Prospects and Setbacks

What next for the British Left?

Prospects

  1. Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party between 2015-2019 represented a great hope for the cause of peace and justice. The popularity of Labour’s policies throughout the period, and its strong showing in the 2017 general election, indicate a powerful desire for radical changes in the distribution of wealth and power, especially among the young. The same can be said of the movement built around Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns in the United States.
  1. The rise of a number of grassroots movements in recent years is promising. The founding of Extinction Rebellion in October 2018 and its growth since; the Black Lives Matter protests of May-June 2020, which brought attention to issues of racial discrimination in the UK; the Kill the Bill campaign dedicated to protecting civil liberties from government interference; and the continued strength of the anti-war and international solidarity movement, exemplified by the massive protests in support of Palestinians’ human rights in May 2021, all represent important opportunities to shape the political environment.
  1. The current Tory government is mired in incompetence and corruption: its pandemic response was characterised by failure, leaving Britain with one of the worst death tolls in the world; it has overseen the continued transfer of wealth to the elite and is transparently serving party donors; the Prime Minister has repeatedly been caught lying brazenly; scandal after scandal has touched cabinet ministers; the government has directly attacked the poorest on several occasions by attempting to cut off access to social welfare; only meagre action has been taken to combat the threat of the climate crisis; and support continues to be given to oppressive regimes in violation of international and UK law. This is fertile ground for a competent political opposition.
  1. The Labour Party is not yet dead as a vehicle for building the political power of the left, despite the morally bankrupt leadership of Keir Starmer. The Left continues to enjoy considerable representation in internal elections; the same is true of some of the unions. The important strategic question is not whether the Labour Party can be used as a tool in the cause of justice—it is not in doubt that it can be, nor is it in doubt that one can work both inside and outside the party, a point which is too often ignored. The essential question is to ask what the errors of the Corbyn years were and how they can be rectified in the future.

Setbacks

  1. The government is engaged in a two-pronged attack on the formal institutions of democracy. The first prong involves an attempt to impose draconian restrictions on the right to protest; the second prong involves an attempt at voter suppression, particularly by the introduction of a requirement for voter ID. This assault on civil liberties has to be resisted so that the Left has a higher chance of success in the future. The greater the barriers to democracy, the greater the barriers to the Left’s path to power.
  1. The Conservatives continue to enjoy a polling lead over Labour, despite the government facing net disapproval ratings at present. There are a multitude of explanations that could be offered for this, but one that cannot be ignored is the persistent failure of Keir Starmer and the Shadow Cabinet to offer anything approaching a detectable opposition. Instead of savaging the government’s disastrous record throughout the pandemic, Starmer sought to emphasise Labour’s ‘support’ for the government’s various measures and refrained from harsh demands for accountability. This weakness has been a feature of Starmer’s leadership and is inextricably connected to his apparent inability to come up with a single policy position. How can the Tories be fought when there is no alternative on the table?
  1. Starmer’s war on the membership of the Labour Party, characterised by the use of procedures to push the Left out, including a recent bout of proscriptions, the removal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn, and rule changes requiring candidates for the Labour leadership to have the nominations of at least twenty per cent of the PLP, is a significant obstacle to the progress of the grassroots socialist Left. It is telling that in order for the Right to control the party it must continually resist the membership. The campaign to democratise the internal structure of the party must continue: as the 2019 leaked GLU report showed, there were party bureaucrats who in 2017 actively worked for the end of Corbyn’s leadership and sought to sabotage the party from within. 
  1. The media establishment in this country is implacably opposed to change, a stance that became especially obvious during the Corbyn years. The right-wing print media is obviously rabid in their opposition to the Left, but more sober media institutions also contribute to the Left’s continued political marginalisation. The BBC is now recognised even in many liberal circles to be utterly incompetent when it comes to scrutinising state power. As a result, the ordinary person often cannot be expected to be aware of the extent of the government’s failures—such problems simply do not receive the necessary attention from political journalists. Leading political editors are also perennially guilty of significant errors (not that they ever admit them): Laura Kuenssberg wrongly predicted that Starmer’s leadership would herald an opposition ‘that gets things done’ and ‘carries out effective scrutiny’ and Robert Peston has referred to Boris Johnson as an ‘arch-Keynesian’!
  1. The Left has to get serious about forging its path to power. This means a rigorous accounting of our errors in recent years along the lines of (4). It is incorrect to think that Labour’s purges began with Starmer; in fact they began with Corbyn, who too often conceded to the demands of the right in purging left-wing members. Instead, the leadership of the party should have rallied with the grassroots around the slogan, ‘Defend Free Speech in the Labour Party!’ The fact that even now considerable portions of the Left are unwilling to stand against moves like Starmer’s proscriptions—figures such as Owen Jones1 and Lara McNeill supported them—is an indication of the degree to which we have failed to properly analyse the failures of the Corbyn years.
  1. As an extension of (9), Labour’s defeat in the 2019 general election should be studied and understood, but it cannot be an excuse for the party to keep moving right. Labour’s strong performance in 2017 is enough to debunk the mythology that a left-wing party is destined to fail. Indeed, even though Starmer has lurched to the right, and has therefore had a much easier time from the establishment media, Labour continues to fail to overtake the Tories, despite the declarations of liberal pundits to the effect that replacing Corbyn would automatically produce a Labour polling lead.
  1. The Left must not mistake opportunists for allies. Angela Rayner, now Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, was endorsed by Momentum in the 2019 internal party elections. She has since proven herself to be unprincipled and unreliable; it is symptomatic of Momentum’s organisational decline that it made such an error. The same is true of the endorsements of Starmer by some left-wingers on the grounds that he would be a professional and non-factional alternative to Corbyn while maintaining the core of his policies. That view was utterly mistaken, which was obvious at the time to those who carefully studied Starmer’s campaign and looked beyond his empty promises. 

Talal Hangari


1 Owen Jones initially supported the proscription of Labour Against the Witch Hunt before U-turning and ‘clarifying’ his position, which is that he is (ostensibly) against proscriptions.

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