THE RACE TO become Labour Party leader is entering the final straight, with three candidates left running when the ballot opened on Monday 24 February. Keir Starmer, never a Corbynista, claims he will not “oversteer” away from Corbyn’s policies, but steer away from them he surely will. Lisa Nandy (who, like Starmer, joined the 2016 PLP revolt against Corbyn’s leadership) has made clear she will do the same. Both, particularly Starmer, are attracting support from the right, but also sections of the left. Only Rebecca Long-Bailey has emerged as the clear continuity candidate of the Corbyn left.
It is fair to say the campaign has not excited passions in the way Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bids did in 2015 and 2016. The Labour left is demoralised and fragmented following the defeat of the general election, with a section confused by the “unity and electability” arguments of Starmer or left-sounding pitch of Nandy and many put off by Long-Bailey’s repeated assertions of “patriotism” and known pro-Brexit position.
While it is important for party members to rally behind Long-Bailey, for her support for Corbyn’s policies as well as her promises to carry though democratic reforms including automatic selection of MPs, it is equally necessary to examine her strengths and weaknesses in order to be forewarned, and to establish what was missing under Corbyn – an independent, critical left that can fight to transform the party.
One of Long-Bailey’s strengths is her defence of both the 2017 and 2019 manifestos. She is openly proud of having contributed to the development of Labour’s key economic policies, like the (albeit partial, gradual) renationalisation of mail, rail, water and energy. In the hustings, she pointed the party in the right direction when she called for Labour to be at the heart of a mass trade union membership drive and to voice vocal support for all strikes.
But perhaps the biggest positive is Long-Bailey’s support for making every sitting MP face open re-selection every five years, which would be a real improvement in members’ rights over the PLP. Trigger ballots are notoriously difficult to win because of the incumbent being the only candidate; open ballots allow the left to prepare manifestos and candidates.
But democratisation shouldn’t stop here. The sovereignty of conference, particularly over the PLP, but also over policy and the manifesto, has to be established. It would also be refreshing to see a leadership candidate call for a reduction in the power of the leadership’s office to declare policy without any mandate or warning, a practice even Corbyn employed, e.g. over immigration.
And her endorsement of Angela Rayner, an ex-Unison official, for deputy leader was in part surely meant to show loyalty to the union bureaucracy. Though the Labour left has rarely (outside of mass strike action) publicly criticised the union bureaucracy, the leaders like McCluskey who wield the bloc vote in conference and pack the NEC are an obstacle to more radical policies and often push for damaging compromises on climate change and free movement, or the anti-Semitism offensive against Labour. Will they support open selection? Organising the rank and file in the Party, many of them trade unionists, is key to changing trade union leadership, policy, and democratisation of the party itself.
Long-Bailey’s pluses are tempered by a growing list of less positive stances. Under pressure in the BBC Newsnight and Channel 4 hustings, RLB refused to support the 4-day week, lowering retirement age for all to 66 or abolishing private schools: all Labour Party policy. Her argument on the four day week – that Labour had promised things it couldn’t achieve in the first five years – could become a template for dropping policies and downsizing the future manifesto.
She criticises the 2019 Labour manifesto for its lack of a compelling narrative, contributing to a “lack of credibility”, which has considerable truth. But at her Lewisham rally, she presented her alternative – “aspirational socialism” – as necessary to relate to homeowners who had bought their council flat, were both in work, and voted Leave (the unspoken implication is that they also voted Tory).
But the need to court the aspiring homeowners – in itself a reversion to the Kinnock-Blair-Brown-Miliband era – can’t be the main priority. At a time of declining social services, stagnant wages and the rise of precarious working, especially among the pro-Labour youth, appeals to aspiration, patriotism and winning back those who defected to the Tories is one hundred per cent wrong.
Her proposal to abolish the feudal relic (and modern cronyism) of the House of Lords is great – so why did Long-Bailey say she would vote against abolishing the monarchy at the hustings, when even Nandy stated she would?! Long-Bailey’s alternative, an elected senate, is unnecessary, undemocratic and would be a block against a Labour government passing radical laws.
Rebecca Long-Bailey’s team got off to a disastrous first few weeks – from which she has not really recovered.
First she immediately declared her support for her “good friend” Angela Rayner and called on Momentum to back her mate. Beside the hint of cronyism, RLB justified this as a unity ticket. She told Sky News:
“If there are people in our party who are more interested in beating the left than winning back power for Labour, we must ensure that we isolate them, not help them to isolate us.”
What she really meant was, “If there are members more interested in beating the right than uniting the party in a rotten compromise, I will isolate them.” The fact that Richard Burgon is standing on a far more solid left wing programme and has the support of John McDonnell and Diane Abbott shows that Long-Bailey doesn’t really represent “continuity Corbyn” but is herself shifting to the right.
We must add to Momentum’s epitaph their shameful support for Rayner over Burgon, though the membership may have its revenge if his support in CLP nominating meetings can become a springboard for his election.
Second, in the same fatal week, Long-Bailey signed up to the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ 10 Pledges. Elsewhere we analyse this tactic by the conservative and anti-Labour BoD, in league with the witch-hunting Jewish Labour Movement, which the pledges affirm as the sole voice of Jews in the party.
This is a dreadful blow to the Palestinians’ cause, which will be felt internationally just as Trump’s deal threatens renewed Israeli aggression. But Long-Bailey went further in the JLM hustings (JLM hustings? They didn’t even issue an unequivocal call to vote Labour!) when she said:
“I also agree with a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state… I suppose that makes me a Zionist because I agree with Israel’s right to exist and right to self determine.”
Since Israel’s “right to exist” rests on the denial of Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their family homeland, this is a severe breach of international solidarity with the oppressed. Support for Israel today – really existing Zionism – is in fact racist against the Palestinians.
Patriotic and aspirational?
In the Guardian, at the start of her campaign, Long-Bailey wrote that, “… as in 1862 when Lancashire’s mill workers supported Abraham Lincoln’s anti-slavery blockade of cotton from the American south. To win we must revive this progressive patriotism and solidarity in a form fit for modern Britain.”
This has been heavily criticised by many. First, its example, while commendable, is of a group of workers rejecting and overcoming patriotism, as Britain was supplying the South. Second, it is not an empty phrase. It emanates from the Stalinist stable, exemplified in Britain by the Morning Star, and is code for adapting to Brexit nationalism and anti-immigrant, “British jobs for British workers” chauvinism. Wrapping the socialist left in the union jack harms rather than helps our cause of uniting workers around their class interests in the struggle against austerity – the real cause of falling standards of living.
Like Corbyn, Rebecca Long-Bailey has been evasive, quiet even on migration. She came across as less pro-migrant in the hustings than even the right wing contenders. “We have to be pragmatic,” she says. Brexit means “the EU is unlikely to agree free movement”. This piece of double-speak blames the Europeans for stopping us from opening our own borders!
So what does this nation of progressive patriots look like? RLB often dresses it up as an aspiration for collective struggle, strikes even, where “I don’t rise, but we all rise together,” as she told the Lewisham audience.
But the term “aspirational socialism” doesn’t really embody the tendency of such struggles to appeal to fresh, or refreshed workers – class struggle socialism would be a far more accurate term. “Be more aspirational” is a middle class slogan, designed to disguise class (and other) privilege as purely the result of individual resilience and bravado.
Long-Bailey’s examples of her target audience are almost exclusively well to do, older home owners, who are employed, worried enough about immigration to vote Leave, northern, and white. Her “path to power” through “connecting” with (ex-) Labour voters in the “Red Wall” is a retreat from internationalism and socialism, and will turn off many of the younger, more multiracial voters who backed the party in December.
The way forward
Rather than accommodating to the right, competing on their turns or compromising with Labour ex-voters, Labour needs to orientate – as RLB recognises – to all workers and communities in struggle.
And not just on economic issues, though it looks like strikes may come along soon, but just as vigorously against racist deportations, for rapid climate action, for women’s and LGBT rights. Labour should take the lead not only in supporting such struggles, even where they are against Labour councils, but initiating them where they do not sufficiently exist, like on Universal Credit.
Commentators have compared the current situation in the Labour Party to 1983, where the left had many of their policies accepted into the manifesto only to lose the election heavily (and like this time, in seats in a more pronounced way than in votes). In Johnson’s Tory government they certainly have an equally determined and ruthless enemy.
But history isn’t repeated automatically. People make history – and sometimes in comparable circumstances. The lesson from the 1980s is that Labour could have supported the miners’ strike and massively gained in membership, possibly altering the outcome or at least its aftermath. It could have supported the poll tax rebellion and recruited a million, bringing down not just the hated tax, not just Margaret Thatcher, but the government itself.
Labour needs to become that party now. But it can’t remain fixated by the leader, as it largely was under Corbyn. Rather it should link the fight for socialism to the fight to stop the Tories, to preventing climate catastrophe, for international justice in Palestine and everywhere.
A “people powered” party places mass struggle and their organised, grassroots units at the centre of its strategy. Victory for Rebecca Long-Bailey and Richard Burgon for Deputy gives the left the best opportunity to organise Labour to bring down the Tories. But we need to organise a left that breaks from the uncritical support of a left leader, that is willing to condemn their backsliding and concessions, and to press for principled internationalist and anticapitalist policies via the branches, unions and conference.