Labour had a good night, the Tories a horrible one. But, asks Kevin Bean, should we aim for a Labour Party mark 2 or should we aim for something higher, something far more useful?
The May 3 local elections in England generally went as expected, with Labour making big gains both in seats and the number of councils it controls. Yes, the Lib Dems did relatively well, so did the Greens, but what interests us here is the coming general election and who will be the next prime minister. That is much more important than who will implement cuts and closures at a local level.
The outcome of the local election was fully in line with the opinion poll lead that Labour has built up in the last 18 months and suggests that Labour under Sir Keir is on course to win the next general election. Although he routinely warns his people not to be complacent, it is clear that the Labour leader believes his political strategy is working and that he expects to get that invitation from Charles Windsor to form a government sometime in 2024 or early 2025.
In this Sir Keir is probably correct. Despite the usual caveats and warnings from the pollsters and political analysts about how far trends in this year’s local elections in England could follow through into a general election throughout the country, the story of Labour gains and Tory losses does seem set to continue. Although the elections did not include Scotland, Wales, London and many areas of England, the pattern does seem clear, with Labour regaining support in areas of the north and the Midlands, where it had lost out to the Tories in 2019 – whilst also making gains in the south, such as in Medway and Swindon. If repeated across the country, this could well produce a Labour majority, although its size remains unclear.
While doubts about the extent of a Labour victory have raised the possibility of a hung parliament or some form of coalition, formal or otherwise, this seems unduly cautious – or perhaps part of a political strategy by Conservative supporters to flag up the possibilities of a minority government and a ‘coalition of chaos’ resulting from Labour advances at the polls. So, as per the normal conventions of parliamentary and electoral politics, Sir Keir is justified in having his moment of glory and enjoying Tory discomfort about the failure of Rishi Sunak to restore Tory fortunes.
It seems that on all sides the political course is set fair for the next 18 months or so: despite predictable calls for the return of Boris Johnson or tax cuts from the Tory right, Sunak’s ‘sensible’ strategy of ‘sound management’ and ‘stability’ will continue, while Starmer will also carry on doing something of the same by demonstrating to both the ruling class and the electorate that he, too, is a safe pair of hands who can be trusted with the affairs of the nation. After the alarums and excursions of the last few years, for both the Tory and Labour leadership it is boring ‘competence’ and ‘safety first’ all round.
If the campaigning and results point to the broad patterns of politics up to the general election, there are a number of features that might be emphasised. Starmer is right to warn about complacency: for all the talk of Labour’s ‘triumph’, the results show a widespread anti-Tory mood rather than a positive endorsement of Sir Keir’s politics. Labour’s share of the poll did not actually increase and Tory losses in parts of the south resulted from their voters switching to the Liberal Democrats and Greens. Leaving aside any ‘natural laws of political science’ that posit voter hostility to governments in their mid-term, the cost-of-living crisis, the bleak economic outlook and the housing crisis facing both renters and mortgage-holders alike would suggest significant losses for the Tories, irrespective of the alternative posed by opposition parties. So, rather than any positive endorsement of the main opposition party, that is what happened in these elections.
But the low turnout and the rather underwhelming response of the electorate will not deter Sir Keir from his chosen path. He will continue his cautious way, stirring up apathy and dampening down any expectations of radical change. The Labour leader’s two main audiences are the bourgeoisie and the largely mythical ‘centre ground’, and it is to these targets that he will continue to appeal, as the general election gets closer.
The arguments of the official Labour left that Starmer was so obsessed with ‘factionalism’ and smashing what remains of the Corbynista rump that he preferred to risk electoral defeat rather than ‘unite’ the party are wide of the mark. What is actually central to his electoral strategy is creating the widest distance between yesterday’s Labour Party and today’s, establishing his credentials with the state and the capitalist class generally, and so confirming that Labour is an acceptable second eleven once again. His ‘transformation’ of the Labour Party seems to have paid off handsomely for him.
As with Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 general election, Sir Keir has worked hard to positively guard against any enthusiasm about the prospect of the next Labour government. Unlike 2017, and to a lesser extent 2019, there is no possibility of a ‘crisis of expectations’ for the bourgeoisie to fret and worry over with Sir Keir. Boring is reassuring.
The next Labour government looks set to be the most rightwing and most openly pro-capitalist in history. Starmer and his leading shadow ministers have constantly flagged up a ‘pro-business’ agenda and reassured the City and the capitalist class that there will be no dangerous experiments or straying from the established consensus, whether at home or abroad. Whether it is ‘reforming’ the national health service, law and order, dealing with ‘excessive’ trade union demands, implementing ‘responsible’ fiscal and public spending strategies or supporting Nato’s proxy war in Ukraine, Starmer’s government can be relied upon to do the right thing, as far as British capital is concerned.
Although Labour will benefit from the general anti-Tory mood and hopes of some concessions on living standards and democratic rights, from what we know about the state of British and global capitalism the incoming Labour government has very little room for manoeuvre. So the ‘spirit of 2025’ will not echo the ‘spirit of 1945’. If anything, Sir Keir’s government will be closer in spirit to the dismal 1924 and 1929 governments of Ramsay MacDonald.
Such a prospect has led many on the left to argue that, because Starmer has shifted Labour much further to the right than Blair ever attempted and, in so doing, has effectively ‘de-Labourised’ the party, it can no longer be described in the classic formulation as a bourgeois workers’ party. While that outcome is possible, if Starmer continues on his present course, so long as the organised working class – crucially in the form of the big trade unions – remains affiliated, and it retains its mass working class electoral base, whatever the overtly pro-capitalist nature of its leadership, it still has the contradictory character of precisely a bourgeois workers’ party, which it has had since almost its inception.
Although currently hardly featuring in terms of initiative at the moment, the trade union link does at least raise the possibility that in the future there will be a revival of the Labour left. At the moment though, the trade unions, despite the rash of strikes and ongoing pay disputes, have been content to leave high politics to Sir Keir and his shadow front bench. Unite, GMB, Unison, RCN, PCS, NEU, RMT, Aslef, etc, have largely confined themselves to the narrow trade union-type politics one would expect from a self-interested bureaucratic caste … but serious rank-and-file organisation and pressure could bring about dramatic change. It is, of course, an open question.
So what are the options and possibilities open for the left? Firstly, it is clear that the official Labour left – whether in the form of the misnamed Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, the Labour Representation Committee, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy or what remains now of Momentum – has been safely neutered. Membership has declined massively – indeed in the case of the LRC it now more or less exists in name only. Momentum activity, where there is any, consists of a few dozy apparatchiks giving election advice, plaintively asking for suggestions and boasting about how x, y and z ‘leftwinger’ got under the radar of the Blackfriars Road HQ and became councillors in the May 4 landslide. That is what passes for hope.
In light of this, the elections also underlined once again that putative attempts to establish a Labour Party mark 2 to replace the actual existing Labour Party mark 1, have proved stillborn. Tusc, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, stood quite a number of candidates, but generally recorded a very low percentage vote. On average 2%-3% – the normal level of statistical error. Of course, that is not the main point. No, it is the piss-poor politics of Tusc that are the problem. What we have is the narrow politics of trade unionism: opposition to pay cuts, the call for house building, reducing the energy consumption of schools, etc. In and of themselves, all perfectly worthy and supportable. But nothing, not a thing, on Nato’s proxy war, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords or the fight for republican democracy and socialism.
Undaunted, Hannah Sell, general secretary of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, Tusc’s principal sponsor, continues to call for trade unions to disaffiliate from Labour (Socialism Today May 3 2023). As if the lesson of the brief years of the Corbyn leadership was that things would have gone swingingly if only Len McCluskey’s Unite had followed the example of RMT and PCS. The idea of Sharon Graham’s Unite disaffiliating from the Labour Party is not inconceivable. But to what effect? Sir Keir might actually be perfectly happy with such a move. We might finally see the de-Labourisation of Labour and a return to Lib-Labism – the two-capitalist-party system of the 19th century. Hardly a step forward in historic terms.
But would a disaffiliated Unite throw its weight into Tusc and, if it did, what would be the political effect? It would surely be, once again, the trade unionist politics of the working class: ie, the “bourgeois politics of the working class” (VI Lenin What is to be done?). Again, hardly a step forward in historic terms.
Wherever the forces of the left develop in the next few years (more likely to be outside Labour rather than inside), the issue of programme and party will remain the central question. So, while we would undoubtedly support Jeremy Corbyn if he stood as a non-Labour Party candidate in Islington North, there should be no illusions that this would constitute a real step forward for the working class. Naturally, we oppose Sir Keir’s ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ purge, which went on entirely unopposed under Corbyn till he himself, inevitably, fell victim. Nor do we give any truck to auto-Labourism.
But life demands more. We have had enough of halfway houses, lowest common denominators and the senile disorder of broad frontism. Respect, the Socialist Labour Party, Left Unity and Tusc each provided, at best, a site of struggle, but in reality they were barriers to what is really needed: a mass Communist Party committed to a programme of republican democracy and the global supersession of capitalism.
Without such a party, without such a programme, there is the risk that a generalised nuclear exchange or runaway global warming will, in the not too distant future, see what passes for human civilisation give way to an almost unimaginable barbarism.