Sir Keir Starmer’s official portrait (detail). Photo: Wikimedia/Chris McAndrew  Sir Keir Starmer’s official portrait (detail). Photo: Wikimedia/Chris McAndrew

Alex Snowdon on Starmer’s offensive on the left and the fight for zero Covid

The Labour Party’s civil war is intensifying. A new wave of suspensions, the latest draconian restrictions on party democracy and the over-the-top rhetorical attacks by the likes of deputy leader Angela Rayner constitute a new, more intense, phase of the witch-hunt.

The narrative of ‘Labour antisemitism’ is a smokescreen for attacking socialists and supporters of Palestine solidarity. The extraordinary decision to refuse Jeremy Corbyn the whip heralded a fiercer assault on the left. His suspension of the Labour whip remains an outrage that needs to be overturned.

It has been followed by disciplinary measures being used against prominent grassroots activists. This is closely related to the imposition of extremely heavy-handed attempts to shut down debate and freedom of expression, like prohibiting constituency parties from even discussing Corbyn’s suspension or the recent EHRC report.

The latest suspensions have little or nothing to do with antisemitism, even according to the party’s own official version. There is no suggestion, for example, that suspended Nottingham East CLP chair Louise Regan has anything to do with antisemitism. She has been disciplined on the grounds that she allowed discussion of a motion defending Corbyn.

It is also noteworthy that Regan, national vice chair of Palestine Solidarity Campaign, is closely associated with the cause of Palestine. The same applies to Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi and Moshe Machover, both of whom are Jewish as well as being known for their longstanding opposition to Israeli apartheid. Both have been suspended from Labour.

The explicit targeting of individuals associated with Palestine represents a political escalation in the witch-hunt. Previously the Labour apparatus has tended to avoid this, even though the policing of debate around Israel has always been a vital component of these attacks. One of the drivers of the weaponising of antisemitism has always been the desire to weaken opposition to the racism, violence and apartheid policies of the Israeli state.

It is also farcical and deeply offensive that Jewish socialists are being targeted. It is not the job of Keir Starmer or general secretary David Evans to determine what constitutes legitimate debate in the Jewish community. There is a rich history of critical perspectives on Israel – and of solidarity with Palestinians’ struggles for justice, equality and freedom – among British Jews.

Starmer’s determination to crush the left is becoming apparent. The sheer ruthlessness, and the pace of the anti-left backlash, has taken most people by surprise. Labour’s previous slow march to the right lasted from 1983 until 1997. This time it is more of a gallop.

Those who wish to repudiate the Corbyn project are committed to ensuring nothing like it ever happens again. They do not merely wish to tip the balance towards the right: they want to humiliate and neuter the left, making it utterly subordinate to their own right-wing dominance. Socialists can only remain if they clip their wings politically and accept that grassroots members have little say and little role, except as foot soldiers in election campaigns.

The scale of the left-wing insurgency between 2015 and 2019 means that a particularly devastating counter-offensive is now required. They also have little time to achieve their aims. The smashing of the left must be complete well before the 2024 general election. 

It should be remembered that the left-wing upsurge from 2015 onwards was the exception to the rule in Labour’s history. The right has almost always been in control. Even during the Corbyn era, the great majority of MPs were from the party’s right wing, the apparatus continued to be staffed by ‘New Labour’ types and there was massive resistance to any left-wing direction for the party.

This assault is meeting a mixed response from erstwhile Corbyn supporters. A layer of those members who previously supported Corbyn have shifted to supporting Starmer’s leadership, though even many of these people are unhappy about the attacks on democracy and freedom of speech.

There has been equivocating from some prominent left-wingers, whether it be some of the Socialist Campaign Group MPs keeping a determinedly low profile or commentators like Owen Jones, who referred to Wimborne-Idrissi’s suspension as ‘intensely problematic’ (‘wrong’ is the word you are looking for, Owen).

On the other hand, many CLPs have been in revolt – passing critical motions despite the prohibitions – and many grassroots activists have spoken out. Many socialists, unsurprisingly, have left the Labour Party in disgust. This has been fuelled by the sense that there is little coherent or effective opposition within the party, despite the strength of feeling among many grassroots left-wingers.

There has also been unease expressed by union general secretaries and other leading trade union figures, but their focus has been primarily on trying to patch things up and find a compromise. There is little grasp of the political clash taking place and a reluctance to call it what it is: a witch-hunt of the left.

This is all unfolding in the context of Labour’s weak opposition to the Tories. The parliamentary Labour party is becoming associated with abstention not opposition. Only a tiny number of Labour MPs voted against Boris Johnson’s incoherent and inadequate plan for tiered restrictions, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the party has failed to articulate a clear alternative plan. This has allowed political debate to be dominated by different strands of Conservatism.

Vaccine: too late to stop winter wave

There has been – to great relief – a serious uptick in good news stories about coronavirus vaccine development in the last couple of weeks. It looks like widespread vaccine rollout is about to begin.

This is very good news, but it has allowed the government to feel it can get away with relaxing restrictions to a very dangerous degree. If a vaccine is around the corner, it isn’t deemed necessary or urgent to take serious action to stop the virus spreading.

It was a fatal mistake to have only a soft lockdown in November, with schools remaining fully open, and that approach explains why the fall in infection numbers was much smaller than it could have been.

The tiered system didn’t work before – and there’s no good reason to believe it will work now. Still more reckless and irresponsible is the plan for allowing five days over Christmas for extended families to gather. We are likely to see at least some resurgence of transmission rates in the wake of this.

The Tories have repeatedly suggested that a balance must be struck between public health and the needs of the economy. But this continues to be a false economy. The failure to lock down earlier – and to do so properly – has prolonged the disruption to economic activity.

It could take many months for vaccines to reach the majority of people. Meanwhile, we need the sort of measures that can prevent a further wave of infections, hospital admissions and deaths this winter.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).