Labour Party  •  UK

Where is Starmer steering Labour?

27 August 2021
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By Tim Nailsea

THE LABOUR Party will hold its first in-person conference for two years, with motions and voting, fringe meetings and probably quite a few protests, in Brighton on 25-29 September.

Thousands of activists and hundreds of MPs, party bureaucrats and political aides will gather again, but the atmosphere will be markedly different this time.

Since Keir Starmer won the leadership of Labour there has been a huge effort to move the party to the right. Attacks on the left are part of a project of dragging the party back to the right and reintroducing the pro-capitalist policies of New Labour.

Labour to Win, a faction recently formed out of a merger between Labour First and Progress, both Blairite pressure groups openly hostile to Corbyn, is dedicated to rolling back the clock. Its founding statement says:

“We greet Keir’s election with a huge sense of relief that what has been a lost decade in our party’s history is coming to an end. We must now all focus on ensuring Labour is once again seen as a party of government.”

Retreat

The Labour right, therefore, will not be content with simply reversing the gains of the Corbyn years, but are planning to return us to the era before even Ed Miliband was in charge. Blair and Brown—who dragged the UK into war in Afghanistan and Iraq, bailed out the bankers with billions of our money and opened the door to profiteers in the NHS and schools—are their template.

Starmer claims that he wants Labour to become the “party of business”. He has abandoned commitments to nationalisation of transport and utilities and opposed tax rises on business, putting the party to the right of the Tories.

The leadership has opposed any attempt at solidarity with the Palestinian people against the Israeli onslaught and deliberately targeted Palestinian solidarity activists, including prominent Jewish members, with trumped-up charges of antisemitism. In a cynical attempt to win Indian votes, Labour also abandoned solidarity with the Kashmiri people, under occupation by the Indian army for the last two years.

Starmer and his team claim that their dramatic shift to the right is being done to win back the votes of working class people behind the ‘Red Wall’, lost to the Tories in 2019, mostly due to their support for Brexit. In an embarrassing attempt to relate to Red Wall voters Starmer and other leading Labour MPs posed drinking pints next to Union flags.

These constituencies were largely lost because many Labour voters went on electoral strike. Demoralised and confused by the smears of antisemitism and by Corbyn and Starmer’s attempt to face both ways in the Brexit debate, many stayed at home and some voted for Tories, Lib Dems or Greens. Waving a Union flag and becoming the ‘party of business’ will not win back such voters, as the devastating defeats in Hartlepool and the local government elections this year proved.

The Labour right has always intended to roll back the gains of the Corbyn movement. Labour MPs, functionaries and journalists attempted to sabotage Corbyn’s leadership from day one, working towards his defeat in 2017 and 2019. The right-wing faction of Labour is pro-business and pro-imperialist, not because it thinks these policies will win elections, but because they are on the side of the bosses and the Tories, and always have been.

Starmer’s role was to win the leadership by promising to give a ‘respectable’ face to the party while driving the left out of the party and paving the way for a return to New Labour. In this, he is playing the role that Neil Kinnock did in the 1980s, fighting the left and attempting to shut down internal party democracy. Similar to Kinnock, his approach is unlikely to win any elections. But that is a secondary concern to ensuring that the Labour Party cannot become a vehicle for socialist policies.

Left out

The Labour left’s response, however, has been weak. The Socialist Campaign Group of MPs has largely been reduced to releasing toothless statements opposing right-wing policies but makes no attempt to mobilise the party’s base to organise against them. Momentum has opposed the witch-hunt in some respects but has become increasingly inactive and isolated.

Momentum was founded to provide support for the Corbyn leadership and its policies. Early attempts to make it an organisation which would fight to pull Labour leftwards, independent of Corbyn, were halted by the undemocratic moves of Momentum’s leadership. Instead it focused on uncritical support for the leaders’ office and mobilising for elections. With Corbyn now gone, Momentum has lost its raison d’être.

In elections for Momentum’s National Coordinating Group (NCG) last year, the Forward Momentum faction, which promised to renew democracy and orient towards the social movements, won a clean sweep. However, it has largely failed in both these goals. Little to no leadership in interventions around the Black Lives Matter protests or the campaign against the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill were forthcoming. The leadership failed to call the national conference that it had promised.

Momentum’s NCG recently announced moves towards a rejuvenation of its internal structures and policies, although the convoluted, plebiscitary process by which this is going to be achieved suggests its leadership is still allergic to membership participation and democratic discussion.

Momentum has also published its own plan, “Socialist Organising in a New Era”, which sets out the NCG’s priorities for the next four years, raising questions as to whether any decisions that result from the renewal of its structures will have any effect, as the leadership seems to have already decided what its plan should be. The ‘plan’, such as it is, focuses on winning internal elections, councillor and MP selections and policy debates, supporting local campaigns and struggles, and rolling out political education programmes. Starmer is not mentioned once nor is there any strategy to remove him and chairman David Evans from office.

A fighting strategy

To reorient itself and lead the fight against Starmer and his supporters’ drive to the right, Momentum needs to call a democratic conference to vote on a set of principles, policies and strategy—a programme—to rally the left of the Labour Party to it. It then needs to take that programme into the Labour Party CLPs, branches, and conference, to wage a struggle against the pro-capitalist right. It must also set up robust internal structures, with regular national and regional conferences for decisions to be made and politics to be discussed.

The Labour left need to turn the party outwards, taking a lead in campaigns against the Tory government and publicly attacking the Labour right locally and nationally every time they betray socialist principles and policies—not by turning ‘local’ but by linking local and partial struggles to the fight for a socialist government.

Such a government cannot rest on the vipers’ nest that is the Parliamentary Labour Party but on working class organisations of struggle, in solidarity with all those fighting British imperialism and pointing out in every struggle the need to abolish private ownership of the means of production and the capitalists’ profit system.

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