The Labour Party apparatus and parliamentary representatives, and many organised right-wing local councillors, are now clearly in control. They were biding their time under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and actively working to sabotage the chances of a radical government coming to power, albeit with a manifesto less radical than that of the party in the 1960s.
Now some in the party are embarrassed by their seeming saviour Keir Starmer – former Director of Public Prosecutions who declined to pursue the legal case against police who murdered Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 (just one telling indication of where Starmer’s loyalties lay and the direction he would take the party) – but they are unrepentant about what they have done to our hopes, real hopes of change, and triumphant in most local constituency parties.
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested Starmer, and his abject agreement with nearly every twist and turn of the Johnson government has been of a piece with a return to business as normal in the Labour Party. As with much else, the pandemic has intensified every form of inequality, oppression and abuse of power. Inside the party, the opportunity opened up by Zoom has been seized; the left has been silenced while each and every policy gain made under Corbyn has been ignored or rolled back. What hope is there for those who insist on staying in the party now?
I rejoined the Labour Party in 2017 after actively campaigning for a Corbyn-led government in the June General Election. I canvassed alongside new comrades, some of whom had stayed in the party during the Tony Blair years gritting their teeth and now delighted by the new leadership, some of whom had left, like me, and rejoined, and some who were enthused by the possibility of something different, something more radical happening, rejoicing at this amazing revival of this radical tradition of the organised labour movement.
Many of those who signed up as members never canvassed, or came to meetings, and those who did quickly drifted away, appalled by the bureaucratic machinations that were eventually to see Corbyn’s final defeat in 2019. The ‘Corbyn movement’ was largely outside the Labour Party, with many Corbyn supporters never looking to the Labour Party as such. However, something happened inside the party, and it was worth being there, and putting energy and time into the possibility of radical change.
Most Corbyn supporters inside the party welcomed the newcomers and the rejoiners and worked with those still outside. There are activists inside the party now who have turned outwards, linking with social movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too and supporting strikes. That activity was key, the sign that something could be built from Corbyn’s unpredictable election as leader in 2015.
Now, as we are asked to deliver 2022 calendars and other party literature, asked to support left councillors who are hamstrung by the threat of disciplinary procedures and frightened of losing what toehold they have on power and in some cases their livelihood, we face a dilemma. The balance of forces in the party is against us in most parts of the country, certainly in the largest and what is touted as the most ‘successful’ constituency of Manchester Withington, where loyal Starmerite MP Jeff Smith, Shadow Minister for Local Government, has an unassailable 27,905 majority.
Jewish members of the party, including in Manchester Withington, have been expelled for speaking out in solidarity with Palestine or been subjected to a ‘notice of investigation’. One of them, an elderly activist, member of Jewish Voice for Labour has written to Jeff Smith asking his MP to take action over the ‘persistent personal harassment’ he has suffered, and carefully dismantled the case against him. Starmer and his lackeys claim to speak for Jews but promote an antisemitic witch-hunt against those who defy stereotypes of what a Jew is supposed to look like, with support for Israel now top of the list.
Prominent BAME activists in Manchester have already left the party, claiming that endemic racism as well as hostility to activism that counts made them a target for bullying, for discipline and exclusion. There is a statement of solidarity for former councillor Marcia Hutchinson circulating inside the Manchester party after the most recent revelations about racism against her, and some on the left have bravely agreed to sign it. (The statement with names supporting it is not yet public – we need to get the go-ahead from other BAME left members first.)
Meanwhile, other party members are cautious, are staying quiet, not yet signing; Councillors anxious about their jobs, prospective candidates not wanting to damage their chances of being selected, and others wondering whether speaking out now will be unwise. They carefully weigh up what they should say, which is part of the problem. To be clear, we are working alongside perpetrators of racism against Marcia, perpetrators of crimes against the labour movement.
Many of our comrades have left, some drifting away from politics, some working with the Green Party. That is not a bad choice, an understandable choice, and those on the left inside the party need to stay in comradely joint activity with those on the left outside. Many have left if they have not been expelled, and many more will follow. Now, when they voice their qualms within closed left forums, they are told that the Labour Party is the only field of battle, told that they must not give up, that there is a choice between sulking and staying and that they must not let the party have the satisfaction of having people abandon this internal fight; that is a false choice that poses what we are up against now wrongly and, despite its own claims, moralises against those who have very good reasons for leaving.
There is an internal fight, but it is mostly secret, behind closed doors; the fear of speaking out is all the more powerful when combined with fear of being seen as disloyal, going public. As the right in the party tightens its grip, the choice the left who stay in the party has is stark. There is an outside chance, a slim possibility that something like the Corbyn moment may happen again – it is extremely unlikely, and the party apparatus is ensuring that it will not happen – but we do not need to stay inside the Labour Party to support that if it happens.
Wherever we are, inside or outside the party, as ‘paper members’ or constituency delegates from trades unions or working with other progressive forces, in campaigns, social movements or even in political parties outside, we need to support each other, keep the activist networks alive, ready for that moment or any other moment to work together. There is a wider field of battle.
If we are still inside the Labour Party, as are quite a few members of Anti*Capitalist Resistance – an organisation in England and Wales that I now give most of my allegiance to – our time and energy need to be conserved, our support conditional. Already, there are clear statements by many on the left that they will not support candidates in elections who do not speak out about racism or who break strikes. The choice is more difficult when there are local candidates who are still on the left, those we do want to support. The conditions we place on support, and the conserving of our time and energy for other better causes is then more necessary, sometimes personally painful.
In the case of Manchester, to give just one instance, one that does not directly translate to other places, the left is blocked, and drained, helpless. It needs to say so to anyone who is called on to vote Labour and explain why, explain why participation in the Labour Party now is with a left that is resisting the party rather than simply cheering it on.
When the balance of forces is so against us, on balance we have to recognise that giving out party literature when there is no opportunity for explaining where we stand, and even working for a left candidate – a candidate whose leaflets are usually written by the right or self-censored – is effectively to support Starmer, not to challenge him.
Public declarations of support for the Labour Party where there is no qualification, no hint of disagreement with the right, no indication that there is a left still alive inside the party, are exactly that, useless; effectively, they are then declarations of support for the politics of the labour right, one that is virulently hostile to progressive political action while hounding out the best, most disobedient comrades.
There will be rare exceptions, and then we should encourage everyone, inside and outside the Labour Party to vote for candidates who have taken clear consistent public positions that defy Starmer and the local city council apparatus. Obedience, deliberate and cynical or tacit and silent, is not good enough now and works to confirm the reactionary politics of a party that is increasingly disconnected from the working class, a party that colludes with exploitation and oppression. There is no longer anything sacrosanct or even necessarily progressive in always everywhere voting Labour in this disunited kingdom.
A good many left activists who are still hanging in there already know that the real struggles are elsewhere, not in futile squabbles with a right-wing enjoying every victory, occasionally humouring the left by voting for motions that have been timidly and humiliatingly watered down to be almost meaningless.
I reckon it is time to be a fair-weather friend, taking the occasional opportunity for debate and connection with those who know that things are bad in the party, attending perhaps, speaking if possible, and voting. If I am expelled, so be it. For the left who remain, this is a reminder of the overarching struggle, not a call for resignation but a call for conditional support and the harnessing of our energies to other, better things than to buttress the power of a Labour Party apparatus that poses no radical challenge to capitalism in 2022.