openDemocracyUK: Opinion

England's left must rebuild... outside the Labour party

The Labour machine stifles energy and staves momentum.

Jonathon Shafi
16 April 2020, 2.09pm
March against the Iraq war, London, 2003
Imperial War Museum

The Labour Party at a time when the whole economic system is in question – facing potentially its deepest crisis in the history of capitalism – has the wrong leadership. Keir Starmer, praised by a key architect of austerity, George Osborne, pitched to the left in his successful challenge to become Labour leader. But only a few days needed to pass for that pretence to die.

He constructed a shadow cabinet that gave a few mild sops to the left, then added in the most trenchant opponents of the Corbyn project. Wes Streeting, Jess Phillips and Stephen Kinnock to name a few. Let’s be plain: this was always the way back for the Labour right. It was never going to come from an arch-Blairite, but through peeling sections of the soft-left away from Corbynism.

This worked in tandem with parts of the core apparatus of the party at an institutional level militating against Corbyn in the most depraved manner, as shown by the Labour leaks. Understandably this has led to widespread revulsion among party activists, who have had their work deliberately and systematically undermined by the party structure itself. In turn, many have left Labour, while many leading figures on the left urge them to stay.

First we need to dispense with illusions about Labour. It is entirely unsurprising that there was a coordinated internal effort to destroy the Corbyn project. This is not some inter-personal factional war. Nor is it solely based on the pettiness that often comes with elected politics, which can lead to highly aggressive and damaging conflicts.

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Instead it has to be understood in relation to capital itself. The organisation of the anti-Corbynites is based on a defence of capital – at the direct expense of labour. This tension has been ever present within the Labour Party. In a very real sense, the Labour Party has been an important element in maintaining the unity of the British state, the wider establishment, the financial institutions and so on.

Starmer is already reflecting this. His approach to the coronavirus, and ending the lockdown, might as well have been written by the corporate lobby. His demands at the present moment are the same demands of big business, rather than articulating the immediate concerns of the working class. His argument about schools returning too – is also in direct conflict with the National Education Union. Already this represents a sea change from the approach adopted by Corbyn.

Before we get to what might be done to arrest this process, and to grow the fortunes of the left, we need to understand the roots of Corbynism itself. Because having the correct analysis of this phenomenon gives us clues about how best to move forward post-Corbyn. I use the word ‘phenomenon’ advisedly, because the rise of Corbyn was conjunctural. It was not a project of the Labour left, nor was it even in the lineage of Bennism. This is not to say that the dogged determination to remain in the Labour party didn’t play a role. After all, Corbyn, McDonnell and so on had to be there in the first place to make a stand.

But far more, it was the result of more immediate factors present in the major political movements of the 21st Century – in which Corbyn played a key role. It is important to remember that the general pattern of resistance had been in the form of extra-parliamentary movements. These movements mobilised wide sections of society, via demonstrations, public meetings, street activism, cultural events, petitions and much else. They percolated a certain sentiment and in doing so developed the social resources that would allow the rise of Corbyn.

The anti-war movement played an obviously central role. It was here that widespread discontent at Blair and the invasion of Iraq channelled itself. A whole generation of activists was born, and a whole new generation of leftists. This cause was not just a flash in the pan either. Known for the massive February 15th demonstration, the movement was in fact maintained in the years that followed generating marches and events involving hundreds of thousands of people. Jeremy Corbyn was a key spokesperson for this movement, and this would play a central role in his challenge for leadership. It would signal a total break with New Labour – and became a gateway for thousands of people to join and vote for Corbyn.

This gateway, this pent up reserve of political energy, was to expand further in movement form in the post-2008 landscape. A combination of austerity and economic injustice meant that there was space for alternatives to emerge. But again, they didn’t emerge through Labour Party branches. Resistance to cuts, attacks on education and so forth came again from street movements. The student rebellions, the mass trade union demonstrations, the big strike days, the major demonstrations of the anti-austerity movement and the local campaigns mounted to defend services offered spaces where the left could convene and mobilise.

What each of these movements lacked was a political leadership that could provide them representation in formal politics, and in the parliamentary sphere. Movement building alone has its limitations unless they can become bound with a project that challenges for power. The lack of this political alternative hampered other movements internationally, such as Occupy Wall Street. In Greece a movement of community solidarity, general strikes and a wide range of social responses to austerity coalesced around Syriza – itself with its own contradictions which led to eventual capitulation. In Spain, the movement of the squares which emerged as a response to mass youth unemployment and austerity at least in part morphed into Podemos. Again – this had its own set of problems to contend with, despite making electoral breakthroughs.

In England (Scotland is a separate matter, with different dynamics as a result of the national question), the mass movements which dominated the left response to the crisis were to seize on the opportunity offered by Corbyn standing for leader. The Labour Party experienced a surge in membership – composed of many tens of thousands of people who had taken some part in extra-parliamentary activism.

But this moment only existed because the broad forces of the left arrayed and mobilised around the two pivotal, era-defining, questions of war and austerity outwith the Labour Party. Corbyn arrived as someone who was ‘one of us’ in a way that Starmer will never be. This chord between movement and political leadership is what bred such campaigning tenacity – and political hope among the new forces entering Labour.

Indeed it is only because of the massive influx of new activism that Corbyn survived as long as he did. It was their defence of Corbyn and not the decades of embedded Labour left, or the national media representatives of the left now urging activists to remain in the party. Indeed – and this is not a personal attack – these new members had better instincts. Now, many will feel homeless politically, as they keenly understand that the establishment is back in control and that even if strong left challenges do emerge, they are set to be undermined from within.

Demoralisation is a key weapon deployed by the Labour Right. They don’t need to have especially good ideas. What they need to do is suffocate the advances of the left. The Labour Party is the most adept vehicle at sucking the political lifeblood out of radicals. Some leave, dispirited. Others spend a lifetime in a never ending faction fight – a dehumanising and de-politicising experience where intervention amounts to getting this or that policy passed at Labour conference or at a CLP.

Suffocation inside the Labour Party is not an option for the left moving forward. It was the oxygen of the mass movement that breathed life into the Corbyn moment. New leaders will emerge – this is an inevitable part of struggle. But the key word here is struggle. Corbyn was never a bureaucrat, he was present and part of political struggle out with the confines of party and parliament. This is where the left now must focus its resources.

In the coming period we face a situation that raises the prospect of further immiseration of working class life, the climate breakdown and yes – war. In these circumstances mass movements will be required to defend communities, oppose militarism, fight for democracy and combat the far-right. From this vantage the left can influence the national discourse, and can build pressure from below to force more radical outcomes at the level of formal politics. Here too the left can develop the capacity, the spaces and the forums required to address the contradictions inherent in the Labour Party and the complexities involved in parliamentary politics.

It would be a historic error to hunker down in Labour at the expense of this urgent work. Vitality is to be found in building a movement of resistance to the Tories outside Labour. This is not to say there is no difference between a Starmer led government and a Johnson one – the terrain for left advance is more fertile under the former. It is not even an argument to leave the Labour Party. But it is about being clear sighted about where openings to rebuild the left exist. In any event hundreds of thousands of activists who became active around Corbyn over the years will find no enthusiasm for Starmer – or increasingly Labour as a whole. And new social elements will join the struggle in the new world that emerges from the coronavirus, intent on building a new social order with it. In both cases, this will require focus and attention on developing an extra-parliamentary movement.

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