Nobody, including Corbyn, thought that Starmer would really allow him to stand as the Labour Party candidate in Islington North. The parliamentary whip had already been removed from him because he had supposedly not apologised enough for the “antisemitism” that his leadership of the party had not adequately dealt with. Using the occasion of the EHRC announcement that Labour was no longer in special measures over its treatment of Jewish members, Starmer summarily announced yesterday that Corbyn would not be an official candidate. Sir Keir’s control of the party is such that he can just bypass any official bodies of the party that should make that decision.
As John McDonnel pointed out today (Guardian 16th Feb, Live blog)
In 2020, what Keir promised when he was standing for the leader of the party, he said he would oppose and end the imposition of candidates by the national executive committee and he would say that party members would be able to select their candidates for every election.
Already, the apparatus controls the long list of candidates for any constituency. Anyone deemed too left-wing or sympathetic to Corbyn’s ideas, such as Emma Dent Coad in North Kensington, is simply dumped, despite union support or a strong previous track record. There is hardly any candidate that has been selected so far who supports Momentum or the Socialist Campaign Group. Even sitting MPs like Sam Tarry, who used to be supportive of Corbyn but had moved to more moderate positions, have been deselected.
Starmer’s iron control of candidates contrasts with the reluctance of the Corbyn leadership to push for mandatory reselection, a long-time demand of the left, during his term in office. The current situation also weakens the argument of some left Labour activists that it is important to hang on inside Labour because the left can win and hold useful positions from which it can build.
Sunak has previously chastised Starmer for his opportunism as a loyal Corbyn cabinet member, despite the fact that this heinous antisemitism was encouraged. Dianne Abbott, writing today in the Guardian (16 February), says she sat in Cabinet and other meetings with Starmer and never heard him once question the leadership on how to deal with antisemitism. Sir Keir now claims that he was constantly engaged in a private battle to change the party’s stance on this. Emily Thornberry is backing this mythology.
Jeremy Corbyn’s plea today to allow local CLP members to democratically decide who their candidate should be, feels like someone moaning after a battle where the other side had better weapons and did not follow the Geneva Convention. Did he not notice what has been going on over the last few years? Nonetheless, he is right to condemn yet another attack on party democracy, and socialists support him on this point.
John McDonnell has called the decision a mistake. In my opinion, this understates what is going on. From Starmer’s point of view, it is no mistake. In fact, given his strategy of making a Labour government safe for the establishment and corporate power, this spat with Corbyn is perfect. It is a very concrete expression of the party profile that he wants. Look, Starmer can say, we’ve broken with all this anti-business, anti-imperialist nonsense that Corbyn infected the party with—we’re making sure Corbyn can’t stand, and that as few of his supporters as possible will stand with him. Indeed, it suits Starmer if Jeremy does stand as an independent. It makes it more difficult for the media to portray Labour as an extremist party. Even losing the seat would not be a problem in an election he expects to win big.
Attack on the left
The attack is not just on Corbyn. An emboldened Starmer is now inviting anyone who agrees with the Islington MP to leave too. Supporting Corbyn’s candidature would allow him to flush out even more people on the left to expel. Labour’s right and centre have never bought into the notion that the party is a “broad church.” Although some left-wing voices are allowed in the choir, the church and its services are completely controlled by the moderates or right wing.
Some on the left also make the argument that Labour’s electoral campaigning is weakened by purging all of us great activists. There may be some truth to the idea that in some marginal seats, a good ground war with lots of activists can make a difference, but in the conditions of today’s politics, filtered through social media, this is less and less the case. Membership subs income today is getting dwarfed by the business contributions that are flowing in.
Much speculation continues over whether Corbyn will stand. The consensus appears to be that he may well do so. However, if he stands, it will be very much along the lines of Livingstone’s successful London mayoral campaign as an independent. He will stand as the “real” Labour candidate and will continue to say that he wants to be re-admitted into Labour in the same way that Livingstone was re-admitted. Certainly, he would have a real chance of keeping the seat given his historic personal base and likely influx of supporters.
It is far less likely that he will stand as a potential leader or focal point for the formation of a new left party. He could campaign under the guise of his Peace and Justice ginger group. At the moment, the most obvious people to join him in standing independently would be John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. They are currently condemning Starmer’s decision as a mistake, which is not the same as calling for a vote for Jeremy. Anyone who calls for a vote for a candidate running against Labour automatically excludes themselves from the party.
If Corbyn stood alongside two or three other MPs in an independent socialist position, it would clearly be a much bigger deal, particularly if there were a realistic chance of getting two or three elected. Logically, this would require the formation of a new party or movement to the left of Labour. Whether Corby and his closest allies would break with their whole political beliefs up to now, which see a Labour Party and government bringing a socialist transition of some sort with a degree of social mobilisation, remains to be seen.
Even in the most optimistic scenario, where it is not just Corbyn standing, building something to the left of Labour is difficult given the anti-democratic first past the post system and the mass trade unions’ continued organic links to Labour. If trade unions decided to support some new movement (or contribute to the Labour Party and a Corbynist bloc), this would be a new ballgame.
The situation today is straightforward for some Leninist groups that operate entirely outside of the Labour Party. Call on Corbyn to stand and to organise a left party or movement. Call any socialists still in the Labour Party to break with it and its parliamentarianism and join the strikes and struggle on the streets in a new party.
There are some problems with this reasoning. It assumes all socialists in Labour only believe in the parliamentary route. It doesn’t give a true picture of how many active socialists there are in Labour, since many of them live in places where the right wing is the majority. The numbers of socialists outside of the Labour Party, the level of struggle, and the degree of class consciousness are often exaggerated too.
Even if Corbyn stands and is joined by one or two others, the choice at the next election will still be between Labour and the Tories. In order to kick out the Tories, you will have to vote Labour nearly everywhere (Scotland is different). Corbyn himself will call for a Labour vote and a Labour government even if he stands. Workers who are concerned about their class, including the majority of those on strike, will vote Labour.
Starmer’s definitive decision yesterday has triggered more outbursts from some ex-Corbynistas and activists that make an equals sign between Labour and the Tories. One well known expelled Corbynista put out a Facebook post that stated:
Starmer‘s Labour is not even the lesser of two evils.
It’s worse than the Tories as it represents the same social climber class, will be a poodle for the US and has undermined what little democracy we have.
Other conspiracies about Starmer being an establishment plant can also be seen on social media. On a picket line outside my local school an ex-Corbynista Labour activist made the same argument about Labour and Tories being the twin puppet masters that manipulated working people like a cat that plays with a mouse.
In reality, the “lesser evil” argument is valid. Even Blair’s government brought in some changes that benefited working people that we defend: the minimum wage, SureStart centres, new school buildings, and the Human Rights Act. The current programmes that Starmer is floating include the green energy plan, the renationalisation of rail, and the repeal of the minimum service level agreements. Possibly it will be more radical than Blair’s offer in 1997. Not far enough, of course, and we argue and struggle for much more. We have no illusions about voting for Labour. But the two-party alternating system is effective precisely because there are some material differences between the parties.
Struggle and change
You also have to ask yourself: is it easier to struggle and change things under the Tories or Labour? The affiliation of 5 million or so trade unionists means that industrial struggles under Labour can have a more immediate effect on the party and the government. Some trade union leaders, such as Sharon Graham and Mick Lynch, are already putting the next Labour government on notice. Of course, there are counter-tendencies to this pressure that hold back efforts to keep the Labour government in power in order to avoid upsetting the status quo.
We should not exaggerate the differences or think that working class struggles will be more successful under Labour. Our extremely undemocratic first past the post system constrains the political tactical choices we can make. This is another reason for all socialists to join the campaign to bring in a PR system.
The choice for socialists today is not to simply call for a new left party. We all agree that Labour as an organisation is not the vehicle that will bring about a socialist transition. Abstract, propaganda calls without real possibilities of building something that has some mass base beyond the existing audience of the left groups, are not very helpful. Writing off all socialists active in Labour does not make a new left party come any closer.
It is critical to collaborate with socialists both inside and outside the Labour Party to build strikes and struggles. It is already happening on the picket lines. Alongside action, we need to continue the strategic discussion about how we prepare an alternative to Starmer’s Labour Party.
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