When Keir Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey it provoked a flurry of discussion about whether left-wing members should leave the Labour Party.
A Counterfire editorial argues that ‘the fight is on, but it isn’t going to be fought in the Labour party’, urging members to get involved in ‘mass politics… building workplace organisation, supporting the People’s Assembly, fighting every cutback and closure on the ground.’
Colin Wilson of rs21 writes that members should leave… with a plan. He advises former Corbynites to ‘check out’ what exists in their area, or ‘clarify your political ideas’ possibly through a reading group.
These organisations, and others, seem to believe that the Labour Party leadership’s shift to the right, and attacks on the left, will mean that more people will be looking for alternatives outside of the party. Unfortunately, the alternative areas of activity suggested are vague, and the strategy behind them even more so.
The left under attack
Clearly Rebecca Long-Bailey’s sacking marks the start of Keir Starmer’s attack on the Labour left.
The surprise and disappointment, feigned or otherwise, on display by ‘left’ leaders like Jon Lansman and Len McCluskey is either naïve or cynical or both.
But while the number of members who have actually left so far is small, their departure reflects a real sense that Keir Starmer is taking the party to the right, despite his manifestly self-serving promises to the contrary, and that there is no obvious organisational form or political strategy through which to oppose this.
The question of whether to leave or remain inside the Labour Party should not be a matter of individual conscience. Membership of political organisations should not simply be an individual’s expression of identity. Ultimately, the question should be one of strategy and tactics – for the left, and the workers’ movement. To make this decision, therefore, we need to understand what the Labour Party is, what has happened to it in the last few years, what is happening within it now, and what tasks lay ahead for the left in the present and near future. Only then can we decide whether remaining inside the Labour Party is the correct decision.
Strategy & tactics
First of all, we should recognise that the working class and the socialist movement in Britain has just suffered a profound defeat. Losing the election in December 2019 was not a temporary setback on the path to victory, nor a defining moment which will be the catalyst for a wave of mass radicalisation.
The movement led by Corbyn, and the product of five years’ hard work by thousands of people, was comprehensively beaten by the hard right of the Conservative Party and the right wing of the Labour Party.
The latter, cheered on by the Tory press, are now planning a full-on rout of the left inside the party, re-establishing it as a safe pair of hands for British capitalism. Any decisions we make should start from an understanding of this.
The decision for socialist organisations to become active (or not) in the Labour Party is a tactical one. The movement that brought Corbyn into the leadership of the party caught many on the left by surprise, but for those who recognised the need for socialists to engage with Labour’s radicalised mass membership the decision to become active in Labour was obvious.
For most of the Labour membership, including the majority of Corbyn supporters the question of electoral politics remains paramount, and that was singularly unchallenged during the last four years.
The nature of the Labour Party, particularly in the years leading up to this shock victory, has always meant that the Marxist left has been sceptical of it as a vehicle for working class radicalism. Lenin referred to it as a “capitalist workers’ party”. It has historically, never been led by the working class, and has never had a programme aimed at the construction of socialism. Its leadership has always been made up of some of the most loyal defenders of British capitalism – and imperialism – in the labour movement.
It does, however, have a mass working class base, both in its voters and through its relationship with the trade unions. It is the only mass working class party in Britain.
Therefore, the question for socialists has always been how to relate to the working class base and socialist members of the organisation, without simply tailing its reactionary leadership. After Corbyn’s election and the upsurge in political activity that accompanied it, it became clear that the Labour Party was now seen by many as the main vehicle for the achievement of socialist policies and ideas.
It would have been completely sectarian to remain outside this movement, waiting for it to fail. However, it was important to recognise its deficiencies, and understand that the party had not fundamentally changed. Membership of the Labour Party, even at the height of the Corbyn movement, was therefore always a tactical decision.
With Starmer in the leadership and the right reasserting itself, many are now arguing that this moment has passed, and that the best thing to do is to leave. This is a fundamental mistake. To leave without an attempt to organise anything new will simply achieve what the right of the Labour Party and other reactionaries are aiming for – the complete scattering of the movement.
This movement is under attack, and what is required is a rapid attempt to muster our forces on a clear programme that connects the resistance to Keir Starmer’s offensive against the left, with the leadership’s decision to abstain from political opposition and resistance.
If we could sum up our aims at this point they would be:
1. Preserve as many of the gains of the Corbyn movement as possible.
2. Build and support new movements and spikes in activity, and new developments in the class struggle – movements such as Black Lives Matter, and possible new movements over issues such as mass unemployment and the annexation of the West Bank.
3. To attempt to bring these old and new forces together.
4. To learn the lessons of the Corbyn movement and build anything new with these in mind.
The Labour Left
Unfortunately, the Labour left is heavily bureaucratised, increasingly inward focussed, shrinking, and becoming bitter and divided under the pressure of defeat and demoralisation. Where once the Labour left was focussed on electing a Corbyn government, it now lacks both a unifying purpose and the structures through which to debate and decide one.
Outside the party, exciting new movements like Black Lives Matter are developing which are dynamic and radical, but the nature of spontaneous uprisings means that they tend to lack lasting structure and political focus and can therefore be diffuse and short-lived.
To advocate an abandonment of the Labour Party for these structureless movements is likely to mean a dissolution of left forces into a variety of campaigns, with no clear plan or focus.
Alternately, to simply insist on concentrating purely on the Labour Party will lead, inevitably, to a slow attrition, as the left obsesses itself with ultimately inconsequential fights over control of committees and largely pointless motion-mongering. The left should not fetishise spontaneity and see the dynamism and radicalism of new movements as a substitution for lasting and focussed organisation; nor should it obsess itself with bureaucratic existing structures and ignore new movements and activity elsewhere. Instead, as always, it should aim to relate the existing organisations of the left to the new movements, and synthesise organisation and spontaneity, in the hopes of building a radical new mass movement of the working class.
The problem with the argument to leave is that those who are making it have no real answer as to what people should join or build after they have left. The majority of people who leave will therefore drift away from politics altogether, or scatter into a number of different small groups.
In essence, such calls amount to encouraging a retreat into a full-blown stampede, perhaps in the hope that a few individuals may end up joining one of the sectarian organisations outside of the Labour Party.
Opportunistically preying upon the demoralisation following a defeat is not a strategy. Rather than a rallying cry, it is a recipe for a disordered retreat. It also fatally misunderstands the nature of the Corbyn movement to begin with.
Those who were energised by the Corbyn movement were largely reformists who, although outside the Labour Party, continued to look to it for leadership, and were temporarily radicalised by the possibilities opened up by Corbyn’s leadership, thinking for the first time in a while that a socialist Labour government was possible. A much smaller minority were revolutionaries and other radicals who joined the Labour Party, and in many cases shifted to the right in the process.
With one third of Corbyn supporters reportedly having voted for Starmer, and others having a largely passive “wait and see” approach with regards to his leadership, what we are witnessing is a “return to form” on the part of the Labour Party membership who, after the defeat, moderated their hopes and expectations. More likely than a mass exodus from the Labour Party, is growing passivity and a drift to the right. To combat this we must rally and organise the Labour left, not encourage individual resignations.
Conversely, many on the left, after the defeat, are also reverting – back to the idea of isolated single issue activity and small revolutionary organisations. The call to leave is therefore encouraging a separation between the minority of revolutionaries and radicals, and the majority of reformists that made up the Corbyn movement.
Any attempt to build something new, or just to relate to wider layers in the hope of building the new movements that may develop in the near future, has to have as part of its strategy that mass of reformists who, at least temporarily, were radicalised by Corbyn’s leadership. That means, inevitably, an approach to engage with the organisation that they continue to look to – the Labour Party.
The left should not, therefore, be calling on people to leave. We should instead be attempting to rally what remains of the movement built since 2015, on a clear political programme and strategy or relating to the wider movement, and casting off any attempts to embroil it in pointless minority factionalism and bureaucratic manoeuvres.
We should attempt to relate the large numbers of reformists radicalised by the Corbyn project to the new spontaneous movements that will likely develop independent of it, in the hopes of radicalising and rejuvenating the former, and incorporating the latter into the wider left, giving it lasting structures and political focus.
We should initially rally the left inside the Labour Party in resistance to Starmer and the Labour right’s attempts to smash the left, and oppose the witch-hunt. We should fight all attempts to roll back left policy positions, and in doing so attempt to win the majority of the Labour Party membership who were energised by Corbyn’s programme, to defend the policies they have fought for.
In doing this, we should raise an alternative left programme for the Labour Party, and set up organisations to fight for it. We should demand that left organisations such as Momentum take a lead in doing this, and take the fight into the CLPs, union branches and other movement organisations, arguing for their support. All this should be done as a genuine attempt to win the Labour membership on a political basis, not bureaucratic manoeuvring to take over committees or wrangle motions behind closed doors.
It is unlikely that the left will win the leadership of the Labour Party again any time soon, but this in itself should not be our primary aim. Socialists should always view any specific tactic as part of a wider goal of building a mass, working class movement, with the ultimate aim of overturning the existing capitalist system and building a new society.
At every stage, when working to achieve this, we need to look at the current balance of forces in the class struggle, and work out how to organise, and expand upon these.
There may come a point in the future, if the right continues its ascent, and the forces of the Corbyn movement are completely diminished, expelled or smashed, that the left should advocate that people leave on a principled basis with a clear strategy for what next.
To avoid a scattering of our forces, and a complete rolling back of everything that has been achieved up until this point, we need to concentrate on organising together in as united a manner as possible, not simply joining in the exodus as individuals. If it comes to the point that we do need to leave, we should be doing this in the largest numbers possible, in the hopes of building a new anticapitalist workers party.