbyn’s favour.
Let us suppose he does stand. What will the impact of his campaign be in the wider political context? True, he will be the focus of some attention in the media. He will draw left activists from all over London and beyond to fight for him, clearly giving whatever Starmerite clone they put against him a run for their money. If any individual candidate could mount a successful electoral challenge against Sir Keir’s Labour, it is Jeremy Corbyn. However, the key word here is individual. Despite being the figurehead for many on the Labour left, Corbyn has made no serious attempt to organise that support or build a political alternative to the pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist Labour right. His Peace and Justice Priject remains a well-meaning, but nebulous ‘campaign’ of rallies and press releases – not the militant, organised, political alternative the left is crying out for. While many still pin their hopes on him and believe that a challenge to the official Labour candidate could galvanise a wider resurgence and be the catalyst for some new party or movement, this increasingly seems unlikely.
One reason is that Corbyn’s comrades on the official Labour left will not rally around any banner he is likely to raise in Islington North. True, a handful of left MPs, such as Diane Abbott, have tentatively raised their heads above the parapet to bemoan the way Labour has “shot itself in the foot”, and complain that “there is no good reason to block Jeremy Corbyn as a Labour candidate”. Similarly, the Socialist Campaign Group of left Labour MPs, along with Momentum, have added their own muted responses about the terrible injustice that had been done to the former leader.
But, for all the expressions of sympathy, the official Labour left remains the Labour left: that is, a political trend whose entire raison d’être is grounded in Labourism and the strategy of achieving ‘socialism’ through the election of a Labour government. Even discounting their own career aspirations and personal interests, the leaders of this official left are an integral part of the political and organisational structures of the labour bureaucracy. For them there is no life outside Labour and that is where they will stay. For all their protests and warm words, they will not be following Jeremy Corbyn into the wilderness any time soon (unless Sir Keir has plans otherwise). So, even if he retains his seat, this is one king who will not be returning from over the water to reclaim his throne.
A more important issue, in the short term at least, is why Sir Keir has chosen to finally purge Corbyn at this point. After all, Corbyn poses no political threat to Starmer, while the toothless organised Labour left, such as the SCG, Momentum, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and the Labour Representation Committee, have shown that they are utterly useless. The cowardice and vacillation of the SCG was exemplified by the way some of their MPs withdrew support from a wishy-washy pacifist Stop the War Campaign statement and by their almost total silence over the whole of last year about Nato’s proxy war in Ukraine. So, whatever the motive, Sir Keir is not acting out of fear and a sense of danger emanating from this quarter.
The explanations advanced by the official Labour left themselves do little to really explain Sir Keir’s decision. As if to hide their own impotence and failure, they profess injured innocence and lay claim to genuine Labour loyalism. The CLPD, for example, blames it all on ‘factionalism’ and the leadership’s failure to recognise that Labour is a ‘broad church’. They call for unity and a focus on the main task of preparing for the general election and the next Labour government, not unnecessary in-fighting and spurious claims against decent comrades.
In a similar Labour-loyalist vein, left member of the NEC Jess Barnard describes the decision to block Corbyn as “dishonest, undemocratic, unwise”. Right on two counts there, Jess – but unwise? No, Sir Keir knows exactly what he is doing, and the reaction of Barnard, the CLPD, Momentum and the rest of the unity-mongers of the official Labour left shows that they do not have a clue about what is going on. This failure to recognise a civil war when in the midst of it is not simply a failure of understanding, but flows from the very compromise and capitulation inherent in their politics.
Sir Keir is not ‘unwise’. Along with the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the rest of the Labour machine, he is a servant of the bourgeoisie working in the interests of capitalism and the state. As leaders of a bourgeois workers’ party, those who head Labour have historically played that role and, given his career background and political trajectory within the state legal machine, it is one that Sir Keir plays to perfection.
The purging of Corbyn may be part of a cunning triangulation election strategy designed to win back allegedly ‘patriotic left’ voters in the red wall who defected to the Tories in 2019, but Sir Keir’s real audience is the capitalist class itself, above all in Washington. He needs to reassure them that he is not only a safe pair of hands and a reliable ally at home and abroad, but that in any future Labour government the influence of the left will be non-existent. After the ‘horrors’ of the Corbyn era and the renewed militancy of the working class in the current strike wave, Starmer has to continue to demonstrate that he can be ruthless in purging the left and standing up to the trade unions.
Some comrades might object that Sir Keir has long proved his loyalty to capitalism, just as the Labour left has long shown its reluctance to fight for the working class. Why bother with Jeremy Corbyn, yesterday’s man, when he is a busted flush? Why waste time bullying the official Labour left into utter submission, when they stood idly by during the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ purge? For one thing, symbolism is still important in politics and the Labour leadership understands the need to continually remind both the capitalist class and the official Labour left of how things stand.
Also important in determining the timing of Sir Keir’s NEC resolution are the electoral dynamics. Although Labour still enjoys a comfortable lead in the opinion polls, there has been some slippage in recent weeks and an overwhelming Labour victory in the next general election looks less certain. While it is still most likely that Labour will have a clear working majority, other possibilities, such as a much narrower majority or even a hung parliament, cannot be ruled out. Not only may this explain Sir Keir’s decision to lay down the law at the NEC, but it has also fuelled speculation about the strategy of the SCG and the official left. Are they keeping their powder dry for now, staying on board and so getting into position to exploit a tight parliamentary situation, should it occur after the next election? Shades of the Callaghan government in the 1970s, anyone?
Likewise, trade union leaders might also exploit any perceived weakness in the parliamentary position facing a future Starmer government to extract concessions for their members and the union bureaucracy. Picture John McDonnell and his white cat plotting the future course of events. Not very likely, is it? All very Machiavellian and too clever by half! However, whether it is the possible parliamentary manoeuvres of the SCG or the clientelist deal-making of the trade union bureaucracy, these tactics merely seek to obtain crumbs from the table: they are about small concessions and sectional benefits, not the militant working class politics and the principled programme our movement needs.