Hollow man for hollow times

With Labour facing a string of defeats on May 6, Derek James looks at the continuing problems facing Keir Starmer

It has not been a good few weeks for Sir Keir Starmer. On April 19 he was unceremoniously booted out of a pub in Bath, with the landlord reportedly saying that Starmer “has completely failed as the leader of the opposition.” He has “completely failed to ask the questions that needed asking …”1

This very public PR disaster, straight out of the classic political comedy, The thick of it, could not have come at a worse time for the Labour leader, as the party faces a series of important elections on May 6. But Starmer’s altercation with an irate publican is not his only problem. As he was marking the first anniversary of his election as Labour leader, rumours and press speculation suggested that senior figures in the Parliamentary Labour Party were dissatisfied with his performance as leader of the opposition and that moves were afoot to oust him. Various names were put forward as possible replacements, including Angela Rayner, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips, Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham.2 Although there were the usual public declarations of support and disavowals of any leadership ambitions, it is clear from these well-placed stories that ‘leading figures’ are involved in manoeuvres and jockeying for position in any future contest.

This discontent at the top of the party is not coming from what passes for the left in the PLP – the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs has long been cowed into acquiescent silence. Rather the unease about Starmer’s leadership, and Labour’s electoral prospects, comes from the Labour right, who see their own careers and opportunities for personal advancement stalled by yet more ‘wasted’ years in opposition. So these rumblings of discontent are not about matters of principle or political direction: leaving aside the obvious differences in personal style and image, there are no fundamental disagreements between Starmer and his potential rivals in the PLP. The ‘responsible opposition’ and ‘quiet radicalism’ that are the hallmarks of his strategy are still widely supported by Labour MPs.3

The main problem for the Labour right is the opinion polls and what they tell us about the party’s electoral chances next month. Thursday May 6 will be the first major electoral test since the general election of December 2019, with elections being held for local councils in England, local and combined authority mayors, the mayor of London and London assembly members, police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, the Senedd Cymru/Welsh parliament and the Scottish parliament – not to mention the Hartlepool parliamentary by-election.

The latest opinion polls give the Tories a nine-point lead over Labour (43%-34%) – a gap which has been opening up over the last three months as the Johnson government’s ‘vaccine bounce’ has become clearly apparent in the figures.4 Similarly, Boris Johnson’s personal approval ratings have grown over the same period (54% approval, 46% disapproval), whilst Starmer’s have ‘tanked’ into negative territory (33% approval, 42% disapproval) after a strong showing last year following his election as Labour leader.5

For a new leadership that plays up Starmer’s quiet competence in contrast to Johnson’s showy boosterism and Corbyn’s extremism, these figures are worrying. For all the promises ‘to bring Labour home’ and regain its lost ‘traditional’ supporters, Starmer’s appeal to the mythical ‘centre ground’ so beloved of bourgeois politics has appeared, for the moment at least, to have largely fallen on stony ground.6

This strategy, targeted at so-called ‘Red Wall’ voters who went over to the Tories in December 2019, will be put directly to the test in the Hartlepool by-election on May 6. This North East constituency has almost the classic ‘Red Wall’ profile of a ‘left-behind town’ which voted heavily for Brexit and where Labour’s electoral base has been declining steadily over the last 30 years.7 In line with the national picture, the latest opinion polls give the Tories a seven-point lead in the constituency – a result that, if translated into votes on polling day, would be a disaster for the Labour leadership.8 Although opinion polls are only a snapshot, not an infallible guide, and given that the wide variety of electoral contests, from devolved parliaments down to district councils, will inevitably produce different local variations on May 6, it is still likely that the results will be disappointing for Labour.9

Embodiment

How will the Labour leadership react to a poor performance? More importantly, given the media speculation and the well-placed stories about unease on the back benches, will Starmer face a leadership challenge if there is an electoral setback next month? What are the options open to them?

A leadership challenge is not really on the cards and, should anyone from the Labour right attempt it, it would be a career-wrecking folly on their part. From the point of view of further ascending the greasy pole, far better to wait, especially if Johnson maintains his opinion poll lead and calls an early election in autumn 2022 or spring 2023, when the Tories can still benefit from ‘the vaccine bounce’ and before the post-Covid economy moves back into recession.10 So any manoeuvres currently being undertaken by the aspiring careerists of the Labour right are directed at the medium term rather than immediate gain – a jockeying for position, following what is expected to be another general election defeat for Labour, whenever it comes.

For the Labour right – the overwhelming majority of the PLP – these careerist calculations are inextricably linked to their wider political function in bourgeois politics. Labour’s historical role as a bourgeois workers’ party has been to maintain the capitalist status quo by containing and diverting working class struggle into safe, constitutional channels, The Labour leadership, the PLP and the trade union bureaucracy act, in Daniel de Leon’s memorable phrase, as labour lieutenants of capital within the workers’ movement, and police its politics to create a reliable ‘second eleven’ for capitalism.

In this process, maintaining tight control over the politics and the organisations of the Labour movement is vital – which is why the Corbyn movement and the potential challenge it might have posed to politics as usual was such a fright for both the ruling class and the Labour right. A strong, determined Labour left, committed to democratising the party and clearing out the openly pro-capitalist politicians from its ranks, would have meant the end of the careers of the Labour right and the loss of Labour as a pliable instrument for maintaining capitalist constitutionalism. That, of course, did not happen, but the memory of that potential remains as a warning to both the capitalist class and the Labour right to never again relax their grip over the party.

Starmer is perhaps the personification of the determination to heed that warning, with his numerous political and personal connections with the state and the legal system: his whole career to date has bound him hand and foot to the ruling class and the higher echelons of the state establishment more openly than any previous Labour leader.11 As far as capitalism is concerned, he is the safe pair of hands par excellence.

At the moment the same goes for the Labour right: although he has not turned out to be the Wunderkind they hoped would revive Labour’s electoral fortunes and reset their parliamentary careers back on the right track, Starmer is the best that they can hope for at present. He has proven effective in corralling what remains of the official left in the PLP and maintaining the right’s control of the party machine. He has kept up the attack on the left in the Constituency Labour Parties and continued with the smears and slanders against socialists and anti-Zionists. On that score there is little for either the Labour right or the ruling class to complain about – job done!

However, the problem that Keir Starmer and the Labour right now face is much more fundamental than the swings and roundabouts of opinion polls and normal electoral cycles. It is that Starmer and his ilk offer nothing to working class voters, other than pious platitudes and a ‘programme’ that is a pale imitation of that of the Johnson government.12 He does not even pretend that he can offer us even the most limited social democratic reformism.

So, despite all the talk of ‘new leadership’ and rejecting ‘business as usual’, Starmer has revealed that he truly is a hollow man for hollow times, and that the bankruptcy of the Labour right and its pro-capitalist politics really has found its perfect embodiment in the shape of the Right Honourable Sir Keir Starmer, PC, QC.13

Meanwhile, albeit with a heavy heart: vote Labour on May 6, but redouble efforts to build a viable revolutionary alternative to all the rotten manifestations of Labourism.


  1. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/sir-keir-gets-boot-pub.↩︎
  2. thetimes.co.uk/article/a-year-on-keir-starmer-is-feeling-the-strain-s5scj8mnm.↩︎
  3. spectator.co.uk/article/the-trouble-with-starmer-s-quiet-radicalism.↩︎
  4. politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/united-kingdom.↩︎
  5. theguardian.com/politics/2021/apr/02/one-year-labour-leader-keir-starmer-popularity-plunge.↩︎
  6. theguardian.com/politics/2021/apr/02/amid-unease-on-the-left-starmer-aims-to-bring-labour-home.↩︎
  7. theguardian.com/politics/2021/apr/02/past-and-present-labour-mps-square-off-in-hartlepool.↩︎
  8. electionpolling.co.uk/by-elections/2021/05/06/hartlepool; theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/07/hartlepool-labour-working-class-voters-may-byelection-left.↩︎
  9. It is clear that this wide range of quite different electoral campaigns will throw up quite different results on May 6. For example, in Scotland, and to a much lesser extent in Wales, questions of independence and the nature of devolution will be important, whilst in England the local elections can be taken as a verdict on the Johnson government’s performance. Alongside this, many contests will also have a specifically local flavour. Thus, the Liverpool mayoral contest will give voters a chance to express their opinions on Labour’s record in governing the city and the crisis following mayor Joe Anderson’s arrest. For events in Liverpool see ‘Careerism on the Mersey’ Weekly Worker March 11.↩︎
  10. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/11/could-boris-johnson-be-eyeing-another-snap-election-dont-bet-against-it.↩︎
  11. tortoisemedia.com/2021/03/23/234053.↩︎
  12. independent.co.uk/voices/keir-starmer-speech-labour-boris-johnson-b1804086.html.↩︎
  13. See ‘Hollow man for hollow times’ Weekly Worker February 25.↩︎

Focus on big questions

Tory commissioners should concentrate minds, writes Derek James of Labour Party Marxists

The announcement that Robert Jenrick, the housing, communities and local government secretary, was appointing commissioners to oversee some of the functions of Liverpool city council had been expected since the arrest of directly elected city mayor Joe Anderson in December.1 Although no-one has actually been charged, Jenrick’s statement has only added to the sense of crisis in the city and further fuelled the as yet unsubstantiated allegations of corruption, bribery and witness intimidation that have continued to swirl around the local authority.2

It would be too easy to dismiss the current situation as simply parish pump politics of purely local interest, or a product of Liverpool exceptionalism that is of only fleeting interest beyond the city. However, the nature of the allegations made in the report and Jenrick’s attack on local democracy point to much more fundamental crises in both the Labour Party and the system of local government that go beyond political machinations or the supposed corruption of powerful individuals.

The ground had been well-laid in the run-up to the announcement and so all the actors had their script off pat. Jenrick led the charge when he suggested that the government-commissioned Caller Report painted a “deeply concerning picture of mismanagement” and revealed a “serious breakdown in governance” in Liverpool.3 The report apparently revealed, he said, that the council had “consistently failed to meet its statutory and managerial responsibilities, and that the pervasive culture appeared to be rule avoidance”.4 In a damning comment, which made all the headlines in the local media, Jenrick argued that the report showed that there was an “overall environment of intimidation, described as one in which the only way to survive was to do what was requested without asking too many questions or applying normal professional standards”.5

The most important part of the local government secretary’s statement was the government’s decision to send commissioners in to Liverpool to run “certain and limited functions” of the city’s council for the next three years, including overseeing an improvement plan. In three key council departments – highways, regeneration and property management – all executive functions will now be transferred to the government-appointed commissioners.6 Jenrick also proposed to reduce the number of city councillors from 90 and replace the current electoral cycle with a whole-council election every four years.7

Labour MPs played their supporting roles to perfection and fell over themselves in rushing to back up the government’s attack on local democracy in Liverpool. In the Commons we were treated to a master class of ‘responsible opposition’ at its best – in other words, the most abject, supine cooperation, as we have come to expect from Starmer’s Labour leadership. Thus the shadow communities and local government secretary, Steve Reed, declared:

Labour both here and our leadership at the city council accept this report in full … We support [Jenrick’s] intention to appoint commissioners, not at this stage to run the council, as he says, but to advise and support elected representatives in strengthening the council’s systems. This is a measured and appropriate response (my emphasis).

Echoing the government’s line, Reed added that the proposals were not, “as some would put it, a Tory takeover”, but were simply a measure to put erring Liverpool back on the straight and narrow: he reassured us that the government commissioners would “intervene directly only if the council’s elected leaders fail to implement their own improvement plan.”8

The response of other Labour MPs was not much better, as they joined in the attack and supported the imposition of the commissioners. Even the comments of left Liverpool MPs Dan Carden and Ian Byrne were respectfully muted, as they sought reassurances from the Tories that the Covid pandemic response and other vital local services would continue to be resourced and supported.9

No surprise

The acute embarrassment of a Labour leadership now presented with such an alleged scandal in Liverpool city council is almost understandable. Having spent the last year trying to prove their responsibility and respectability, along comes a good old-fashioned municipal corruption case, which unhelpfully reminds voters of the bad old days – and in a city that is synonymous with militant leftwing politics to boot!

As was only to be expected, the local opposition to Labour in Liverpool, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, have made hay during the current mayoral and local council election campaigns by blaming the crisis on a ‘big city boss’ political culture and offering themselves as the anti-corruption candidates who can finally clean up the city.10 The local media have also been playing up the chances of Stephen Yip, an independent mayoral candidate, whilst the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (Tusc) also has a candidate in the field, who could take some votes away from Labour. Although the outcome of the election is, of course, uncertain, the fact that Labour may have a hard fight to hold on to the mayoralty shows the seriousness of the situation the party now faces in Liverpool.11

For many leftwingers in Liverpool the situation revealed in the Caller Report comes as no surprise. From the very beginning, the mayoral system was criticised as an anti-democratic and unaccountable concentration of power in the hands of a single individual and a small cabinet clique. The ‘political culture’ of intimidation and bullying, along with the opportunities for corruption and jobbery revealed in the report, are clearly always inherent in such a Bonapartist system.12 The potential to exploit contacts and contracts in regeneration and building projects for personal gain has always existed in local government. Whether in the small-town peculation in Mugsborough, satirised in The ragged-trousered philanthropists or in the real local government corruption revealed by the Poulson case in the 1970s, from Westminster to the smallest town hall, corruption and capitalism are inseparable throughout the political system.13

However, just as important as this systemic potential for financial corruption is the political corruption that it breeds – especially in the form of powerful and unaccountable local mayors. Our opposition to the imposition of the Tory commissioners on Liverpool and the defence of local democracy must be combined with a complete rejection of both the mayoral system and the political strategy of Labour rightists, such as Joe Anderson. His municipal strategy combined supposedly defending essential services through the politics of ‘the dented shield’ with ‘playing the system’ to make up for the budget cuts imposed by the Tory government’s austerity programme.14 This ‘new municipalism’ echoed Blair’s New Labour strategy and was based on a much-vaunted partnership between local government and capitalist developers, with the aim of encouraging private-sector investment and regeneration to both increase the local tax base and, through a convoluted form of trickle-down economics, improve the living standards of the city’s population.

It was, as Joe Anderson liked to boast in response to his critics, “the only game in town”.15 Now that Robert Jenrick has called time on that particular game and as the labour movement starts to mobilise against his attacks, the question goes beyond protest and opposition. We must think about the type of politics and strategy we need, if we are going to fight back in Liverpool and elsewhere. The experience of Liverpool city council and its fight with the Tories in the 1980s looms large amongst leftwingers in the city and for many comrades on the Labour left that type of municipal strategy and mass mobilisation remains the best way forward.

However, given the very different political and social context of the 2020s it is all too clear that we cannot simply wish such a movement into existence, so what strategy should the left now pursue in what are our very changed and straitened circumstances? At the moment the focus is on protest, but it will be these important issues of both local government and wider political strategy that inevitably come to the fore in the coming weeks, as the Liverpool labour movement’s campaign against the Tory commissioners starts to build up momentum.


  1. lgcplus.com/politics/governance-and-structure/breaking-jenrick-appoints-commissioners-to-liverpool-to-address-dysfunctional-culture-24-03-2021.↩︎
  2. For the background to this story see ‘Abolish the mayors’ Weekly Worker January 21 and ‘Careerism on the Mersey’ Weekly Worker March 11.↩︎
  3. independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/liverpool-corruption-government-robert-jenrick-b1821765.html. For full details of the findings see assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/972756/Liverpool_Best_Value_inspection_report.pdf.↩︎
  4. independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/liverpool-corruption-government-robert-jenrick-b1821765.html.↩︎
  5. See, for example, front-page splash, ‘FAILED’, in Liverpool Echo March 25 2021. The story focussed on the allegations about the council’s toxic culture, climate of fear and wholesale neglect of the city’s interests.↩︎
  6. lgcplus.com/politics/governance-and-structure/breaking-jenrick-appoints-commissioners-to-liverpool-to-address-dysfunctional-culture-24-03-2021.↩︎
  7. theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/24/commissioners-to-help-run-dysfunctional-liverpool-council.↩︎
  8. labourlist.org/2021/03/labour-supports-jenrick-as-commissioners-appointed-in-liverpool.↩︎
  9. Ibid.↩︎
  10. liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/liverpool-councillors-set-showdown-first-20250326.↩︎
  11. liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/liverpool-labour-council-candidate-quits-20004173.↩︎
  12. assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/972756/Liverpool_Best_Value_inspection_report.pdf.↩︎
  13. R Tressell The ragged-trousered philanthropists London 2004. Obituary: independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-john-poulson-1470735.html.↩︎
  14. tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/extras/cutsnorthwest.pdf.↩︎
  15. lrb.co.uk/blog/2021/march/the-only-game-in-town.↩︎

Getting our act together

Derek James of Labour Party Marxists welcomes the coming together of the Labour left. However, the cause of unity must go hand-in-hand with principle

After what has been a frankly disastrous year for the Labour left since the election of Keir Starmer as party leader, reports that the leaders of most of the organised left groups within the party and trade unions have met to discuss the way forward are positive.

In the wake of the retreats and compromises of the official left, from the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs downwards, and the resulting disorientation and demoralisation in Constituency Labour Parties, news that the Labour left might at last be getting its act together will clearly be welcomed. Equally important is the fact that the Labour Left Alliance was invited to attend and did so, along with members of Momentum, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), the Labour Representation Committee, Jewish Voice for Labour, Red Labour and leading figures from the trade union left. It seems that the meeting took no firm decisions on the future strategy of the Labour left and instead established a working group (which did not include any members of the LLA) to report back to a future meeting on areas such as slates for national executive committee elections and ‘left unity’.

Rather than waiting for the outcome of these deliberations, comrades in the LLA should urgently discuss the crisis now facing the Labour left and develop the alternative strategy needed to build a real fighting left current in the party. A good way to start is to understand the recent history of the Labour left and its various interventions in National Executive Committee and other internal elections. The main ‘left’ electoral grouping in the party, the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA), emerged in the late 1990s in response to Blairite remodelling of Labour. Made up of the CLPD and various other small ‘left’ currents, it claimed, as the name suggests, to give the party’s ‘grassroots’ members a voice on the NEC. In the face of Tony Blair’s attacks on party democracy, the CLGA argued that the ‘left’ was too weak to stand by itself and so deliberately reached out to the ‘centre’ when selecting candidates.

Even following the mass influx of leftwingers into the party and the election of Jeremy Corbyn, this unprincipled strategy of appealing to the ‘centre’ remained, and was if anything reinforced by the emergence of the Jon Lansman-led Momentum and its role within the CLGA. Two major criticisms can be levelled at the CLGA: firstly, its strategy of reaching out to the largely mythical ‘centre’ means that many of its candidates could hardly be defined as ‘left’ in any real sense of the word. These ‘broad front’ politics really are a dead end for the left. Indeed, when elected to the NEC, so-called ‘left’ candidates have actually joined the witch-hunt rather than defend the left from attack!1

Secondly, the selection process for candidates is undemocratic and involves horse-trading by various ‘left’ fixers and careerists jockeying for position behind the scenes. As with the current nomination process for the conference arrangements committee, the national constitutional committee and the national women’s committee, a list of candidates miraculously ‘emerges’ and the whole Labour left is enjoined to unquestioningly nominate and vote for it.2 In practice this means that important sections of the Labour left are deliberately excluded from both the process of choosing the left’s candidates and the final recommended lists suggested by the CLGA.

This type of gate-keeping was very much in evidence during the 2020 NEC elections. The LLA approached all of the major left currents, including the CLGA, in an attempt to secure a common left slate. These attempts were rebuffed, and the LLA supported its own slate of candidates, whilst also calling for a vote for the CLGA candidates. During the campaign some supporters of the CLGA argued that the LLA was ‘splitting the left vote’ and would hand NEC seats to the right. The operation of the PR system used in the election was deliberately misrepresented by these comrades as part of a campaign to undermine the LLA-supported candidates and thus maintain their electoral monopoly over the Labour left.3 In the event, not only was the left vote not divided, but the leading LLA-supported candidate, Roger Silverman, secured a creditable vote and showed that there are still comrades in the CLPs who will back authentic left candidates.4

Conditional

Perhaps it was the strength of this vote that produced the invitation for the LLA to take part in these discussions amongst the left, but, if reports of the meeting are accurate, it is clear that the official left still wants to keep a tight rein on future developments. Even so, it is important to stress that this meeting could be the start of an important initiative and, as such, Labour Party Marxists strongly supports the LLA’s participation in it.

However, the next stages could turn out to be decisive for the success of this project as a fighting campaign that the authentic left within Labour can wholeheartedly support. There is nothing wrong with different groups on the left negotiating about the composition of electoral slates or reaching agreement about which candidates we can support.

What turns that quite normal form of politics into unacceptable and unprincipled ‘horse-trading’ or an undemocratic ‘stitch-up’ is when important sections of the left are excluded from the discussions and there is no principled basis for the agreed slate beyond getting particular individuals elected. Too often in the past ‘left’ slates in NEC elections have been about cosying up to very unreliable ‘soft lefts’ or securing the careers of aspiring professional politicians. Given the leadership’s continuing attacks on party democracy and the purging of the CLPs, we are not prepared to be just spear-carriers or voting fodder for the official left.

Supporters of LPM will back LLA participation in any discussions on a united left slate for next year’s NEC elections, along with proposals for a campaign against the witch-hunt and in defence of party democracy. However, the LLA should set conditions for its support during these discussions. The slate should have a clearly defined, principled basis which all candidates must sign up to. While the specific demands can be defined during the discussions, LPM thinks that they should include elements such as the rejection of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association misdefinition of anti-Semitism, and the readmittance of comrades suspended or expelled during both the first and second waves of the witch-hunt, along with democratic demands such as ‘a worker’s MP on a worker’s wage’ and the accountability of the Parliamentary Labour Party to the NEC and party conference.

LLA should also argue that, given the strength of its showing in the 2020 NEC elections, it should have a candidate on any common left slate for the next elections in 2022 in a winnable position – not just a token slot somewhere down near the bottom.5 The LLA should participate in any meetings and discussions about political and electoral strategy in good faith and with a desire to see such a common, principled position emerging.

It is not a case of ‘unity’ at any price – that would simply be a repeat of the tried and failed politics of the past that resulted in unacceptable compromises and countless retreats by the official Labour left. So, if agreement on these terms cannot be reached amongst the left, the LLA should be prepared to stand a slate of candidates on a principled platform of its own. Such a campaign would galvanise the authentic left in the Labour Party and show the clear distinction that exists between genuine left militants and the compromisers and careerists of the official left. Principled politics is the key to building a real united and fighting left in the party.

Although at an early and somewhat tentative stage, these discussions amongst the organised Labour left are encouraging and give us the opportunity to argue our case for the building of a real left current within Labour that will fight for class politics and the socialist transformation of society.


  1. Another victim of the witch-hunt’ Weekly Worker March 28 2019.↩︎
  2. labourlist.org/2021/03/labour-left-groups-release-candidate-slates-for-internal-labour-elections.↩︎
  3. For details of the elections and the various arguments advanced by the LLA and other left groups, see ‘Candidates, slates and votes’ Weekly Worker October 8 2020; ‘Cutting through the cant’ Weekly Worker November 19 2020; ‘Cowardly fake left peddles lies’ Weekly Worker October 22 2020.↩︎
  4. labour.org.uk/activist-hub/governance-and-legal-hub/ballots-and-nominations/internal-ballots-2020/nec-and-treasurer-elections-2020-results.↩︎
  5. In STV elections the position of a candidate on the slate is decisive in securing the required number of preferences and transfers to get elected. For example, in the 2020 NEC elections Momentum told its supporters to vote in a specific order of preference to maximise the vote for the candidates it supported. This was organised regionally and was effective in securing strong votes and the necessary transfers for left candidates.↩︎

Defend David Miller

Championing unrestricted freedom of speech does not imply political agreement. Derek James of Labour Party Marxists explains

The campaign to get Bristol University academic David Miller dismissed from his post is just the latest example of a growing clampdown on free speech that is having a chilling effect on public life. Whether it be the restrictions on public protest proposed in the Johnson government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill or the continuing smears from the Labour right, which equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, these attacks are intensifying and now pose a serious threat to any forms of political dissent labelled as ‘extremist’ by the powers that be.1

In the case of professor Miller, the campaign has taken an all too predictable turn, with over 100 MPs and peers signing an all-party motion demanding that his university ‘take action’, accusing him of “inciting hatred against Jewish students” and claiming he has “undermined the safety and security of Jewish students under the pretence of free speech”.2 For these parliamentarians the core of their complaint is Miller’s opposition to Zionism and his ‘unacceptable views’ on the oppressive nature of the Israeli state.3

These attacks on David Miller, however, have not gone unanswered. The newly formed Labour Campaign for Free Speech (LCFS) has joined in the fight to defend both Miller and wider academic freedom. It has already mobilised support from an impressive range of academic and public figures, including Ken Loach, Alexei Sayle and Noam Chomsky, as well as organising online rallies and meetings to publicise the case.4 The latest event held to back David Miller took place on Saturday March 13 and attracted over 300 participants who heard from, amongst others, well-known rapper Lowkey, Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook, Israeli-raised academic Moshé Machover, and Deepa Driver, a campaigner for Julian Assange.5

The keynote for the rally was set by a spokesperson for LCFS, who argued that this is an important test case and that, if successful, other academics critical of Israel, could also be targeted and possibly fired. The aim was to create a climate of fear and silence academics, and others, from speaking out against Israel’s policies. The LCFS statement also correctly saw the conflation of criticism of Zionism with the hatred of Jews, and the use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism to ban all serious criticism of the state of Israel, its policies and its ideology as the essential underpinnings of the campaign against Miller.6

However, it was Moshé Machover’s contribution that pointed to the wider political significance and international context of this ongoing campaign. The targeting of academics and political activists by the British establishment, pro-Israel organisations and the Labour right was designed to do more than stifle all opposition to the Zionist colonisation project and the Israeli state. As he has consistently argued, comrade Machover suggested that this campaign and support for Israel amongst the British ruling class is not motivated by an ideological commitment to Zionism per se, but is rather intimately connected to an essential strand in British foreign policy – toeing the US line. Thus, support for Israel – a key Middle East ally and junior partner of the imperialist hegemon – is not simply symbolic: it is both strategically and politically fundamental to the calculations and interests of the British state.7

Understanding these state connections and political interests is vital if we are not to fall into the trap of solely focusing on the Zionist lobby or arguing that, in pursuit of their sectional project, Zionists have successfully ‘captured’ the leaderships of the two main parties in Britain.8 As with the familiar, but profoundly wrong, arguments that it is the Israeli tail that wags the American dog, this approach actually inverts, and thus seriously distorts, the real nature of the political and power relationships between Britain, the US and Israel.

Significantly, the weaponising of anti-Semitism is an international phenomenon, used to not only undermine support for Palestinian rights, but also to weaken anti-imperialist politics and hinder the development of mass anti-war movements in Europe and the US. Increasingly, the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is being broadened to similarly equate radical opposition to capitalism itself with anti-Semitism and thus identify political dissent with ‘extremism’.9 So, in fighting back against these definitions and this policing of ‘acceptable’ perimeters, the politics of anti-imperialism must, of necessity, come together with the politics of free speech and the right to dissent. Moreover, for campaigns like LCFS to be both principled and successful in mobilising support, it is essential that this convergence occurs and that these links become indissoluble.

Our interests

All of which brings us back to the campaign to defend David Miller. Labour Party Marxists champions unrestricted freedom of speech, publication, organisation, assembly and the right to strike.10 At the launch conference of LCFS, our supporters strongly argued for the long-established Marxist view that open debate and the right to question ideas, conventions, rules and laws are fundamental democratic rights and valuable historical gains which must be vigorously defended.11

Thus we agree that the campaign to defend David Miller should be supported without reservation. It should go without saying that, in this context, an injury to one is an injury to all: any attack on his right to free speech is an attack on all our democratic rights. As comrade Machover argued before last Saturday’s conference, “David Miller should be defended by all those who value freedom of speech and in particular academic freedom.”12

However, our full support for professor Miller’s democratic rights does not extend to unconditionally backing his politics. In fact, we have fundamental differences with him on the nature and significance of ‘Islamophobia’ as a political dynamic that shapes the foreign and domestic policies of western states.13 His alignment with pro-Shia groups and work with religiously-oriented organisations like the Islamic Human Rights Commission points only to a sectional and religiously sectarian form of politics and runs counter to the radical, secular traditions of the workers’ movement.14

Likewise, David Miller’s analysis of the Zionist lobby and its political influence in the Labour Party fails to look at the wider context and reduces politics to a series of elite manipulations and machinations. He places particular emphasis on the links between Keir Starmer and ‘Zionist money’, and the way in which both Labour and the Tories are financed by Israelis or those who sympathise with Israel, such as Trevor Chinn – who was said to be close to both the New Labour project and to Boris Johnson, while the latter was mayor of London.15

Trying to explain the witch-hunt against the left, or political developments more generally, in this way seriously leads us in the wrong direction. If we are going to defeat the slander that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism and defend our democratic rights for free speech, then we can really have no time at all for these conspiracy theories or talk of shadowy networks working behind the scenes.

In politics it is not always open to us to choose our battleground, but the fight to defend David Miller and free speech is one campaign we must win. Free speech is not an optional extra or a bourgeois luxury – it has been fought for historically by the working class and it is a right we must maintain. It remains central to democratic politics and absolutely essential if we are to build a conscious movement that can take power and make the working class the ruling class.


  1. independent.co.uk/independentpremium/politics-explained/policing-bill-2021-protests-powers-sarah-everard-b1817181.html.↩︎
  2. jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/100-mps-and-peers-write-to-bristol-university-over-professor-david-miller.↩︎
  3. bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/david-miller-zionism-row-bristol-5077975.↩︎
  4. labourfreespeech.org.uk/support-david-miller.↩︎
  5. facebook.com/LabourFreeSpeech.↩︎
  6. labourfreespeech.org.uk/press-release-support-for-david-miller-grows-ken-loach-and-alexei-sayle-speak-out.↩︎
  7. ‘Weaponising anti-Semitism’ Weekly Worker April 23 2020.↩︎
  8. youtube.com/watch?v=MZkAT1-IIfY.↩︎
  9. See, for example, the ‘anti-Semitism conference’ organised by the US state department in 2020 (2017-2021.state.gov/anti-semitism-conference/index.html).↩︎
  10. ‘We light fires’ Weekly Worker February 18 2021.↩︎
  11. ‘End the contradiction’, Labour Party Marxists.↩︎
  12. labourfreespeech.org.uk/ken-loach-alexei-sayle-etc-we-stand-with-professor-david-miller.↩︎
  13. See N Massoumi, T Mills and D Miller What is Islamophobia? Racism, social movements and the state London 2017.↩︎
  14. ihrc.org.uk/activities/press-releases/11564-press-release-uk-ihrc-launches-new-report-on-islamophobia-in-the-uk.↩︎
  15. youtube.com/watch?v=hOoubM-jrwM.↩︎

Careerism on the Mersey

James Harvey reports on the manoeuvrings and stitch-ups that have happened in the wake of the arrest of elected mayor Joe Anderson

Following his arrest on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and of witness intimidation, Liverpool’s elected mayor, Joe Anderson, withdrew from the elections scheduled for May this year.1 The news of the arrest, Anderson’s withdrawal and allegations of corruption threw the city’s Labour councillors into confusion, out of which three possible candidates – current acting mayor Wendy Simon, former deputy mayor Ann O’Byrne and ‘lord mayor’ Anna Rothery – tossed their hats into the ring to be Labour’s mayoral candidate.2 All three began energetic campaigning, with Rothery positioning herself as the candidate of the official left and picking up the support of many local Labour activists. She also got the backing of Jeremy Corbyn, who hailed her as a “deep rooted” campaigner and hoped that she would be the city’s first black woman mayor.3

So far, so good – until Labour announced that it was “pausing” the selection process and told party members that all three candidates had been ruled out.4 Out of this debacle a new shortlist of two emerged – councillors Joanne Anderson (no relation) and Anthony Lavelle – which is now being put to a ballot of party members ending on March 29.5 Not even their best friends would describe these two as experienced campaigners or heavyweight candidates. Neither of them are even vaguely on the left: their main qualifications seem to be those of rather uninspiring careerist councillors who toe the party line and will not rock the boat.

The response of local party members has been one of outrage. There have been calls for emergency Constituency Labour Party meetings to discuss protest motions and demand that the mayoral candidate selection process be suspended until the decision to remove Simon, O’Byrne and Rothery from the ballot is reversed. Even the officially sanctioned candidates have had to acknowledge the questions that remain about “the difficulties” surrounding Labour’s mayoral selection process.6

The feeling that the whole process is a political stitch-up by the Starmer leadership is widespread in Liverpool and beyond. In a letter of protest to Keir Starmer, left Liverpool MPs Dan Carden and Ian Byrne were joined by other MPs such as Clive Lewis, Richard Burgon, Belle Ribeiro-Addy, Zarah Sultana, Ian Lavery and Claudia Webbe, along with left union leaders and black activists, in criticising the way the selection process has been handled by the party bureaucracy and calling for the excluded candidates to be restored to the ballot papers sent out to party members.7 The latest instalment in this sorry tale was this week’s news that Anna Rothery’s legal action in the high court to force Labour to reinstate her on the mayoral shortlist had failed.8 However, this is far from the end of the story. Even if Starmer gets his way and eventually railroads the Liverpool CLPs to his carefully chosen shortlist, serious questions remain.

Democracy

The first concerns the nature of local government in Britain and the mayoral system itself. The left has always been opposed to Bonapartist offices like mayors and presidents, arguing that, even if elected, these offices are actually the antithesis of political democracy: whether in Europe or the United States, Marxists historically have advocated elected councils in local government, and national assemblies and parliaments, rather than concentrated executive power, as the essential republican, democratic form.9

The relatively new post of elected mayor in Britain deliberately copies the big-city boss politics of the US or the local powerbrokers in French and German cities. Building on ‘the Heseltine model’ developed under Margaret Thatcher, the elected mayors and cabinets introduced by the Cameron government were designed to concentrate power and decision-making, and so further undermine the few remaining democratic and accountable elements in local government.10 In addition, another negative feature of these elected mayors is their role in providing a useful launch pad for aspiring Labour careerists or former ministers trying to rebuild their reputation and powerbase. Thus, for most of the candidates involved in the current Liverpool shambles the position of elected mayor is just the next – rather lucrative – step in their ‘political career’. So, the one clear answer to this selection mess which will get wide support in the Liverpool Labour Party is: fight for real local democracy – abolish the mayor!11

The most immediate issue, however, remains the nature of democracy within the Labour Party itself. At all levels the nomination process is thoroughly undemocratic, with Labour’s national and regional bureaucracy having the power to decide who will go through to the shortlist without giving any reasons for their decisions. Speculation and rumours continue to surround the decision to remove Wendy Simon, Ann O’ Byrne and Anna Rothery from the shortlist, but it is likely that the Labour leadership’s main fear was that the candidate identified with the left, Anna Rothery, would win and that someone bearing Corbyn’s imprimatur would eventually become the mayor of Liverpool.

This carefully controlled and effectively closed type of ‘candidate selection’ is as far from open democracy as you can get. It is all of a piece with the ever-tightening controls that Starmer and the Labour bureaucracy are exerting throughout the party. The uproar and opposition that this has caused in Liverpool and elsewhere is only to be expected: Labour Party members have the right to decide who shall be the party’s candidates, not the appointed officials acting on the instructions of Keir Starmer. These elementary democratic demands for accountability, open selection and recall have long been a staple of the Labour left since the 1970s.

However, these issues take on a new urgency in the light of stitch-ups like that of the Liverpool mayoral selection. The purging of socialists from local authority candidate panels, the closing down of political debate and the suspension of CLP officers who allow critical motions to be tabled are simply part of a wider attack on the left and the democratic structures of the Labour Party. The response of the left in the Liverpool CLPs has been justifiably strong, but, to date, only two of the city’s Labour MPs – Dan Carden and Ian Byrne – have joined in the opposition to the manoeuvres of the leadership, and the majority of Labour councillors have kept a strict silence, as they wait and see which way the wind is blowing.

This type of diplomatic silence is only to be expected of the careerists and place-seekers who predominate in the Labour group on the council, but many supposedly ‘left’ activists have also kept their counsel too. As the witch-hunt has shown, careerism and opportunism are not confined to the Labour right: the official left has more than its fair share of collaborators and traitors, who are willing to aid the right. Many of these former leftwingers have secured comfortable positions in the Labour bureaucracy as trade union officials or working for MPs, from where they join in attacks on the left and work with the Labour right to shut down opposition and stifle democracy.

According to Skwawkbox, the panel that barred Anna Rothery included a number of such former left ‘fixers’ and ‘aides’ with links to local Labour MPs Kim Johnson and Paula Barker.12 Similarly comrades on Merseyside will be aware of the role of the former leading member of Workers Power, Mark Hoskisson – now chief of staff to Mick Whitley, Labour MP for Birkenhead, who initiated the attacks on the Wavertree Four that resulted in their initial suspension and the later expulsion of two comrades from the party.

The role of these former leftwingers in the witch-hunt and the attempted stitch-up shows that our battle for party democracy must go much further than ensuring a real mayoral selection process in Liverpool. We have to take our battle to both the Labour right and their fake left allies if we are to stand any chance of defeating Starmer’s purge and defending even the most basic democratic standards in the Labour Party.

If we fail to stop these attacks in Liverpool, it will simply encourage the leadership to open up more assaults on democratic selection procedures and accountability throughout the party as a whole.


  1. theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/jan/01/liverpool-mayor-joe-anderson-withdraws-from-elections.↩︎
  2. liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/labour-liverpool-mayor-contest-shortlisted-19748249.↩︎
  3. skwawkbox.org/2021/02/09/corbyn-endorses-fantastic-rothery-in-labours-liverpool-mayoral-contest.↩︎
  4. bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-56168822.↩︎
  5. labourlist.org/2021/03/labour-unveils-new-selection-shortlist-of-two-for-liverpool-mayoral-contest.↩︎
  6. itv.com/news/granada/2021-03-10/labour-liverpool-mayoral-candidate-if-we-carry-on-divided-we-face-the-consequence-of-losing-this-election.↩︎
  7. liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/labour-mps-urge-keir-starmer-19951943.↩︎
  8. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/anna-rothery-loses-high-court-bid-against-labour-over-her-removal-mayoral-candidate.↩︎
  9. marxists.org/archive/draper/1974/xx/democracy.html.↩︎
  10. ‘Abolish the mayors’ Weekly Worker January 21 2021.↩︎
  11. Interestingly, all three of the original shortlist favoured abolishing the post of mayor and returning to an elected leader of the council.↩︎
  12. skwawkbox.org/2021/03/04/exclusive-the-panel-that-barred-rothery-and-selected-new-shortlist-and-panellists-links-to-mps-and-north-west-fixers.↩︎

No theory, please – we’re Labour

Activism, never mind the politics: unfortunately this just about sums up the general approach. James Harvey reports

Labour in Exile Network is yet another initiative in response to Keir Starmer’s attacks on party democracy: a sort of home “for all those suspended, expelled, silenced and alienated by the witch-hunt against the left”. The online launch conference on Saturday February 27 attracted over 200 participants, reflecting the success LIEN has had in the few months since it was conceived.1 However, if the attendance was one marker of a certain type of success, other aspects of the conference discussions and decisions point in an altogether different direction, by revealing the underlying weaknesses in the current politics and strategy of the Labour left.

The tone was set by the keynote speakers and leading figures from the Labour left, who introduced the various sessions on ‘The crisis in the Labour Party and the opportunities for change’, ‘The fight for justice in the Labour Party’ and ‘The fight for free speech’.

Graham Bash outlined the serious defeat inflicted on the left by the Starmer leadership and the developing campaign of resistance in Constituency Labour Parties. He argued that struggles in the party need to link up to other campaigns: we need to build “resistance on the ground” and link the “different wings of our movement” in the fight against the Tories. By bringing the class struggle into the Labour Party, comrade Bash suggested, we can create a “party fit for purpose”. Chris Knight focused on the idea of ‘exile’. We may be purged, he said, but “we are refusing to leave – we are not going anywhere: we don’t recognise your suspensions and expulsions. We are in exile, but we will be coming home!”

This underlying tone of Labour loyalism – ‘It’s our party and we’re reclaiming it’ – combined with a belief that Labour was a ready-made instrument for achieving socialism – was especially dominant in the discussion on the ‘Plan for Change’ proposed by the ad hoc steering committee. This correctly focused on the issues of party democracy, free speech and the need for Labour’s ranks to exert real power over our ‘leaders’. Whilst agreeing that these were important aspects of any left campaign, supporters of Labour Party Marxists argued in a series of amendments that more radical meat had to be put on the bare bones. So, in place of rather vague calls for undefined ‘socialism’ and parliamentary politics, LPM comrades wanted instead to transform Labour “from an alternative party of capitalist government and war into a genuine socialist party of the working class”. Other LPM amendments included calls for the ending of careerism and unaccountable bureaucracy within the party by making the annual conference the supreme body, abolishing the Bonapartist post of Labour leader and ensuring that Labour’s elected representatives are paid only the average wage of a skilled worker.

Lamentable

The response to these amendments and the ensuing debate tells us a lot about the lamentable state of the politics and political culture of the contemporary Labour left. Norman Thomas, in moving the ‘Plan for Change’, argued that time is not on our side: ‘We don’t have time to argue about details, so let’s just get out there and do things’.

Other comrades took up such calls for grassroots activism, combined with a rejection of political clarity. Their refrain was that we needed a “broad network” that was committed to ‘getting on and doing things, not arguing about the finer points of political theory’. Arguments for socialism and real democratic control in the party, we were told, made things complicated and put off ‘ordinary people’. No-one ‘disagreed’ with the amendments as such, but ‘now was not the time’ to make such demands.

Supporters of the LPM amendments strongly argued that the fight to transform Labour and fight the witch-hunt were inextricably linked: bureaucracy, parliamentary politics and attacks on the left went together and need to be fought as a whole, not by a piecemeal set of demands pitched at the lowest common denominator. It was anti-political and patronising to argue that principled politics and clarity did not matter or were off-putting: talking about politics and reaching a clear position was never a waste of time. The experience of the Corbyn moment and the subsequent defeats of the Labour left had shown that serious discussion and political demands were actually essential if we were ever going to succeed in launching a real fighting campaign against the witch-hunt.

Evidently, the majority of participants at the conference did not agree, because they supported a procedural motion to close the discussion early and move to a vote on the amendments and the Plan for Change. The votes for the LPM amendments averaged about 25%, although there were a large number of abstentions or participants who simply did not vote at all – reflecting in part the technical problems of Zoom meetings but more importantly the rather passive, ‘spectator’ mood that this medium can encourage amongst participants.

There were echoes of this division between lowest-common-denominator, anti-political ‘activism’ and strategic coherence in the discussion on the terms of reference for LIEN’s steering group. A minority of comrades favoured a ‘loose, flexible approach’ and the ‘consensus-building’ that has characterised contemporary movements such as Occupy and Extinction Rebellion, and regarded formal structures and membership as restrictive and potentially alienating for new supporters. However, in a series of amendments which were adopted by the conference, LPM supporters successfully argued for the widely accepted standards of labour movement democracy and accountability – a formal membership structure, an accountable steering group, simple majority voting and the ultimate sovereignty of the LIEN membership.2

Strategy?

The future of LIEN remains unclear. It is an attempt to rally the Labour left in the face of the witch-hunt and shows that some comrades are still prepared to organise and resist the purge. However, whilst militant speeches opposing Starmer’s purge received widespread support, there was much less clarity on what the Labour left actually stands for and how it should fight back. Amidst the wreckage of the hopes of the Corbyn moment, surely we need to be clear on these issues if we are going to build an alternative.

Most speakers did not want to face up to these questions, preferring instead a nostalgic return to a supposed golden age that existed before Starmer. No-one – no matter how strong their condemnation of the current state of affairs – addressed the fundamental structural weakness of the Labour left: namely its historical consistent accommodation to the pro-capitalist forces in the party. No-one pulled their punches when it came to Starmer, but on Corbyn’s concessions to the right during the witch-hunt or the limited reformist nature of his programme of managed capitalism, for most there was only silence.

Above all, many comrades in LIEN fail to understand the contradictory nature of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party and continue to see it, in its present form, as an instrument for socialist transformation. These politics demand the sort of political concessions and ‘unity at all costs’ approach that we saw under Corbyn – and they will continue to be repeated whilst the Labour left remains committed to some form of a constitutional road to socialism. However radically they phrase it, this strategy only reinforces the official Labour left’s symbiotic relationship with the Labour right and throws still further obstacles in the path of transforming Labour “from an alternative party of capitalist government and war into a genuine socialist party of the working class”.

Supporters of LPM who were elected to the LIEN steering group will continue to make this case and to argue that without a fundamental break from these Labourist politics, the left will continue to be bound to capitalism by chains of its own making. Anything else – as the defeat of Corbyn and the surrender of the official Labour left during the purge shows – will only lead to yet another dead end and a future of further demoralising defeats. The arguments of some comrades that such striving for political and strategic clarity is reminiscent of the scholastic nit-picking satirised in The life of Brian are disappointing.

Combined with a philistine focus on ‘activism’ and ‘getting things done’, these profoundly anti-political politics only play into the hands of the pro-capitalist Labour right. Far from encouraging ‘ordinary people’ to get involved, they will produce yet more of the confusion and demoralisation that resulted from the collapse of Corbynism. We cannot afford a repeat of that sorry tale.

Now is the time for serious comrades on the Labour left to look at the political and strategic problems we face. This means not only a serious discussion and analysis of the defeats of the last few years, but also, more importantly, we must fully understand the historical failures of the Labour left and its self-entrapment within Labourism. The refusal to address these questions now is not simply an intellectual failing: if you turn away from these issues you are betraying the best traditions of the workers’ movement and abandoning any pretence that you are fighting for socialism.


  1. For details of the conference and the decisions reached, see labour-in-exile.org.↩︎
  2. labour-in-exile.org/how-we-work/results-from-our-launch-conference-february-27-2021/#more-250.↩︎

End the contradiction

James Harvey reports on a timely conference that produced a strange outcome

The launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Speech on Saturday February 13 came at a time when this issue has become central for both the Labour movement and wider British society. Not surprisingly, given the circumstances, the turnout was pretty good, just over 300 at the height.

The campaign was initially triggered in response to the ongoing purge and attacks on political debate and democracy in the Labour Party. Whilst for the Labour left much of the focus has been on the ways that the fake International Holocaust Remembrance Association ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism is being used to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and ‘chill’ any discussion about Israel/Palestine, these attacks now go much further. The witch-hunt has taken on a dynamic of its own. As the draft Charter for Free Speech presented to the conference reminded us, these attacks now extend into universities and schools, whilst state and corporate secrecy undermine free journalism and the exposure of corruption and wrongdoing.

Moreover, from the opposite point of view, the Conservatives have taken up the cry and are trying to make the issue their own. For the Tories, condemnation of ‘cancel culture’, opposition to ‘no-platforming’ in universities, and attacks on ‘woke social justice warriors’ have become an increasingly important part of their stock-in-trade. In standing up to a supposedly new wave of authoritarian leftism said to be sweeping the campuses and suppressing public debate, Tory ministers such as the hapless secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, now propose new legislation and pose as the defenders of ‘free speech’ and democratic rights.

Thus, a Labour Campaign on Free Speech – standing up to these attacks and standing for unrestricted freedom of speech and publication – could not have come at a better time. Unfortunately, the conference failed to offer such a clear rallying call. Instead we were presented with all the contradictions and confusions that currently characterise the politics and demands of the left on this issue. From the beginning the conference was presented with two clearly distinct and quite opposite positions on free speech, in the form of amendments from Labour Party Marxists and Tony Greenstein. The LPM amendment argued: “We stand for unrestricted freedom of speech and publication”, whilst comrade Greenstein proposed a much more restrictive ‘free speech, but …’ approach. His amendment argued that “Free Speech is not an absolute right. It does not include the right to ‘Shout fire in a crowded theatre’ [Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Schenck v. United States (1919)]. Free Speech doesn’t, for example include the right to incite racial hatred or advocate the harm of others because of their protected characteristics (race, disability, sexual orientation, gender, etc).”

These differences, ‘for’ and ‘against’, were brought out by the very long list of ‘top table’ speakers – Graham Bash, Chris Williamson, Esther Giles, Ronnie Kasrils, David Miller, Norman Finkelstein, Sami Ramadani, etc – and in the very restricted ‘floor’ debate.

Moving the LPM amendment, John Bridge argued that unrestricted free speech and opposition to censorship were integral to the DNA of the labour movement. While it is wrong to deliberately cause panic by falsely shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, that is a different matter. Free, democratic debate in all its forms was essential – both for the contemporary political health of our movement and for the development of the working class as the future ruling class. Furthermore, if we supported limitations on free speech based on the categories of ‘protected characteristics’, comrade Bridge argued, we were accepting the bourgeois liberal framework of identity politics, codified in law, and giving the state the right to police discussion and debate.

In moving his amendment, Tony Greenstein’s main focus was on ‘no platform for fascists and racists’ as the basis for limitations on freedom of speech. Drawing on what has become the common sense of too much of the left, comrade Greenstein based his argument on a particular reading of the struggle against Nazism in the 1930s and elevated ‘no platforming’ to a fundamental principle that justified restrictions on free speech.

This set the tone for the rest of the discussion. Comrades who supported Tony’s amendment largely drew on either a rather simplified and somewhat distorted history of pre-1939 anti-fascism or related their involvement in anti-fascist ‘no platforming’ from the 1970s onwards. In defining fascism as an ever-present, existential threat and thus elevating ‘no platforming’ to a principle, fascism and Nazism were de-historicised and de-contextualised. The result was that the real counterrevolutionary nature of fascism and its relationship with capitalism are ignored. Thus, for these comrades, ‘no platforming’ becomes a moral stance directed against an eternal evil rather than a reactionary movement to be confronted and defeated politically by the organised working class. Although supporters of comrade Greenstein’s amendment supposedly drew on Trotsky’s advice in the 1930s – “if you cannot convince a fascist, acquaint his head with the pavement” – much of their analysis was actually rooted in Stalinist justifications for popular frontism in the 1930s, tinged with a dash of the official anti-fascist mythology of the post-1945 social democratic British state.

Fundamental

Supporters of the LPM amendment on “unrestricted freedom of speech” took up these arguments, both on the general principle of free speech and the specific historical context of the fight against fascism in the 1930s and after. LPM supporters argued that free speech had been a fundamental element in Marxist politics since the 19th century and was an important democratic demand for mass Marxist parties, such as the German Social Democratic Party and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Dismissing free speech as simply a “liberal abstraction”, as some comrades did, was a denial of these democratic traditions and a repudiation of the very oxygen that gives political life to our movement.

In dissecting Tony Greenstein’s confusion of principles and tactics, LPM comrades stressed that Marxists are not pacifists and would organise to defend democratic rights of organisation and assembly in the face of a fascist threat. However, our focus must remain on politically combating fascism and other reactionary movements by convincing their supporters, to use Trotsky’s words, and winning them over to a real alternative to capitalist reaction.

If this part of the discussion was rooted in the concrete historical experience of the Labour movement, other comrades in the discussion (and the ‘chat’ column in this online meeting) showed how far the current extension of ‘no platforming’ into debates about transphobia and radical feminism has distorted democratic debate. Comrades raised the exclusion of Esther Giles from a recent meeting of Labour left activists for alleged ‘transphobia’ and suggested that this represents the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of ‘no platforming’. In this, and other cases, a combination of the identity politics of protected characteristics and ‘safe spaces’, along with the faux militancy of pseudo-street politics, worked to stifle genuine political discussion.

Thankfully, no such restrictions on free speech applied at this conference and Esther Giles was given both a platform and the chance to speak freely. But unless freedom of speech is unrestricted – and proclaimed as such by our organisations – could we guarantee that this will always be the case? Will there not be further Esther Giles? Despite comrade Greenstein’s correct and well-argued support for her, does not his own ‘no platforming’ always leave the door open for the exclusion and suppression of ideas? The slanderous attempts to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism show how the Labour right can turn the ‘no platforming’ weapon against the left. Surely the whole experience of the current witch-hunt warns us that even the smallest concession on free speech paves the way for further attacks on the left and democratic rights in general.

Unfortunately, it was not so clear-cut to the majority of participants in this conference. When it came to the votes on the two amendments, both were passed, leaving the campaign with two contradictory positions! As it stands, the Labour Campaign for Free Speech is for both ‘unrestricted’ free speech and the ‘free speech, but …’ position!

This confusion will have to be addressed by the newly elected steering group, when it meets to chart the way forward for the campaign. That steering group will have a lot of work to do if it is to succeed in pushing back against the current attempts to close down free speech within the Labour movement and in society more widely.

Many of the motions passed by the conference on campaigning activity and organisation offer a coherent outline of the campaign’s future direction. We need to step up our activity in the Labour Party and the trade unions to defend free speech and democratic rights. Likewise, the Charter for Free Speech adopted by the conference has the correct demands and links to wider struggles for free speech: it is a good basis for a militant, democratic campaign. Organisationally, we need a membership campaign with committed supporters and accountable structures – not just a series of rallies with big-name speakers. Now is the time to get down to real work and fight back for free speech.

But, before any of this can be set in train, we need to be clear on our aims and objectives – above all we need to define ‘free speech’. The contradictions in our current position needs to be resolved urgently and democratically, The steering group needs to convene a further membership-based conference to decide on whether the campaign stands for unrestricted free speech or ‘free speech’ hedged around with caveats and limitations. Supporters of LPM on the steering group will be making just such a case for a membership conference and for a clear position, not a fudged compromise.

Refound Labour as a permanent united front of the working class

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