Keir’s Here — The Left and Socialists Should Stay and Fight in the Labour Party
I’ve edited the title from ‘Keir’s Here: The Case for Optimism for the Labour Left’. No one on the Left should be optimistic! But we should stay in the Labour Party.
The protracted Labour leadership contest is finally over. Keir Starmer is the new leader of the Labour Party with a decisive victory.
This doesn’t seem to be the prevailing view, and I’m by no means one of life’s natural optimists, but objectively looking at the current situation, the Left of the Labour Party has every reason to be optimistic about the position that we now find ourselves in.
But it’s not just pessimism that people feel on the Left, it’s anger as well as deep disappointment. Jeremy Corbyn inspired a wide coalition that both greatly admired and respected him. Over his nearly 40 years as an MP, he became one of the UK’s best-known socialists and a campaigner for a fundamentally different economic system. He spoke up for the marginalised and those ignored by other politicians and opposed Britain’s wars and foreign policy.
While Britain and the Labour Party shifted rightwards, Corbyn stood his ground. After unexpectedly becoming leader of the Labour Party in 2015, he became the target of a vicious attempt to ‘destroy him as a man’. A decent and principled man was lied about, smeared and dragged through the mud. Despite all this, he came close to winning the 2017 general election. But two further years of attacks were too much and he decisively lost the 2019 general election.
The deep disappointment of his supporters comes from a lost opportunity at transforming Britain. But it’s much more than that. Socialism and its supporters in the Left had seemingly become an anachronism, an historical relic with no place in the modern world. But the 2015 Labour leadership contest reflected the comeback of socialism. Only becoming eligible as a candidate after Labour MPs with very different politics nominated him (thinking he would energise some of the membership but stood no chance of winning). He defied all expectations to win. Not only did he win over the existing membership, but tens of thousands of new members joined the Labour Party, both people who had not been active in the Labour party for decades and a new generation, never involved in politics before or in more fringe groups or movements.
Many on the Left experienced a sense of hope that the neoliberal consensus in British politics was being seriously challenged for the first time (for younger people) or in a very long time (for older people). Personally, I’d given up hope that a major political party could offer a radical agenda to transform the economy, reduce inequality and speak up for the voiceless and weakest in our society.
The main reason for optimism for the Left should be the gains we have seen and achieved in the last four years. By any measure the Left, and in many ways the whole Labour Party, are in a stronger place than we were before Corbyn became leader.
The Left, generally, is very bad at taking credit for their achievements. The fact is that the Labour Party has been transformed by Corbyn and the Left over the last five years. Party membership has gone through the roof and the Labour Party is now a mass working-class party — Europe’s biggest political party. Hundreds of thousands of people have joined a new kind of Labour Party and once-fringe ideas have become mainstream again (amongst the political elite anyway, they were always popular with a huge share of the public). Labour has gone from a pro-austerity party bereft of any meaningful progressive agenda to become a socialist party with a radical set of ideas for how Britain can face the future.
Millions of people, many of them young, now see a left-wing government as not only possible but as inevitable, as the only kind of government capable of addressing the problems that tens of millions of people in Britain face. The older generations may have voted conservative in 2017 and 2019 but those aged below 45 decisively voted Labour.
There are now socialist magazines, websites and podcasts discussing ideas. There are Constituency Labour Parties up and down the country where the Left is a major force. There is a new generation of councillors and MPs that are committed socialists.
The Left has lost the leadership but I don’t think the Right can claim to have won it. It’s easy to miss this but it’s undeniable — Starmer got elected on the second most left-wing platform of any Labour leader in modern times.
Starmer has pledged to increase income tax for the richest 5%, he has committed to a green new deal and to support the public ownership of rail, mail, energy and water and to end outsourcing in our NHS. He’s also committed to defending migrants’ rights, workers’ rights and trade unions.
Of course, we can’t assume that all these commitments will be kept much less enacted in government, we’ll have to press the case for Starmer to stick to these commitments as well as making the case for progressive, socialist ideas but all this is a seismic change from the Labour Party from even when Ed Miliband was leader never mind from Gordon Brown or Tony Blair.
For all the mockery, the Left really did win the argument and nowhere more so than in the Labour Party.
Starmer had to run to the left — it was the only way to win the leadership contest. While the bulk of the Left supported Rebecca Long-Bailey, many on the Left supported Starmer. People who voted for Corbyn twice and have no regrets about that, have not converted to a different set of ideas, these people still regard themselves as Left. Rightly or wrongly they voted for the candidate that they saw with the best chance of enacting a progressive socialist agenda and winning a general election to implement it.
This may be controversial for many on the Left but I can see why people backed Starmer. The Left came close in 2017 but we suffered a devastating defeat in 2019. We have to look at why that was and come up with answers to the systemic challenges that will face any left-wing Labour leader such as a corporate media that will never give us a fair chance and a Labour Right that would rather Labour lost a general election than won with a left-wing leadership and will be unrelentingly negative and hyperbolic in its criticism.
Starmer may find himself asking slight variations of these questions before too long. The media, the Tory Party and the most right-wing of Labour MPs are delighted that they have got rid of Corbyn (and, crucially, prevented a Corbynesque successor) but if they think they can destroy Starmer too, they will. Starmer as leader is not the goal for them, but a stopgap before they can get a more right-wing leader that won’t threaten the position in any way.
They will certainly pressure Starmer to ditch his pledges and move to the right.
There’s another reason that Starmer went to the left — it’s the only way to win a general election. From housing to the economy to the environment, the neoliberal consensus is collapsing, people, especially younger people, want real solutions and only the Left have them.
However, just as the Left won’t take credit for its achievements, the Right of the Labour Party are experts at claiming credit for things that have had little or no part in achieving.
The Right had to co-opt Jess Phillips as their candidate (Phillips is really her own faction) only for her to drop out. They didn’t have a candidate for leader because they are incapable of offering a serious policy platform or even a strategic vision for what the Labour Party should look like. The limited role for the state, the supremacy of the market to develop economic growth and the role of companies — all they once believed in has crumbled into dust by the events of the last 13 years.
The Right co-opted both Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer, voting for Nandy before transferring their votes to Starmer. While some people voted for Starmer for genuinely left-wing reasons, the Right of the party saw in Starmer their opportunity to ‘defeat’ the Left because they couldn’t do it on their own.
Despite criticising Corbyn for 5 years, the Right still doesn’t have a serious policy program. They lost the argument in 2015 and they are losing it now. All they have is negativity and to be fair to them they have been very successful at using that negativity to destroy the Labour Party’s general election chances in 2017 and 2019.
If we look at the shadow cabinet appointed by Starmer, as hard as it is to believe, it’s preferable to the one that briefly served under Corbyn before the chicken coup of 2016 (I wrote this before seeing the rest of the front bench picks(!) but the point remains). Corbyn attempted to put together a shadow cabinet that reflected, to a great extent, the PLP (many of whom resigned in the failed and poorly thought-out chicken coup — the co-ordinated resignations designed to force Corbyn from the leadership). Starmer has adopted a similar approach but has decided to keep out some of the more destructive elements of the PLP from the shadow cabinet at least, in part because of their unpopularity with the mass of the membership. The Labour Party, and the future of the Starmer’s leadership is still to be decided.
The Right wants to co-opt Starmer’s victory as their own. They want to make their reasons for backing Starmer appear to be the only ones that exist but it’s clearly not the case. They will try to present Starmer as a decisive break from Corbyn, and hope somehow that down the line, their chance will come again. Or perhaps in Starmer, they see someone that they can accept and tolerate — as they can no longer seriously expect to run the party or come up with any substantial policy program on their own.
I think another reason to not treat Starmer’s victory as a calamity for the Left, is because the calamity already happened — the general election defeat. All this is the aftermath. In 2019 the Left bet everything on one more push and a repeat of 2017. I am not sure we do yet have all the answers we need to say how we could take the party to victory in a general election. I think this was a big problem with Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign.
So the Labour Left finds itself, by any measure, in a better place than in 2015 and with time to answer questions about how to avoid the pitfalls in the future that we didn’t avoid this time around. We also have the second most progressive leader and policy program in a generation and a Labour Party that still decisively rejects the Blairite agenda.
There are still difficulties ahead. How do we achieve a more democratic Labour Party? We couldn’t, or didn’t, do it when we were in control of the party, it will be even harder now.
Even more troubling for the Left should be the recent NEC elections. Despite gaining far more than 50% of the vote, we lost the two places up for election and with it a majority on the NEC. The Left spit the vote, the Right had only two candidates for the two places. The Left needs an effective way of choosing its candidates so the ‘Left slate’ is clear. In both the NEC elections and the London Assembly candidate selections, it needs to be crystal clear who the vast majority of the Left are backing.
With Momentum’s internal aversion to democracy and the ever-increasing number of left-wing groups, it’s hard to see how that happens. Though even with this there are signs with things like Forward Momentum of people on the Left seeing the need for reform. But there’s still a real chance that factionalism will hinder the Left.
There was a quote from Tony Benn that went around in the days after the general election loss. I’m not sure it was quite the right tone after a general election defeat but it seems more apt now: “There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought, over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up.”
For many years I thought there was no hope of the Labour Party being a force for good. I was wrong. People like Jeremy Corbyn could see the potential of a mass working-class party. People can come and go depending on whether they like the leader or they can stick around and fight for the leader, and the party, they want.
Just as the Left has transformed the Labour Party now is the time to fight to keep the Labour Party and the leadership as progressive as possible. It’s easy to dismiss anyone not firmly on the Left as the Right, but it’s not true. There is a Soft Left and a range of other groupings too. We can work with these people.
I don’t know what kind of leader Starmer will turn out to be. But I am going to give him a chance. We should advocate what we believe but work as a part of a wider coalition and that will mean defending Starmer as a leader from attacks from the Right.
If we interpret everything Starmer through the lens of the imminent betrayal of socialist values, I think that would be a mistake. For example, when Starmer recently said he would work with the government on certain things but constructively criticise the government where it was needed, it was no different to what John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn were saying just days before.
We all have to make our choice about how we fight for a better world and for years I believed that the Labour Party wasn’t the place for that. I even thought socialism was an archaic way of looking at the world. I was wrong and people like Jeremy Corbyn were right. Politics is hard as is changing the world. This isn’t the time to give up. Maybe people have no more fight left for now. But is fighting outside of the Labour Party really the best option? With the coronavirus, we don’t know what the world will look like in a few weeks much less a few months
We on the Left can adopt the scorched-earth policy of our opponents in the Labour Party or the viciousness of our opponents outside the Labour Party. Perhaps we do have to become a bit tougher. But a perennial problem with the Left is that we too often use politics to make ourselves feel better; whereas the right use politics to achieve power. Perhaps people are justified after all the unfairness and brutality of the attacks against Corbyn and others, to do the same, but where would it get us?
I don’t think we should resort to such hubris. The world we want to win and the people we fight for are too important. Any government that is genuinely socialist, in whole or in a part, would be an achievement — it would be a decisive break from the past and a gateway for the future.