Should progressives leave the Labour Party?

The short answer is no.

At this point in time the Labour Party remains the only viable opposition to an increasingly destructive and rapacious Conservative government. This is a natural consequence of our electoral system: first past the post systematically disadvantages third parties. A more democratic system of proportional representation would allow a far greater scope for progressive political organising, but until such changes are enacted there is absolutely no good reason to leave Labour.

Many have declared that they are leaving the party out of a deep frustration with Keir Starmer’s vacillating leadership and the party’s turn to the right. But this amounts to giving up on a fight that the Labour left has been waging for years — Corbyn did not magically appear out of thin air. His leadership was the culmination of a career spent fighting for peace and justice inside and outside the party over several decades. The idea that because the party leadership has now changed hands the Left should give up on building its power locally and influencing party policy is utterly mistaken. Declaring that you’ve torn up your membership card might make you feel good for a few days but accomplishes precious little.

The Labour party is a behemoth of an organisation, which offers excellent opportunities for activists to be involved in influencing its politics on a number of levels. Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have numerous elected officer positions which leftists should stand for. CLP participation has probably never required less effort than it has during the pandemic: online meetings and online voting means that it is easy to be actively involved. Other than the subscription fee, what do you really have to lose by participating in the local party machinery? You may have a strong chance of building the currency of leftist ideas and ultimately helping to push the party in that direction. The more left-wing members there are, the more likely it is that left-wingers will be represented in positions of leadership. Labour also remains a powerful vehicle for people with socialist values to be elected to positions in local government.

But even if you believe that Labour is useless as a political alternative to the Tories, how are you going to change that by leaving? Assuming that there is no chance of the Left winning the internal battle to control the party, the very least that can be done is for activists to persuade Labour to make proportional representation a key part of its platform. Momentum has recently taken the decision to make the demand for PR a part of its campaigning strategy, and those who wish to see a more vibrant and competitive national political scene should support these demands from inside Labour.

Instead of leaving the party as an expression of moral outrage against the Labour right, the Left in Britain needs to think seriously about long-term strategy. In my opinion, the rational thing is not for members to leave, but to organise. Stop fetishising national political events as the be all and end all: pay attention to building local Left groups and try to influence things positively from the ground up. Continue to stand as for election as left-wingers and vote for left-wingers. Until the British electoral system changes, Labour will remain the political home of the Left.

This does not mean that activism outside the party is undesirable — quite the opposite, left-wing Labour members should be at the forefront of social movements for climate justice, racial justice and international peace. Political action inside and outside the party are not mutually exclusive, as the careers of a number of leftist Labour MPs demonstrate. If you are a serious political person committed to change, it really shouldn’t be a massive problem for you to show up to the occasional CLP meeting alongside your attendance at rallies and demonstrations.

Don’t leave, organise!

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