What’s next for socialists in the Labour Party?

Dave Kellaway reviews Mike Phipps’ latest book, Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow (the Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn) and takes up the discussion about socialist strategy today.

 

Mike Phipps has written a very useful contribution to the debate about socialist strategy today in the light of the defeat of Corbyn and the rightward march of the Starmer leadership.  He deals with three key processes:

  • reasons for Labour’s defeat in 2019
  • what has happened inside Labour since the election of Keir Starmer in spring 2020 up to the September 2021 conference (the preface gives a further update)
  • the discussions about what socialists should do now and what he thinks are the priorities

The analysis in the first two parts is very sound. Phipps succinctly summarises the main positions taken on why the Corbyn project was defeated. It is difficult to disagree with his main conclusions. He then carefully shows us the way Starmer tore up his own promises to keep continuity with Corbyn’s radical policies and to unify the party.  The final part is a good starting point for the discussion about the way forward and the writer scrutinises the recipes proffered by a number of people on the left. Let us examine each section in more detail.

Why labour lost in 2019

This is one of the most valuable parts of the book since it refutes a number of myths and simplistic explanations about the defeat.  He refutes two of the biggest myths – that it was all down to not embracing Brexit and that Corbyn’s leadership was toxic to the electorate.

A myth has grown up that people like John McDonnell, aided and abetted by Starmer, steered the party into a position which led to the loss of the Labour vote in the so-called red wall constituencies. Oliver Eagleton’s book, reviewed on this site recently by Tony Richardson, argues along those lines. As Phipps points out quoting the Datapraxis figures,

“Labour in short, lost nearly twice as many votes to progressive pro-Remain parties as it did to the parties of Brexit and racism”

(p.20/21)

Given the unfair first past the post system and the way Labour and Conservative votes are distributed Brexit was always going to be a very difficult problem for Labour. Maybe given the weight of Anglo –British nationalism inside the working class there was never going to be an easy solution to the problem. Phipps includes a great quote from Adam Ramsey:

“When my friends on the left of the Labour party argue today that they would have won if it wasn’t for Brexit, they imply that Brexit is a one-off event (…) that can be set aside and discounted for the future. That’s a bit like the comforting notion that Labour would have won in 1983 if it wasn’t for the Falklands war (…).  These arguments may be true, but what they amount to is ‘Labour would have won if it wasn’t for Anglo-British nationalism.’  Which is essentially saying: ‘Labour would have won if wasn’t for the main reason the Tories normally win’.

As Phipps argues (p39) the Remain campaign to be effective had to be much more internationalist and more positive about some of the gains for working people in some aspects of the EU. Triangulation and the sort of ‘soft’ Brexit championed by people like Owen Jones would not necessarily have staved off defeat. Would being more pro-Brexit have helped Labour today when the failure of Brexit is increasingly obvious?

To place all the blame on Corbyn is also an error.  For a start how does one explain the relative success of 2017 which was the best Labour vote share for five elections?

Behind both myths lay the long-term factors for Labour’s decline in its traditional strongholds, the deindustrialisation and the decline in the social weight and role of trade unions. This decline in the Labour vote, with a rise in abstention and desertions to UKIP, had started well before, from the time of New Labour. From 1997 to 2015 Labour steadily lost 4 million votes. If you add in the fact that in these areas Labour was a rather, right wing, complacent local government administering cuts in public services then it is unsurprising that these seats were vulnerable. As Phipps points out where you have councils like Preston or Salford trying to make limited efforts at ‘community wealth-building’ this tendency can be reversed to some degree.

Younger more progressive workers were abandoning these areas to find work elsewhere leaving older retired working people – often benefitting from purchasing their council house – who were more susceptible to the socially illiberal, anti-migrant dog whistle politics of Johnson.

In any case, the scale of abandonment of labour by low-income workers has been exaggerated. If you exclude the unemployed and retired from the figures it is not true that the Tories have a majority among households earning between £20,000 and £25,000 a year. Labour won 47% versus 35% for the Tories (p.31). The recent Wakefield by-election proves that this notion of entrenched Tory red wall seats can be overcooked.

Nevertheless, the author rightly points out that the strategic task of rebuilding a social bloc that can win elections remains a complex task for everybody on the left.

Although the supposed toxicity of Corbyn is a myth it is certainly true that the perception of his handling of the antisemitism issue and the way his leadership worked combined with the unprecedented and dishonest mass media campaign did indeed impact on Labour’s chances in 2019.

Factionalism inside the Labour party apparatus never really abated as the leaked internal report on the governance legal unit has revealed. His collegiate style of leadership did not fit with the dominant ideology of a strong political leader and this was reinforced by the fact that no one, including Jeremy, expected him to become the leader. The very moral strength that drew people to him, a different way of doing politics meant that he was not blessed with the decisiveness and attack mode that you do sometimes need to win. For example, Corbyn always says ‘he does not do personal’ but character and honesty in political leadership are political. Johnson, as we have seen much more recently is correctly being attacked, including by his own MPs, for such negative qualities. Labour could have confronted Johnson much more on that basis. Politics is not just about policies and high ideals, you have to win power and organise and that includes personal qualities. A similar failure to attack the Brexiteers over the Jo Cox murder was also a mistake in my view. Everyone rallied around abstract ideas of democracy versus violence rather than call out the racist, reactionary Brexit project that led to such extremist acts.

As Phipps correctly states no leader can combine all the talents. Perhaps the over-focus on Corbyn is a function of the overall quality and numerical weakness of the Corbyn cadre. He criticises both the Momentum and trade union leaderships’ failure to build a new broad left capable of sustaining and defending the Corbyn project. Differences even within the central team meant the 2019 electoral strategy was not as coherent a narrative as in 2017. Adding (worthy) new policies every few days failed to produce a clear story the voter could relate to or believe in. In 2017 Labour won the social media war but lost it in 2019 as the Tories caught up and Labour got too complicated. Too many resources were poured into unwinnable seats and not enough was allocated to the vulnerable ‘red wall’ ones. 

He criticises both the Momentum and trade union leaderships’ failure to build a new broad left capable of sustaining and defending the Corbyn project.

One point about the defeat is well argued. Politics has changed with the way capitalism and its oligarchs have. Populist politicians using sophisticated cheating, conspiracy theories and fake news particularly on social media have convinced many of the poor to vote for the rich. This is the case in the US with Trump, in Italy with Salvini or Meloni or in France with Le Pen. The Corbyn project was earnest and ethical. It spoke for the many not the few and said politics is important, we need to organise socially. The right wing on the other hand puts forward an individualistic, transactional framework modelled on consumerism and the market.  Citing Adam Ramsey again (p61):

The Tories do not want you to get involved in the stress and detail of politics, let us get Brexit done and we can all go Xmas shopping, wage war on the political process, on trust and truth, make it bewildering and about celebrities.

Remember how the mainstream media lionised Brenda from Bristol who groaned at having to vote more than once in a couple of years. The system does not want you to get involved in politics,

Towards the end of this section Phipps puts his finger on the essence of the problem for socialists inside the Labour party:

Transforming Labour into the kind of movement that could not only win office but sustain a radical Corbyn government in power in the face of redoubled hostility and obstruction from all wings of the establishment – this was always going to be a daunting task for an essentially electoralist party notorious for its routinism and institutional conservatism. (p61) (…) As an electoralist party, labour offers a retail package that voters can buy into rather than mass empowerment. Perhaps the latter is needed for a socialist transformation. (p62)

Phipps correctly raises the structural limitations of Labourism and the need for mass empowerment. I would have liked him to relate his proposals for the next steps for socialists in the final section of his book more closely to this fundamental understanding. It leaves open whether this type of party can be won over to a real socialist alternative without breaking up.  Can mass empowerment sit side by side with this electoralist, institutional party? Labour is not just ‘notorious’ for its institutional conservatism, it is part of its DNA.’

Labour is not just ‘notorious’ for its institutional conservatism, it is part of its DNA.’

Finally to understand the defeat we need to be realistic also about the context in which Corbynism developed. The labour movement was still suffering from decades of defeats. The anti-capitalist socialists with a Marxist perspective were much smaller in number than in the last Bennite radicalisation of the late 70s and 80s. Militant class struggle activists in the workplaces and unions were also much diminished. Objectively the conjuncture was not very favourable but a radical Corbyn government could have reignited the struggles and working class self-organisation.   It was absolutely correct for socialists to pile in behind Corbyn.

Midnight all year – Starmer as leader

Why did Starmer win? The writer correctly shares Andrew Fisher’s judgement that members voted for continuity in policy, competent leadership and party unity. People may have forgotten given his drive to the right but Starmer did wrap himself in the banner of the 2017/19 manifestos.

Political weaknesses within the Corbynist bloc emerged quickly with Starmer’s slick operation. Momentum ended up recommending a vote for Raynor as deputy without listening to its members. Over time even members of the Socialist Campaign Group have moved apart on how to relate to the  Starmer regime.

The book goes through in almost excruciating detail Starmer’s almost monthly ‘betrayals’ of the Corbyn legacy :

  • disrespecting the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • denouncing the downing of the Colston slaver statue.
  • abandoning Labour policy on Kashmir.
  • only changing an abstentionist position on the Policing bill after the Sarah Everard protests.
  • told  MPs to abstain on the overseas operations bill,  absolving British soldiers from war crimes, also on Covert human intelligence sources legislation.
  • only gave up abstentionist position on Policing bill after the Sarah Everhard protests.
  • bland support for the Union Jack, family, respect, prosperity and security replaces any mention of for the many not the few and concrete policies to defend working people.
  • abjectly allowing Johnson to mismanage the whole Covid pandemic, bleating about competence and not attacking him personally or his corrupt cronyism.
  • removing the whip from Corbyn thus forcing him to break with Labour if he were to stand again in Islington North.
  • witch-hunting left activists accused of supporting  confidence debates on Corbyn’s suspension or of ‘anti-semitism’.
  • eliminating Corbyn supporters from the shadow front bench.

There are probably more examples but the list is getting too big and even people who voted for him accept now he is not continuity Corbynism! Only a week ago Starmer whipped his MPs to abstain on a bill that would have implemented free school meals for all families on universal credit. He has even managed to antagonise the trade unions, which set up Labour in the first place, by banning front bench members from going to support Railworkers’ picket lines. Indeed he has made it clear he will not be really on the side of any workers who are on strike. His line is to criticise the government or boss’s responsibility and to call lamely for negotiations.

Phipps is critical of how both the Labour leadership and the left responded to the antisemitism issue in Labour. He is right to suggest the Chakrabati report could have been a basis for dealing with the affair if the leadership had been more confident and clear. He also feels with some justification in my opinion that some of the left fell into a trap by closing ranks and refusing to accept that there were any problems of antisemitism that needed dealing with.

In discussing the rightward moves of Starmer some of the formulations used to suggest that the Labour leader has been captured or manipulated by the right-wing Blairite elements(p94). True, Starmer is relatively inexperienced politically and not particularly strategic or decisive but I think he knew all along what he wanted to do. He believes he can win an election by presenting the party as Corbyn free and ready to manage capital for the establishment. The recent decapitation of Johnson, the deep Tory crisis and opinion polls mean it is odds on the Tories will lose. Certainly, there is no surge of support for Labour and it could well be some sort of Lab-Lib pact that we end up with but there is no reason to think he will not be the next prime minister. His bold threat to resign if found to get a Covid fine has boosted his profile.

Starmer is relatively inexperienced politically and not particularly strategic or decisive but I think he knew all along what he wanted to do. He believes he can win an election by presenting the party as Corbyn free and ready to manage capital for the establishment.

Unlike some traditionalist Labour commentators, Phipps has a good understanding of the Scottish problem for Labour. Independence cannot be minimised or overcome by good bread and butter policies on the economy or social issues. Also, he recognises that the Greens’ growing support shown in the local elections and consistently in opinion polls shows that former Corbyn supporters have switched. This has definitely happened in the East London constituencies I know about. Dismissing the Greens as being opportunist or some sort of Tory or Lib Dem variant is just not facing reality.

Things can only get better 

The final third of the book is a very good starting point for socialists inside and outside the party to discuss what we do now. Phipps approaches this very much as a Labour Party insider but he sets out the debate in terms that the left outside Labour should and must engage with.

First of all, he is absolutely right to establish that not all the gains of Corbynism have been expunged from Labour. The party is still bigger with more people considering themselves on the left than it was under Miliband, Brown or Blair. A number of new left wing media operations like Novara Media or Tribune are well established. Momentum organises thousands of activists and has shed the Lansman leadership, for one that is more activist and outward-looking. The World Transformed is still going strong. Corbyn himself has set up his own ginger group called Peace and Justice which has thousands of members. It is also true to say that the left is at the centre of the policy debate inside Labour.

On policy and the left having a vision while the right does not, I think you have to be a bit careful here. I can remember from the 1960s Labour party conferences adopting very progressive policies which if ever implemented would challenge the rule of capital. However, I also remember through all this time that Labour leaderships (apart from under Corbyn) just cynically ignored nearly all radical policies. Just take one current example. Labour conference voted for public ownership of the energy companies but Starmer has only gone so far as supporting a windfall tax…that the Tories have now implemented. The right wing is quite happy for local parties like my own in Hackney to adopt brilliant contributions to the National Policy Forum on green or health issues but they never make it into the manifesto. Now, this does not mean it is a waste of time to have these discussions in Labour party branches or to take them into the unions (more difficult in any case)? No, it can educate people and help form more conscious anti-capitalist networks of militants. 

The labour leadership does not need a vision to manage British capital effectively. Okay, it might need a few banal slogans like Education, Education, Education or the 5 pledges of Blair, but a worked-out vision just gets in the way. Slick media messages are fine but concrete policies that actually change peoples’ lives for the better are not what the corporations require.

Another positive aspect that Phipps picks up is the way active campaigns like Black Lives Matter, Women’s rights and Palestine solidarity still have an impact inside the party. Getting local labour parties and local MPs or councillors to support an Anti-Racist campaign only helps the campaign get a wider appeal. Of course the strength of these campaigns is that they involve both Labour and non Labour activists, if they were just exclusive LP movements they would not have the same resonance. Just compare the impact of Extinction Rebellion with the official LP Socialist Environment and Resources Association (SERA). Indeed the leadership of the latter spends a lot of time trying not to involve all its members, as an article on the Labour Hub site recently explains.

Is it true today that the left continues to set the political agenda as the writer implies? If you mean that the left in labour has more ideas and more passion for policy, then yes. But if you define political agenda in terms of setting and carrying out a political line then it is unquestionably the case that the Starmer leadership sets the agenda. His leadership will decide on the manifesto and just as importantly will do all they can to remove sitting pro-Corbyn MPs or councillors and to prevent any left candidates from getting selected. This is happening as we write these words. The right wing is trying to remove Apsana Begum in Tower Hamlets and Sam Tarry, who has moved to the centre, is under fire in his seat. There are no signs that the Socialist Campaign Group will be boosting its numbers in the next election.

Again the left should not be opposed to getting good left councillors selected who can fight to defend local workers’ interests. Holding on and getting more left MPs is even more important. However, we have seen where councillors do take a stand to defend local people against cuts they will be turfed out quite quickly, as we saw recently in Liverpool with Alan Gibbon’s group of left councillors. Momentum has celebrated hundreds of new left councillors we now have. The other risk is in order to not lose the whip a left councillor becomes unable to represent local people they have pledged to defend on certain issues e.g. a local incinerator. In the worse cases, the left councillor becomes a soft left part of the council leadership.

Phipps is excellent in demolishing the Blue Labour recipe for the left which proposes adapting patriotic, traditionalist so-called working-class values combined with some old style redistribution. In this approach, Labour has to downplay its support for anything to do with identity politics like trans rights. Jon Cruddas, for instance, elevates work as a central feature of one’s identity but he defines this in a narrow economistic way and counterposes it to some sort of privileged global citizenship. As Phipps says the Red Wall working class have an interest in race or gender equality and the younger educated workers in the cities’ embrace economic issues such as seeking rent controls or being against zero-hour contracts. This idea of community and nation being the same thing is just too simplistic.

Another more positive way forward for socialists today, discussed positively by the writer, is to look at creative, engaged organising, at the local or even regional level. Community Wealth Building has been championed by councils in Preston and Salford. Councils try to use their spending to insource services and to use local businesses so resources do not leak away to corporations. Cooperatives can also be encouraged in this way.

Certainly dropping all outsourcing is to be welcomed and some gains can be made for local people in terms of employment and better services. However can such changes at a local level help to turn around the fortunes of the party nationally? One thing is to dismiss such action in an ultra-left or sectarian manner but another is to extrapolate and exaggerate its impact on national politics. Has it stopped the rightward shift of Starmer? Richard Hatcher in an article here suggests the Preston model has had less impact than its champions have claimed.

Nevertheless, it is a good way of keeping activists involved and informed about the local economy and stopping the drift away from engagement with politics. Corbynism is also alive and well in some unlikely places like Hastings, Worthing and Lewes. Without Corbyn, it is unlikely we would have seen such developments.

Phipps takes up an interesting discussion about people leaving Labour because they are fed up with Starmer’s shift to the right. He quotes Jeremy Gilbert’s tirade against people leaving being a ‘lifestyle choice, and their ‘individual sense of self-worth’ and adopting ‘bourgeois liberal politics’. This judgment is rightly defined as too harsh, people joined for idealistic reasons because of Corbyn, they have not necessarily given up these ideas. In any case, they were not always made very welcome by existing members. James Schneider justifies his attack on people abandoning the Labour Party by erecting a whole theory about the dual nature of the party:

Part of its role is to prop up the existing power structures of capitalist society and part of its role is to challenge that power… That conflict takes place within the party by definition a site of struggle.

Logically if you define the Labour Party as the key site of class struggle then it does look as if you are abandoning the field of struggle if you leave it. It is very hard to see any time in its history that Labour actually challenged the power structures of capitalist society from supporting all imperialist wars from the First World War to Iraq or refusing to back the biggest strikes such as the miners in 1984.

Logically if you define the Labour Party as the key site of class struggle then it does look as if you are abandoning the field of struggle if you leave it.

Obviously, the union affiliation and the unfair electoral system means class struggles are reflected in the Labour party and the impact of socialists inside it can rise and fall but as an institution, it does not have a dual nature. If there were to be a serious challenge to capital the Labour party would break up – we saw signs of this even with the limited challenge of Corbynism. That is not to say that any alternative socialist current can ever be built in this country without winning other the tens of thousands of good socialists who are Labour Party members.

Here the criticisms Phipps makes of some of the attempts to set up alternative parties outside Labour are often quite pertinent.  Some current ultra-left schemas which just say to Labour Party members to leave Labour and join the revolutionary party just do not work. It is particularly difficult to make this work under the current electoral system which makes building new parties very hard. In fact it is true as the author suggests on page 169 the debate about in or out of Labour is often a substitute for a proper discussion of socialist strategy. I agree but that debate cannot be restricted to an internal Labour Party debate either, there are also thousands of good socialists outside Labour who are interested in a socialist alternative. We have to accept that neither working purely in Labour nor trying to build radical left parties outside it have produced political currents with mass support that can challenge capital’s rule.

This book is a good antidote to those who take an over-pessimistic view of the state of the left and the labour movement or who write off Labour party members. It is important for the left who are not inside the Labour Party to engage with the debate Mike Phipps has opened up. People inside Labour also have to draw the balance sheet of the Corbyn project. Any strategy for working in Labour has to start from the idea that you will not be able to creep up on the Labour right and take over Labour and make it a tool for socialist transformation.

Any strategy for people currently not Labour members has to be to look towards working with people inside Labour and to work together to build campaigns and worker’s struggles. At the same time within these broad struggles, we need to build a current culture of anti-capitalist ecosocialist resistance that uses the best of the Marxist tradition to win people to an understanding of the nature of capitalist exploitation and the state that defends that power.

*Mike Phipps is available for Labour party and any other labour movement meetings to discuss his book, contact him at Labour Hub.


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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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