Category Archives: Conference 2021

Sir Keir’s second eleven

Derek James says keeping heads down does not amount to a viable strategy

After a shaky start, and a few hiccups and protests along the way, Starmer has clearly emerged as the winner. He has secured his two main objectives: one, to prove to the ruling class that he is a reliable, safe pair of hands; two, to show that Corbynism is dead and safely buried.

Although the red card protest during his speech showed there are still a large number of left delegates from the Constituency Labour Parties, when it really mattered Starmer had the votes he needed to get over the line.

His success is not just measured in votes won or in changes to the party’s constitution and rule book that consolidate the power of the Labour right. No, his success also lies in the demoralisation and disorganisation in both the official left – as represented by the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs – and amongst left activists in the CLPs and trade unions. Left victories over the £15 minimum wage and other such questions will simply go ignored when it matters: drawing up the next general election manifesto.

That is not to say that the left were silent or simply acquiesced – far from it. There were angry speeches at fringe meetings – Richard Burgon’s contribution at the final SCG rally was a particularly well-received example, along with some excellent interventions by left delegates from the CLPs during the stage-managed conference debates. But what was lacking on the left at all levels of the party – and what ensured Starmer’s victory, in the final analysis – was a clear strategy for a serious, militant Labour left that really takes the fight to the right.

For Starmer and the Labour right, conference was vital, in all senses of the word, in their campaign to finally purge the taint of Corbynism. Although the focus was on winning the next election, the primary audience for this performance was not potential Labour voters catching the headlines on the evening news. No, the people to whom Sir Keir has to prove himself is not the electorate, but the real wielders of power: the ruling class in London and Washington. The reliability Starmer has to demonstrate, of course, lies in upholding the capitalist economic system and repudiating the excesses of Corbynism, such as public ownership of the utilities. Thus, the shadow chancellor, the unspeakable Rachel Reeves (a politician with the voice, but not the warmth and empathy, of a Dalek) reassured the ruling class that Labour had finally said goodbye to Corbyn’s legacy and was now “the party of long-term economic stability, of secure public finances and of economic growth”.1

However, the most important reassurance that the Labour leadership had to offer was to the imperialist hegemon, the United States, and its clients. They got it when John Healey, Labour’s defence spokesman, echoed Boris Johnson in his call for a “new and powerful role for Britain in the world” and reiterated Sir Keir’s unconditional support for Nato and the US-imposed international order.2

In the saddle

There were other signs that Starmer and the right were firmly in the saddle. Despite criticism from the left, David Evans was ratified as general secretary with a 59% vote in favour. There was also a marked shift within Labour’s internal regime, where Starmer succeeded in imposing major rule changes, which undermined party democracy and accountability by doubling the threshold of MP nominations needed for candidates to reach future leadership ballots, and by making it harder for CLPs to deselect MPs. These were attacks clearly aimed at the left and were designed, as Peter Mandelson put it, to ensure that there will be no repeat of Corbynism. Well, to show that there will be no repeat of Corbynism, might be a better way of putting it.

The other key rule change endorsed a new ‘independent’ complaints process, initiated following the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on ‘anti-Semitism’ in the party. All part of the ritual humiliation of the left. Conference performed an act of collective penance, in which the lies equating anti-Zionism and the left with anti-Semitism were yet again repeated as verity by Margaret Hodge and Ruth Smeeth. This is now the official version of Labour’s recent history.

The explanation most widely heard in Brighton to account for Starmer’s successes was the support of the trade union right and the bloc votes of the GMB and Unison. The figures support that analysis up to a point. The successes that the left had in card votes came on the rare occasions when key delegations switched sides. The pressure the union leaders exerted on Starmer over last weekend that forced him to water down his proposed ‘reforms’ of the leadership election system also shows the key role of the trade unions in the party.

Although the left remains strong in the CLPs, its position is not overwhelming. Through various manoeuvres, suspensions and expulsions (in some cases while delegates were actually at the conference!) the right has a sizable presence in the CLPs – which rarely speaks in debates, but knows when to put its hands up. The stage management, manipulation and suppression of debate and points of order by such blatantly partisan chairs as Margaret Beckett had to be seen to be believed, and proved decisive in swinging votes. Although the left could point to some victories, such as the condemnation of the Aukus deal and the overwhelming support for a motion attacking Israel as an apartheid state, these were crumbs of comfort in an otherwise grim conference for the left. It was clear, however, that like the £15 minimum pay, they will not find their way into any Labour manifesto.

Much of what happened was not only expected: it was easily predictable and so could have been more effectively countered. For all the powerful cards that Starmer and the right hold in their hands, they are not invincible, as some of the conference votes showed. No, in assessing what happened at Brighton, the left needs to ask how we got here.

A long series of defeats since 2019 have allowed the Starmer leadership and his Victoria Street bureaucracy to get a tight grip over the party. The exodus of 100,000 or more matters not to them. In point of fact it is music to their ears. But it is the compromises, the retreats, the betrayals of the official left in the SCG and Momentum leadership, that have been the major factor in the disorientation and to some extent the disintegration of the left.

Left response

In the aftermath of the real defeats inflicted on the left and the further attacks promised in Starmer’s speech, debate on the Labour left remains confused and inchoate. However, both in the pre-conference period and on the fringe at Brighton, two broad positions seem to be emerging.

One is simply to double down on Labour loyalism and cling on to party membership for dear life. The ‘theoretical’ justification for this approach is the belief that the only road to socialism lies through the election of a Labour government and the ‘transformation’ of capitalist society through incremental reform. Such a strategy relies not only in maintaining Labour as a broad party, uniting both the left and the right, but also necessitates compromise and effective subordination by the left to the right to preserve that unity. In effect the Labour left functions as a licensed ‘official opposition’ within the party at the sufferance of the right, taking solace from their self-imposed impotence with the comfort blanket of ‘resolutionary socialism’ and the self-reassurance that they really are dangerous leftists after all. The whole history of the Labour left, at least since 1918, has been to play second fiddle to the right – the open agents of capitalism within the workers’ movement.

The second strand calls for new parties and movements, either completely separate from Labour or a combination of inside/outside organisation. Given the trajectory of Labour after this conference, the call for a ‘new party’ of some type will surely grow: the disaffiliation of the Bakers Union (BFAWU) can only add further impetus to these demands and spark similar moves to break the links with Labour in other unions.

But the history of such initiatives is not an encouraging one and any attempt to exploit the current hostility to Starmer amongst leftwing trade unionists is likely to produce stillborn initiatives, which only create further demoralisation and disillusion. Any attempt to simply replicate the Labour Party through a ‘new party’ based on leftwing activists and disaffiliated unions, such as has been unsuccessfully attempted by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, is just a dead end and should not be attempted by any serious socialist, no matter how angry they are with Sir Keir and his crew. Emotional spasms of this type are not going to get us anywhere. Similarly, initiatives for a broad party that unites the left outside of Labour will go the way of Respect, the Scottish Socialist Party, Left Unity, and the countless other unity projects that sought to bring the ‘real left’ together by compromising principles and adopting the politics of the lowest common denominator.


Notes

  1. ‘Reeves vows to bury Corbyn’s fiscal legacy’ Financial Times September 28.↩︎
  2. labourlist.org/2021/09/a-new-and-powerful-role-for-britain-in-the-world-healeys-conference-speech.↩︎

Focus group goop

Left treated with blatant contempt. Right relishes its witch-hunt triumph. Andrew Kirkland of Labour Party Marxists reports from the Brighton conference hall

Braving the Covid risk, 1,300 delegates attended the five-day conference.

In her opening remarks the chair for the first session, Margaret Beckett, enthusiastically referenced Labour politicians from the pre-Corbyn era – by omission implying that the recent period was one best forgotten. This set the scene for conference, where various chairs would display an obvious bias in favour of pro-Starmer speakers, and treat the left delegates with a patronising contempt that was so blatant that it offended the few neutrals present.

Every day proceedings began with a short report from the conference arrangements committee (CAC). On the first day the question was asked: would there be a vote to approve the report to conference provided by the national executive committee? The reply appeared to be affirmative – more on this later.

The first big speaker was deputy leader Angela Rayner – one-time senior figure in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, now equally at home in the new regime. Her speech was all about Labour’s new green paper on employment rights, which she acknowledged was the work of Andy MacDonald – the same Andy who resigned from the shadow cabinet later during conference. As is the custom for Labour politicians, she raided the history of left struggles to appropriate convenient heroes for her speech. This time it was the Shrewsbury pickets. (Obviously she failed to mention the shameful record of previous Labour governments, which refused to intervene on their behalf.)

Next we had the report from the general secretary, David Evans. He pre-empted left attempts to force a vote on endorsement of his appointment by announcing that he wanted to be approved by a card vote. He gave us a few biographical details, and then asked the rhetorical question: “Everyone remembers why they joined Labour – what was it for you?” Before he could answer his own question, he received a barrage of replies from the floor: “Jeremy Corbyn!” Although clearly rattled by this intervention, he carried on, knowing that the arithmetic was on his side – pledged support from most unions, along with his own gerrymandering of constituency delegations, would see to that. With no regard for irony he went on to praise the dedication of those who work full time for the Labour Party, despite his own plan to abolish 90 positions.

After Evans we heard from Anneliese Dodds, the party chairperson, reporting on the ‘Stronger Together’ policy initiative that she has been fronting. I must admit this was a new one on me – yet another vehicle for bypassing the democratic policymaking structures of conference. All the emphasis is on ‘Labour is delivering now’. Apparently implementing the Tory government’s austerity at the local level is a real vote winner.

After the report from the treasurer, who managed to present the complete meltdown of the party’s finances as “remaining on target”, we witnessed a most dictatorial abuse of power by the chair, Margaret Beckett, that was to be challenged over and over during the rest of the conference. She bundled the finance report and the NEC report together and asked for “formal acceptance”.

Ignoring shouts from the floor, she moved on to the next item – merit awards – thus avoiding any debate or vote on the NEC report. This was highly significant, because it was the only opportunity conference would have to challenge the bans and proscriptions recently re-introduced and used for the latest wave in the witch-hunt against the left. Despite all the well-argued challenges that referenced the particular clauses in the rules requiring such a vote, none of the conference chairs were prepared to overturn this ruling.

Dodds

Dodds was soon back on her feet presenting the ‘Equalities Report’. This gives an indication of where the new leadership intend to move the party: namely identity politics. The shift away from the traditional class-based paradigm was also reflected in a large swathe of rule changes from the NEC. These introduced whole new chapters laying out party structures for women, BAME (that awkward combination of all people of colour, together with multiple white minorities) and disabled members. These rule changes were greeted enthusiastically by both left and right.

The NEC recommended that all the rule changes submitted by Constituency Labour Parties should be rejected. It was a major surprise then to learn that one of these changes had passed. This requires that for snap elections and by-elections there must be a local majority on the committee supervising the candidate selection process. It will be a welcome spanner thrown into the works of the now regular parachuting process used by the NEC to foist outside candidates on CLPs. However, in another session on the second day of conference, the CAC chair advised conference that, when the NEC proposes rule changes, they are allowed to bundle them up as they see fit, giving the NEC even more say over how conference is run, when in theory conference should be the highest body.

Ed Miliband returned to the big stage to tell us how to fight climate change, repeating the usual capitalist calls for Britain to “lead the world” in green technology – with the green industrial revolution generating a “people’s dividend”, however that works. He also called for offshored jobs to be brought back to Britain. Clearly he thinks we can fix the global crisis with a British solution.

As at the last conference, sectionalism within the unions led to two conflicting composite motions on the green industrial revolution. Delegates strongly argued in favour of one and against the other, but, in line with the new fashion for consensus, the delegates managed to pass both, which obviously devalues the whole exercise.

Composite one contains some very radical proposals, including a ban on fracking, free bus travel, rewilding of the countryside and introducing a right to asylum for climate refugees. Composite two, on the other hand, insists that policies must be developed with workers and trade unions, not imposed on them, and a future energy mix should include nuclear generation and ‘green gas’.

Other groupings of motions were able to agree a single composite text, but that does not mean there was any ideological unity. Pro-capitalist motions on “community wealth” and “business recovery” sat uncomfortably alongside demands for more public ownership and radical solutions to the housing crisis, but all were backed by most delegates.

For the final part of Sunday afternoon’s session, a sudden chilled atmosphere descended. The visitors’ gallery was invaded by triumphalist strangers appearing from nowhere.

The chair, Unison’s Mark Ferguson, made it clear he was taking no prisoners (or points of order). The second wave of rule changes from the NEC were to be considered by conference, and these would achieve two objectives. First, to comply with the state’s interference in the Labour Party – as enshrined in the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on anti-Semitism – we saw rule changes to introduce the external handling of disciplinary cases. And, second, changes to roll back some of the democratic reforms introduced when Corbyn was leader, and ensure that the threshold of Parliamentary Labour Party support required for a leadership candidate is immediately out of reach for a leftwinger.

After the details of the EHRC rule changes were outlined, the horror show began. The chair ‘randomly’ selected the first two speakers: Ruth Smeeth and Margaret Hodge. The left sat in stunned silence, as the Jewish Labour Movement Zionists formally declared the end of Corbynism and the ‘anti-Jew racism’ associated with it.

When the session moved to the other changes, the left could breathe again. Dave Ward of the CWU spoke first and made it clear that the trade unions were not consulted over the changes. As he called on Starmer to withdraw the new leadership threshold, so that a consensus could be agreed, the left delegates once again cheered out loud. But Starmer was unmoved. He may have retreated over reintroducing the electoral college for leadership elections, but he was happy to move forward on the other changes despite opposition from some unions.

Speakers opposing the changes homed in on the new 20% PLP requirement for leadership nominations. The case was forcefully made, with one delegate directly confronting Starmer, who sat just a few metres from the podium. However, it was all to no avail – all the rule changes were approved. The state was once more fully in control of its alternative party of government. Actually there was some truth in the final summing up from NEC member Shabana Mahmood, when she declared that a candidate who was unable to assemble nominations from 20% of the PLP would be unlikely to command the support of the PLP in the House of Commons.

The CAC was asked by a delegate to provide details of how many approved conference delegates had been suspended or expelled from the party during the course of the conference. I never expected them to reply, but on Tuesday the figure of 20 was furnished. To this should be added all those excluded during the approval process before credentials were issued. Starmer had left nothing to chance.

A portent of things to come was slipped into the agenda for late Tuesday afternoon – the return of the platform panel discussion. Billed as ‘Metro mayors in conversation’, a private media ‘facilitator’ questioned three of Labour’s northern stars. This can only be viewed as another step backwards, appropriating precious time from conference policy debates.

In the international session the conference once again revealed the political confusion of most of the CLPs and affiliates. Delegates proudly passed a motion on Palestine that went much further in criticising Israel than those passed when Corbyn was leader. Was this the same conference that only hours earlier had condemned such views as anti-Semitic poison? Not only that, but the same session heard from John Healy, shadow defence minister, who promised Labour would deliver a powerful new role for Britain in the world, and pledged total loyalty to Nato and our “essential ally”, the USA. Add to this the motion on Afghanistan: no, Labour was not condemning the imperialist intervention – this motion was all about criticising the government’s role in the emergency evacuation, and praising the British occupying troops and their Afghan collaborators.

End of dream?

Wednesday saw Sir Keir’s big moment. Ninety minutes of focus group-scripted family background goop; how his father was a humble factory worker; how his mother got ill; how, unlike that trickster, Boris Johnson, he was not a privileged posh boy. All designed to show his emotional side. Nothing about his Pabloite past, of course. The deep entry strategy of the International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency and his role as one of the editors of Socialist Alternatives. That would hardly fit with the banning of Labour Against the Witchhunt, Socialist Appeal, etc, and the round after round of expulsions.

There was a sprinkle of much expected policy announcements: mental health, green jobs, combating climate change and retrofitting houses. All properly costed. Naturally.

Amongst the delegates there were those who bravely waved red cards and dared to heckle. Sir Keir was more than well prepared: “shouting slogans or changing lives conference”, he snapped back to wide applause. A line that must have been readied by a whole committee of advisors. Like Brecht’s Arturo Ui he doubtless practised the line in front of a professional acting coach time and time again.

But it worked. And not only for those in the conference hall … those who want a Labour government, any damn kind of Labour government. No, more importantly, much more importantly, it showed the capitalist media that Sir Keir’s Labour is now a different party. It can be trusted by the capitalist class and the state machine. That, of course, is what the completely unnecessary rule changes were all about, what the high profile welcoming back of Louise Ellman, the nonsense about seeing the back of anti-Semitism and the law and order promises were all about.

Yes, there were a few votes where the left scored victories, but overall, this conference was the logical outcome of Starmer’s leadership win in April 2020. For many comrades this marks the end of their dream. For others it points to the need to find a better strategy for transforming Labour and winning socialism. A key issue here is the twin-track approach advocated by LPM: build a mass Marxist party, while at the same time fighting in Labour and the trade unions.

Around conference left

LPM comrades William Sarsfield, Andrew Byrne and Stan Keable report on fringe meetings, hubs and bulletins

Where to go from here? That was the question facing the Labour left – not least those comrades expelled or anticipating imminent expulsion.

While conference itself was taken up with media-pleasing displays by shadow ministers and crude attempts to stifle the rank and file by session chairs, a whole series of events on the fringe at least provided space for debate. There were also fringe hubs, the most important being the Resist event at the Rialto, supported by groups such as Labour Left Alliance, Labour Against the Witchhunt and Labour Party Marxists. And, of course, there was Momentum’s World Transformed.

Resisting

The damage inflicted on the Labour left by the witch-hunt was on display at the Defend the Left rally on September 27. In the same large venue in 2019 there had been standing room only, but the numbers for 2021, while not embarrassingly low, were significantly down. Starting her contribution, Jackie Walker urged us to look at the empty seats. “People are terrified to come,” comrade Walker said. “The venue of this meeting could not be revealed in any normal way … Previous meetings of this kind have been the targets of the threats to bomb, threats to kill …”

This is no surprise, of course. The right of the party – in concert with their allies in the venal mainstream media – has bullied and battered the left. Ironically this was facilitated by the timidity of Corbyn and his close advisors, even to the extent of throwing their own comrades onto the flames of the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ big lie.

So, it was encouraging that a good number of comrades attended in defiance of the threats, both official and unofficial. Also, there seems to be an admission from comrades – including from the top table – that there needs to be a frank debate about the “errors” (!) made by the leadership of the Labour left.

Tina Werkmann, chair of Labour Against the Witchhunt, argued that “the situation before this conference was pretty bad; after it is a lot worse”. She claimed that the last few months have seen “the biggest attack on the left in the labour movement for decades, if not ever”. Hyperbole, surely.

The refusal to accept communist affiliation in 1921 and the subsequent banning of CLP’s supporting CPGB members as Labour parliamentary candidates, the expulsion of thousands, the closing of the London Labour Party were pretty big attacks on the left. More to the point: the anti-communist witch-hunt put an end to the Labour Party as a united front of the working class. A historic defeat from which we have yet to recover.

Comrade Werkmann warned against simply regarding “what is happening in the party in isolation” and linked attacks on free speech to the “massive efforts of the international ruling class to punish Julian Assange and other whistle-blowers” – desperate initiatives to bolster a “system in decline”. But “unfortunately it’s working”, she bluntly stated, citing the “pathetic response of much of the Labour left”, the near total silence of Momentum and the MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group – an attempt to save their own skins. Comrade Werkmann emphasised that Defend the Left was in solidarity not only with the four organisations that been explicitly proscribed, but also with the hundreds, the thousands of innocent comrades who had been smeared by the Labour leadership.

The first speaker in discussion – Graham Bash of the Labour Representation Committee – underlined how he saw the leadership election rule change. It is an attempt to permanently “lock out the left”. True, today the rule change locks out careerists like the pathetic Rebecca Long-Bailey. But that is to miss the significance of the rule change. It has nothing to do with fending off the official left. They no longer represent any kind of threat. No, the rule change is there to draw a line in the sand. It symbolises the end, the complete defeat, of Corbyn and the whole Corbyn project. It is about sending a message to the bourgeois establishment: Labour is ready to serve.

Of course, the new rule requires that a leadership candidate must be nominated by 20% of MPs. That would hardly represent an insuperable barrier to a well organised, Marxist-led, Labour left. But that would need a mass Marxist party already in place that organises throughout the labour movement and digs deep roots in wider society.

Comrade Bash rightly insisted that to complain about the crude injustice that we have seen throughout the course of the witch-hunt was insufficient: “What we see in this conflict from the enemies on the right is class war.” The comrade intriguingly suggested that “new ways of working” would have to be learned if socialists were to be of use to our class.

Rob Sewell, editor of Socialist Appeal, quite correctly criticised the “naive view” in some quarters that the left could ever co-exist with people who were “stabbing us in the back”. He pointed out that we had “missed a few tricks in 2016” and that softness had cost us dearly. However, once again showing a weak grasp of labour movement history, he claimed that the “greatest betrayal in the Labour Party” was Ramsay MacDonald in 1931. Not support for World War I, not defence of the British empire, not the banning of communists. What MacDonald did in 1931 was fully in accord with the rotten tradition of the pro-capitalist right: defending the interests of capitalism, not the interests of the working class.

Showing a distinct lack of imagination, the comrade drew “parallels” between today and MacDonald’s National Labour-Tory-Liberal national government. Other than reminding readers that “betrayal is not new in the Labour Party, unfortunately”, he did not elaborate. Well, comrade Sewell, is Sir Keir about to jump ship? Join a coalition along with Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Sajid Javid? No, he wants to be a successful Labour prime minister in the mould of Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair.

Showing how the comrade remains trapped within the narrow thought-world of Labourism, he insisted that the old clause four was a “socialist aspiration” driven by the politically most advanced working class people in Britain. In 1918, horrified by World War I and inspired by the Russian Revolution, it seems that the most politically advanced workers “aspired” to socialism. Doubtless, that was the case. The most politically advanced part of the working class formed the CPGB in July-August 1920. But what they got from the Labour Party was Sidney Webb’s Fabian clause four. Not the aim of working class rule and ending wage slavery. No, instead what Webb offered was a formulation that was implicitly anti-Marxist, pro-imperialist – not socialist, but state capitalist.

We need a new, Marxist clause four. We should not seek to revive a stinking Fabian corpse.

Transformed?

The World Transformed festival featured around 100 different sessions that ranged from ‘The frontiers of liberation’ (dealing with the history of LGBTQ+) through to ‘Can Labour win?’ However quantity does not necessarily mean quality.

Whilst retaining its hipster-millennial charm, TWT seeks to revive the original enthusiasm of Momentum through an eclectic and contradictory amalgam of utopianism, movementism and opportunism. Some attempts were made to shepherd the ‘silent majority’ of those Corbynistas who never formally engaged with the organised left into unity with the right by stressing the importance of the “next Labour government”.

In previous years TWT had ‘big name’ Labour left speakers and a clear orientation towards the Corbyn project, but now that that moment has passed, the focus is less clear. References to “the other conference – the one we don’t talk about” – highlight the divergence between TWT and the Labour Party since 2019.

The size of the sessions varied considerably, depending on the topic and speakers. Some were no more impressive than a hippie gathering round a campfire, whilst others saw several hundred eager punters surging through the doors, with a number of overflow sessions and queues being directed to other sessions. The more seriously political meetings – or the closest that they came to such a thing – generally averaged around 200 participants.

Likewise, the age profiles of attendees varied, depending on the intended audience for the topic. Those sessions inclined towards movementism or identity politics averaged about 25 (with some specific sessions overwhelmingly younger), whilst those aimed at Labourites drew in comrades whose profile was more in line with the rest of the left. Needless to say, despite sharing the same place – and mutual worship of Jeremy – they did not engage with each other politically.

A common trend throughout many of the sessions was of a particular kind of anarchism that fetishises local organising and mutual aid, as opposed to the serious political organisation of the working class as a whole. Suggestions for direct action ranged from picking up dog shit to bring down the Tories, through to sending out emails to end trans oppression! This form of ‘immediate struggle’, which is detached from any serious strategy for achieving socialism, was a disease that affected the ostensibly sophisticated and theoretically naive alike.

In denial

An important feature of the left at Labour conferences is the proliferation of leaflets, journals and bulletins handed out by a swarm of activists. This year was no exception. Despite the diminished strength of the left, we had: Jewish Voice for Labour, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Labour for a Republic, Socialist Appeal, CLDP’s Yellow Pages and, of course, Labour Party Marxists No27.

The LRC’s Labour Briefing is worth a comment. Its editorial insists that the struggle for the Labour Party is not over. Quite so. “There is a fightback in the party – seen by the excellent results in elections in the constituency sections for the National Women’s Committee and for the conference arrangements committee.” And then: “There is a struggle too in the world outside the Labour Party.” The editorial refers to trade unions – the new left NEC in Unison, and Sharon Graham’s election in Unite – as well as climate change protests and Black Lives Matter. “Connecting these struggles and giving them a political expression” means, “for the foreseeable future, the Labour Party”.

So, the “new ways” of socialists working in service of our class amount to tailism and carrying on carrying on in the old – and failed – ways. The abject defeat of the Corbyn leadership and its complete surrender before, indeed connivance with, the witch-hunt does not seem to have registered. As for the idea that BLM protesters and XR activists will flock into Sir Keir’s party to put the conference arrangements committee into the hands of official left careerists, well that seems more like the forlorn hope that the cavalry will come to our rescue. It is certainly not a viable strategy for socialism.

Then there is the Resist Movement for a People’s Party set up by Chris Williamson – the only Labour MP to stand up to the witch-hunt. This has the advantage, for refugees from Labour, of actually offering them somewhere to go – but it cannot be recommended. Although neither the politics nor the organisational form of the imagined party is yet spelled out, we can reasonably predict that a party born of running away from the struggle in Labour will be unable to fight any other struggles effectively.

According to its leaflet, “Our mission is to develop activities that build trust, capacity and skills, to promote industrial democracy and reduce inequality, eradicate poverty and improve the quality of daily life for all, around essential and innovative environmental policies.” Not the working class politics of the struggle for socialism, but a People’s Party that promises the good life without overthrowing the capitalist state and expropriating the capitalist class.

Limbering up for Brighton

Derek James assesses the prospects for the left at the party’s annual conference. originally published in Weekly Worker 1363

What a difference an election defeat, a new leader and a pandemic makes! The last time the Labour Party met face to face in Brighton in 2019, the left seemed to be in the ascendancy, winning some key policy positions and seemingly up for a fight with the right, which dominated the Parliamentary Labour Party. A clear majority of the Constituency Labour Party delegations came from the left, Palestinian flags were everywhere and there was growing pressure on the rightwing deputy leader, Tom Watson, to resign.

However, as we approach this year’s conference, the picture could not be more different. The left is in complete disarray, after nearly two years of demoralising defeats across the board. Reports from CLPs throughout the county suggest many are either selecting pro-leadership delegations or simply not bothering to send anyone to Brighton at all. It is clear that the resurgent right in the CLPs, aided by regional officials, have used all sorts of manoeuvres to prevent the election of left delegates and to try to stitch up the conference for Keir Starmer. While these attempts to ‘manage’ the conference are underway, the purge and ‘auto-expulsions’ go on apace, with suspensions and expulsions for such heinous offences as appearing in a photograph with Ken Loach or attending an online meeting of a proscribed organisation like Labour Against the Witchhunt. It seems that a veritable army of Labour bureaucrats are trawling through social media accounts and recordings of online meeting to turn up evidence against the left, and then use it to exclude CLP delegates.

However, if all this points towards a very difficult conference for the left, some have noted a few bright spots on the horizon. They suggest that the unanimous decision of the Unite executive not to endorse the appointment of David Evans as Labour’s general secretary could mean that the main architect of the purge might be rejected by conference. Others also argue that similar votes on the national executive committee and conference arrangements committee reports could see defeats for the Labour leadership that offer some hope. The rumour mills are working overtime, speculating about how trade unions delegations might vote, in the light of a shift to the left on Unison’s NEC and the GMB’s new general secretary’s decision to scale back on political funding for Labour.

It all adds to the gaiety of the nation, but such micro-analysis of the internal balance of forces within the trade unions, or the CLPs for that matter, is a somewhat hopeless clutching at straws and in any case rather misses the point. In comparison with 2019, the left is in headlong retreat. Not only is it in no position to score any meaningful victories, but, in the face of the continued onslaught of the Labour right, it does not have either the politics or the strategy to do so.

Starmer has pursued the witch-hunt not because of the strength of the left but its weakness. Though there are, amazingly, those who fool themselves into thinking otherwise. The targets chosen so far, such as LAW or Socialist Appeal, have been ritual sacrifices, chosen because they are marginal, not because they pose some immediate threat to the leadership.

The conference will probably see an intensification of the purge, maybe with staged showdowns to demonstrate how the left has been put in its place: the mantra will be beating the Tories in the next general election, putting an end to off the cuff policy making and seeing the back of anti-Semitism (ie, anti-Zionism).

Mode

It is almost certain that Starmer’s speech on the last afternoon of conference will be designed in the mode of Neil Kinnock or Tony Blair, showing who is now really in charge of the party. As the current political cliché has it, Starmer will hope that his speech will be a ‘defining moment’ and set his leadership on the road to electoral success. Note, Labour has just scored its first opinion poll lead over the Tories after eight long months.

The prime audience for this speech, however, will not be in the conference hall or the living rooms of viewers catching the evening headlines. No, the main object of Starmer’s attention is the ruling class – both here in Britain and in the USA – and their media, to whom he wants to show that he can be trusted as a safe pair of hands, a reliable captain of capitalism’s second eleven. His attacks on the left are not some personal aberration or irrational vendetta: Starmer desperately wants to be prime minister and for him the war on the left is an essential part of that electoral strategy. As he works on his conference speech this week, these aims will be to the fore, but he will also be emboldened by the complete surrender of the official left in the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) and the Momentum leadership.

But their cowardly evasions and studiedly ambiguous statements in the face of the witch-hunt are unlikely to save them if Starmer deems it necessary to expel Jeremy Corbyn, proscribe Momentum or remove the whip from individual SCG MPs – all possible options to ram the point home.

If it is unclear exactly at which point we stand in this ‘strategy of tension’, we can at least safely predict how the official left will respond to any ratcheting up of the purge in Starmer’s leader’s speech at conference, if their pathetic capitulation to date is any guide. Thus the ‘Labour Left for Socialism’ amalgam – the ‘Chatham house left’ – now seems to be falling apart, as the left trade union bureaucrats and official left careerists who sponsored it either run for cover or, in effect, abjectly surrender before the assertive Starmer leadership. Likewise, the Momentum leadership has gone down the same road and has done absolutely nothing to oppose bans and proscriptions. They hope that by keeping quiet they too can cling on to party membership and become the face of the acceptable left. Given their record, we can expect no fight from them whatsoever.

The result of this is confusion. Large numbers have either resigned or lapsed into inactivity, allowing the Labour right to regain the initiative. We will see the fruits of these failures in the weakened position of the left at Brighton and the opportunity it will give Starmer to further step up his attacks. It will be a difficult conference with a very different mood in comparison with the last gathering at Brighton.

However, that will not stop Labour Party Marxists and their supporters intervening at the conference and working alongside other comrades on the left committed to actually fighting the witch-hunt. But the politics of LPM do not stop there: we link the struggle against the purge to the need for real party democracy and the refoundation of Labour as a united front of a special kind, open to all socialist and working class organisations. The whole history of the Labour left – especially in its most recent Corbynite incarnation – shows that such a transformation cannot be internally generated. All that Labourism can produce is yet another ‘broad left’ party based on the ‘politics’ of the lowest common denominator, or – worse still – simply a Labour Party mark two.

Without a mass Communist Party that rejects reformism and participation in bourgeois governments and is committed instead to the self-emancipation of the working class, all that will result will be yet more stillborn initiatives and wasted opportunities.