The Left and the Coming General Election

In this thought-provoking piece, Dave Kellaway delves into the challenges facing the UK left as the nation prepares for a general election that is likely to result in a Labour government. Kellaway explores how the left can navigate this political landscape, balancing the need to unseat the Tories with the desire to push for socialist policies.

 

It has begun. The media and politicians are already in full general election mode. Yes, there is the matter of May local and mayoral elections, but everyone is treating them as a litmus test for a parliamentary election in October or November. All the polls have been stuck for more than a year on a 17–20 percentage point Labour lead. Pundits remind us that Labour still needs a historical swing to win a majority. The Labour leadership endlessly cautions against complacency, wanting to keep its members focused on canvassing rather than Palestine solidarity or discussing any retreats on policy.

Officially, the Tories insist that their scare of the week playbook on extremism, the boats, or Labour raising taxes (as if!) will erode the lead. Sunak clings to the hope that some economic statistics will convince people that things are not so bad. But the unnecessary COVID deaths, the fact that living standards are worse than in 2010, or the fact that millions of potential Tory voters are moving onto mortgages that are hundreds of pounds more each month, just cannot be erased from people’s political memory. Regular reports from charities or policy bodies showing escalating poverty, inequality, or the crisis in health or dentistry provision reinforce the sense of an end to the regime; nothing much is working. Even most Tory MPs know the game is up; they are looking for new jobs or plotting over the next leader. Some are torn about whether ditching Sunak after the May election debacle or keeping him on will make any difference at all.

Some Labour activists continue to suggest that Starmer’s extreme moderation and his witchhunt of the left, which has depleted the electoral ground army, mean that the poll lead is soft. They point correctly to the lack of enthusiasm for Starmer or the party, the number of disaffected voters, and the danger of abstention. Some even aspire to a slender majority, giving left MPs some leverage. All true, but everything points to the Tories losing very badly, and whoever the leader is or whatever Labour does is not going to make much of a difference. The old adage that most elections are really lost by incumbents rather than won by the opposition holds true.

How should the left respond to the election and the almost certain election of a Starmer government?

Recent interventions by Owen Jones, who has resigned from Labour, and by the Momentum leadership, who remain inside Labour, are a good starting point for this discussion. 

Their contributions follow the victory of Galloway and his Workers Party in Rochdale and a plethora of initiatives by the left candidates against Labour. A national meeting entitled No Ceasefire, No Vote was recently held with over a hundred councillors who have been expelled or have resigned from Labour, most but not all over Palestine. Transform and the Socialist Party/Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) are planning to stand dozens of candidates. TUSC wants to stand with 98 candidates in order to get a TV broadcast. Galloway is talking about standing 50 or so Workers Party candidates, particularly where there are Muslim communities. 

Networks of left wing and Palestinian solidarity activists not aligned with any one current have come together to challenge Starmer in Camden, Wes Streeting in Ilford, and Peter Kyle in Hove. Ex-ANC MP Andrew Feinstein is taking on Starmer and has a network called Collective, which has adopted the key planks of Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project. Leanne Mohammed is standing against Streeting, and Tanushka Mirah is against Kyle; both are Palestinian British women. The former MP, Emma Coad, is standing in North Kensington. Sources indicate that Corbyn will definitely stand in Islington and have a very good chance of winning. Undoubtedly, there are other candidates who are going to emerge to confront Labour from the left, such as the Communist Future group in Manchester.

How much coordination will develop between these initiatives is unclear. Galloway would give his right arm for Corbyn to link up with him. Thankfully, Corbyn and most of these currents are steering clear of George; some people remember how he operated in Respect and are reluctant to associate themselves with someone whose views have gotten more reactionary on many questions and who hobnobs with Farage and other extreme nationalists. Corbyn himself is reluctant to confront the Labour Party too directly. Apart from his NGO, Peace and Justice, he has not indicated he wants to organise anything else. Possibly he holds out hope he can be readmitted to Labour in some future new order. 

Some supporters of one or other of these candidates are already entertaining the delusions that Labour will lose a number of seats. However, creditable scores for candidates to the left of Labour can help build longer-term networks of activists and show that Labour cannot take its traditional base for granted. The local and mayoral elections might provide more fertile ground for left candidates to win or hang on to seats. Jamie Driscol has a good chance in the North East. The electorate today is more volatile and is crumbling, as we have seen with the UKIP and Green experiences. Decent votes for left candidates should encourage them to push for a democratic proportional representation system.

Owen Jones quits Labour

Owen Jones, in his dramatic resignation column or video, has endorsed yet another grouping called We Deserve Better, which aims to raise funds and actively support some Green, independent socialist, and Labour socialist MPs in order to  ‘build an alternative based on the politics of hope’. Significantly, he does not endorse Galloway, whose campist, nationalist, and rightist views on LBGHT and trans are anathema to him. Jones’ move was somewhat of a surprise since he has always been a Labour Party member who was a leading supporter of Corbyn but not linked to a radical left or Marxist current. The YouTube video has had 226K views, and there have been over 5000 comments, so he has had a certain impact. Starmer’s uncritical support of Israel was the final straw for him. 

It is to Owen’s credit that he accepts that, unlike many of us, he was hopeful that the left could work with Starmer. Starmer can succeed, and he deserves our support. was the headline of one of his articles.  In some ways, his journey has reflected the disillusionment of tens of thousands of Labour Party members drawn to the party because of the Corbyn project.

The key political takeaway from his statement is that he rejects a simplistic, ultra-left position that it makes no difference whether we have a Labour or Tory government. In other words, he rejects carrying the No Ceasefire, No Vote line into a general election campaign. He insists on the need to support the increasingly limited policy gains for working people that a Labour government would bring, such as the new labour rights. Jones also recognises that the conditions for struggle are usually easier under a Labour government. Movements—especially with union support—can have a bigger impact. Furthermore, he does not support an electoral campaign that would threaten a Labour majority. Supporting those Green or independent candidates he mentions, such as Carla Denyer against Thangam Debonnaire in Bristol, fits within this logic.

Apart from Corbyn and perhaps a second Green MP, there are unlikely to be any other Labour MPs to the left elected. Galloway could hang on, but he had a unique combination of circumstances in the bye election. However, good scores and active campaigns in a number of seats could help build up the network of activists we need. Such a movement is not just useful for keeping important campaigns like Palestine highly visible. It can also challenge the Labour government when it is likely to further retreat on policy, refuse to end austerity, or pay public sector workers a decent wage. 

People on the left still in Labour can bemoan the fact that their internal battles are more difficult to win if members on the left leave. However, denouncing people for supposedly ’leaving the party of the working class’ or abandoning the only ‘area where you can make real change’, will not get you very far. We need to keep the people leaving Labour involved in campaigns, struggles, and political discussions. These electoral campaigns can provide an arena for this.

Momentum makes a turn

People who do not want to leave Labour can also intervene in the coming election in a way that can defend working-class interests and build an alternative to Starmer/Reeves’ Labour. A recent resolution adopted by Momentum goes in that direction. You can read an article explaining this more active, independent orientation as well as the resolution here at Labour Hub

We must use our platform to educate, organise and grow our membership and left presence within the Party. (..)Our General Election campaign must be vibrant, high profile and a platform on which to build a wider social movement and Labour left in order to oppose austerity, privatisation, racism and militarism, and to advocate for socialism regardless of who wins the election.

The last sentence is not dissimilar to the positions of the radical or Marxist left outside of Labour. However, Momentum’s strategic horizon remains that of emulating the Atlee government of 1945–51, which nationalised key industries and established the welfare state. So it retains the essence of the Corbyn project, which is that you can use the Labour Party as an instrument to bring about socialist change. An instrument more or less the same as it currently exists but with socialist policies and a socialist majority.

The defeat of Corbyn shows that the right and the establishment will split and destroy the Labour Party before they allow such a miraculous transformation to take place. Adding some trade union support and a campaigning membership does not change that reality. Hilary Schan’s article just assumes the unions as a whole are allies of the socialists; they will stand ‘alongside us’. It ignores the battle inside the unions to win a left strategy. At their recent conference, the vote to allow non-Labour Party members to be part of Momentum was defeated 138 to 67. If the motion had passed, it would have allowed a different way of building the group. Despite its claim, probably accurate, to be the largest grouping of socialists in the Labour Party, it is a much smaller group than it was, as the voting figures suggest.

Nevertheless, the resolution on the general election is a positive one and will facilitate interaction with activists and socialists with different views on the Labour Party.  It will have a membership discussion about prioritising five key policies to highlight during the campaign. These could be based on the progressive policies passed by the conference on nationalisation, green energy, housing, proportional representation, and democratic rights. Momentum will have an independent profile with:

  • An open letter for which we seek signatories
  • A day of action
  • Public meetings in every region possible
  • National communications, such as possibly a four-page newspaper, aimed at those involved in the Labour election campaign, putting our socialist case for voting Labour, the socialist policies we will fight for, and the importance of combining our vote with a mass campaign to democratise the party

Momentum will also prioritise its resources and support for the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs (around 30) or MPs who support a pluralist Labour Party. So in a sense, it recognises that their membership would not support any line of routine canvassing for any Labour MP.

Consequently, both Owen Jones’ proposals and Momentum’s resolution provide activists with openings during the election campaign to avoid the false opposition between electing a Labour government and fighting for a socialist alternative. We need to reject the idea that it makes no difference whether the Tories are kicked out. But we need to fight to organise as many people as possible to support policies that defend the interests of working people. AntI*Capitalist Resistance will be further discussing how socialists should intervene at our upcoming conference. Get in touch with us through the website if you want to take part.


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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.


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