The May elections in Manchester saw the Greens take a second council seat, and saw the Liberal Democrats’ John Leech take Didsbury West back with a massive majority, also taking the Lib Dem representation on the council to two. While the Greens had focused their energies on Woodhouse Park, with success, the Lib Dems had thrown massive energy into John Leech’s campaign. Perhaps he won because he was a former MP, though one who voted in the coalition government for cuts to council funding, perhaps because he was local, and perhaps because, with the silence of the Green paper candidate in Didsbury West, there was no other alternative to the Tory/Starmer mainstream politician bloc.
The Labour right controlled the narrative in the elections, though there are now rumours that distance is being taken from Greg Stanton, the Lib Dem councillor who defected to Labour in Didsbury West and who brought canny apolitical community electoral tactics into recent campaigns for the party. He should have resigned and fought the seat after he defected. The Labour candidate, Luke Savage, was ostensibly on the left, but said not one word publicly critical of Starmer, and local right-wingers, who had admitted to voting Lib Dem recently, were happy to appear on Labour leaflets, most probably crossing their fingers that Luke, pictured litter-picking on the leaflet, would lose, or come into line if elected.
Luke would have been a good conscientious councillor (and I voted for him), but elsewhere left-wingers inside the Manchester party said they did not vote for their local Labour candidate. Some feel that the election of Green councillors could be a good thing, and they are right. More people are leaving the party, and meetings about the much-delayed ‘alternative manifesto’ that some of the left have tried to agree upon have been delayed yet again. It looks very much like there will be no public dissent, and no point in staying in, no fight to be had. There is desperate talk on the left about the possibility of Andy Burnham becoming leader of the party; how far we have come, how much lower could things get?
I rejoined the Labour Party in Manchester to support Jeremy Corbyn, and worked there in spite of and against the party apparatus that was determined, and eventually succeeded, to sabotage what could have been a genuine socialist programme for government. It was clear that should there be a Corbyn government, there would also need to be local councillors who would stand with him, and would speak out against the local right-wing party apparatus. I actively campaigned for MPs who were not on the left, so important it was to get a majority in parliament, and for councillors who would combine their conscientious welfare advocacy work with a clear left political project.
There were discussions locally among the left to develop an alternative manifesto as an alternative to the pro-business agenda of the city council, and as an alternative to the cuts budget drawn up in obedience to the Tory government. This is a cuts budget that the left seem not to challenge, but are complicit in, instead making the best of a bad situation, bigging up anything vaguely ok that the council are doing, effectively giving left cover to the council.
To make an alternative manifesto work, to make it in any way meaningful, would mean actively speaking out for it, speaking out against what is wrong. Instead, too many of those on the left of the Labour Party are now engaged either in a bizarre deliberately keep-quiet policy before they unveil their real politics in decades time (a dishonest strategy the right-wing love and mock), or are frightened to say anything that will get them into trouble, or are so demoralised that they can’t see the point of saying anything at all. Some on the left will repeat that the Labour Party is the only field of battle, so we should stay in and fight, but now it is not a field of battle at all.
There will always be socialists inside the Labour Party, and meeting and working with them was what made it worth staying in after the terrible betrayal of Corbyn and the end of that project. Those socialists are horrified at the grip that Keir Starmer has on the party, but there are no signs that should Starmer fail there could be any left alternative in the leadership. The socialists in the Labour Party are now silenced, barely visible in it, and the party itself is not remotely socialist.
To pretend that the party is socialist is now to be part of the problem. To simply enthusiastically proclaim that you want a Labour government is empty, as vacuous if it comes from union full-timers or from left foot-soldiers. The socialists who remain in the Labour Party, those worth maintaining contact with, know how desperate all this is at some level themselves, and that is why they also devote their energies to activities outside the party, to demonstrations, pickets, strikes and so on. Good on them.
Welfare support by councillors, and MPs, is crucially important, but that good work can be done by the right, if they are genuinely caring and supportive (which some of them are), by Green or even Liberal Democrat councillors. Some of those other councillors are sometimes, let’s face it, more to the left than the right-wing labour bureaucrats (though, to be clear, this is not at all a reason to vote Lib Dem, as some local Labour Party branch officers in Manchester have shamefully actually done, without sanction). The Labour councillors who do that difficult work deserve our respect.
All credit to left councillors, of whatever party, who are doing good welfare work, but it is bad use of our time to simply help those we like keep paid positions that require our representatives to keep quiet on key issues and merely tailor what they say to what the labour group on the council demand of them. Worse are those, however well-meaning, who aspire to be career politicians. A left vote for mandatory reselection of candidates has always been designed to block the road to politics as that kind of ‘career’ and, instead, make representatives accountable.
A radical political alternative, and open struggle against austerity is a struggle that has always been systematically blocked by the right in the party. I gritted my teeth while campaigning while Corbyn was leader, saying to myself ‘only for Jeremy’. Friends I worked with said the same, knowing that the Labour Party as such was a bureaucratic shell hostile to radical change.
Staying in the Labour Party now in Manchester is a waste of time and energy. We can do all the radical things we want, more of them, if we are not drained of time and energy by the party. It would be better if we did not wave a Labour Party banner around at radical events for that merely feeds the illusion that the party itself will actually do anything progressive.
Many comrades locally will agree that I am no longer making a constructive contribution to the Labour Party, not even to the left of it. We have been together dealing with our bitter disappointment by the failure of the Corbyn project, and that has led us in different political directions, to adapting or resisting.
To vote Labour can sometimes be something positive and progressive in the contradiction we face – and in the knowledge that this or that candidate genuinely thinks this is the best way forward while building a political career for themselves – but the search for something positive and progressive also leads many of us now to take our energies away from the Labour Party as such.
Breaking the consensus
To break the consensus – the consensus that the council is doing the best job it can with limited resources, a consensus that silences us on the left and also gives ammunition to the Liberal Democrats – can mostly be done now from outside the Labour Party, and against it. Perhaps this is different in other parts of the country, though we know that those who speak out are disciplined or expelled. The consensus-breaking, explicitly breaking with Starmer’s business-friendly agenda, is in alliance with socialists who remain in the party, those who are also themselves effectively against it when they engage in struggle.
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