Labour Party: unions and members must fight back 

09 March 2023

By R Banks

Keir Starmer claims that banning Jeremy Corbyn from standing as a Labour Party candidate, was ‘an important moment in the history of the Labour Party’ and represented ‘giving it back to the British people’. Giving it back to British imperialism more like.

He added ‘it will never again be brought to its knees by racism or bigotry.’ This is truly Orwellian ‘newspeak’. To describe Corbyn, a lifelong antiracist, as fostering antisemitism and a period in which Labour more than doubled its membership as ‘bringing it to its knees’ is a provocation to any socialist member of the Labour Party. Hence his sneering claim that the ‘door is open’ for them to leave.

The only ‘historic’ thing about Starmer’s leadership is that the very existence of a left reformist faction of backbenchers is being snuffed out: something Kinnock and Blair proved unable to achieve. However, the Labour left is going ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. Witness the fact that eleven of them withdrew their signatures from a Stop the War petition, when Starmer threatened them.

Long time ally Dianne Abbott, when interviewed on whether Corbyn would stand against Labour, cried, ‘No, no. Jeremy has been a member of the Labour Party from before either of you were alive… He has no intention of standing as an independent.’ 

The parliamentary Labour left is muzzled as never before. The reason is that rebellion will lead to expulsion. And for parliamentary socialists, expulsion from Westminster is the end of their strategy.

In an attempt to recapture some of the electoral appeal enjoyed by Labour during Tony Blair’s 1997 election campaign, Starmer has aped his ‘five pledges’, issuing his ‘five missions for a better Britain’: the highest growth in the G7; an NHS fit for the future; making Britain’s streets safe; breaking down barriers to opportunity at every stage; and turning Britain into a clean energy superpower.

These vacuous ‘missions’ are a far cry from the ‘10 pledges’ which he campaigned for the leadership on, but were never heard of again once he was leader. Now Starmer claims those pledges were not abandoned at all, merely adapted ‘to the circumstances we find ourselves in’. He says his original 10 pledges remain ‘an important statement of value and principle’, despite the fact that key policies, such as the nationalisation of energy companies, have been dropped.

Fight Back

Keir Starmer’s ability to betray his promises and steer the party ever further to right is the result of two key factors. Firstly the Labour left’s failure, between 2015 and 2019, to break the power of the the right wing, entrenched in the parliamentary party (PLP), in the bureaucracy of ‘staffers’ and in the Councils.

Instead Corbyn tried repeatedly to compromise with the likes of Hilary Benn and Keir Starmer himself, resulting in Corbyn being subjected to two PLP coups, and then repeatedly smeared with the ‘antisemitism’ campaign, allowing and his rank an file supporters to be witch-hunted and expelled.

Secondly since 2019 the strategy of the left MPs and Momentum has been to keep their heads down, going from a powerful movement of many thousands to a powerless rump within the space of a few years. Equally responsible for this policy of retreat and surrender were the left leaders in the trade unions, like Unite, who pay Labour’s bills.

They failed to defend the left-wingers from expulsion and kept mum, even faced with Corbyn’s repeated humiliations. They failed to protest Starmer’s refusal to support workers on strike and his threat to sack shadow cabinet members if they appeared on picket lines. Under Sharon Graham Unite has abandoned any sort of intervention in the party.

Nevertheless the unions must insist Labour address key issues which affect the lives of the working class: increases in wages and pensions that meet rising prices; nationalisation of the utilities; repeal of the anti-trade union laws; defence of the NHS; protection of migrants and refugees; and an end to NATO and its imperialist warmongering.

They should publicly and forcefully demand such policies and condemn Starmer’s shadowing of the Tories in terms of public spending.

But none of this can cover up the fact that the working class in Britain needs a party that fights not just at the ballot box but in the workplaces an on the streets, that fights racism and social oppression, that seeks to put an end to capitalism and imperialism – in short a revolutionary party.

A New Workers Party?

Today we are hearing the same voices that called for an electoral alternative to Labour back in the 1990s and 2000s, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Socialist Party and a number of smaller groups. They failed then and will doubtless fail again to break workers away from Labourism.

Even under Starmer Labour remains what Lenin called a bourgeois workers party, one that ‘serves the bourgeoisie’ but has organic links to the working class through its affiliated unions.

Whenever the working class – usually after Tory attacks on the unions and previous social gains – expects that Labour could or should protect them, revolutionaries need to employ tactics that can explode the contradiction between these hopes and the reality of the party’s deeds in government.

For the vanguard of socialist militants Labour already stands exposed by Starmer’s own words and deeds But over the next 18 months, the trade union leaders will once again generate illusions that Starmer will be better than the Tories. Millions will assume they can’t be worse. There could indeed be a Labour landslide.

That is why we fight to get the unions to formulate the real needs of the working class and demand them of Labour, with menaces, i.e. reminding the party where its election funds come from. We must press the unions in this year’s round of conferences to demand policies on pay, the anti-union laws, social spending, democratic rights, immigration, etc.

They must then make them major campaigning issues among their own members and the general public. Of course we know Starmer and his shadow cabinet will reject or simply ignore these policies. But it makes concrete workers’ expectations, something Starmer and co. are eager to avoid.

Socialists can then turn these expectations into a wedge to drive between Starmer’s Labour Party and its working class base, especially in the unions. Instead of passively letting another set of Blairs and Browns subject us to another round of neoliberal policies and imperialist wars, we can lay the basis for a socialist fightback from day one.


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