NHS banner at the People's Assembly protests. Source: Flickr - Alan Stanton NHS banner at the People's Assembly protests. Source: Flickr - Alan Stanton

Recent events in the Labour Party need to be examined clinically, because they tell us important things both about the party’s direction of travel and about how power is wielded within it, says Chris Nineham

During the leadership campaign, Keir Starmer stressed the need for unity. A good deal of the left took him at his word and, often reluctantly, backed him. His actions since becoming leader, most obviously the clearout of Corbyn supporters from the shadow cabinet and return of key figures of the anti-Corbyn right, show that what he really meant by unity was a shift back to the centre and the decisive weakening of the Corbynite left. Despite, or in fact because of his soft left credentials, Starmer was the candidate the PLP right favoured in the election. And as we have seen throughout the period of the Corbyn project, unlike the left, the right are ruthless in their pursuit of power and control. 

The leaked report into antisemitism in the party contains extraordinary revelations about the extent to which Labour Party officials manipulated the disciplinary process to damage Corbyn and his supporters. But more than that it shows that the Labour bureaucracy was institutionally hostile to the whole project. As the report says the right was not just operating as a faction, in the process compromising the investigation into antisemitism, it was a faction that controlled Labour HQ from the most senior levels down.  

More widely we are being given a glimpse of how power works in the party. No matter what members may think at any given time, the right in the Parliamentary Labour Party which always dominates numerically in parliament also always puts its own interests before that of the wishes of the membership. 

The bureaucracy of the party – also historically controlled by the right – will systematically and ruthlessly fight to stay in control too. Both of them routinely have the backing of the media and the wider establishment. In a party as deeply imbued with parliamentarianism and as bureaucratic as Labour, the fact that the parliamentary party and the party structures are power bases for the right creates enormous, structural obstacles to left control.

The Corbyn moment was the best chance the left has ever had in its long history of trying to take control of the party. The fact that even this spirited and inspirational effort has now been blocked confirms that the party is effectively unreformable.

Parliament and politics

Is this the end of the story? Of course not. In these circumstances, it is crucially important not to make the mistake of believing that politics can be reduced to what happens in parliament. A brief overview of the last few decades in Britain will tell you that what happens outside of the Westminster enclave is very often more important than what happens inside it. 

No serious modern history of Britain could ignore the importance of the mass campaigns to defend a women’s right to choose led by the National Abortion Campaign in the 1970s, the great Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism mobilisations towards the end of the same decade, the CND demonstrations and actions in the 1980s, the miners’ strike of 1984/5, or the anti-poll tax campaign of 1990 that led to Thacher’s downfall. 

No one could plausibly tell the story of the last twenty years without examining the impact of the anti-war movement, of Occupy, the wider anti-austerity mobilisations, and the climate campaign.  

Some of these mass, popular campaigns have scored major victories, others, most decisively the miners’ strike, were defeated. Some of them marked major historical turning points, others have had a more partial or long term impact. But they will all be remembered for much longer than any session of parliament. And that’s no accident. Decisive change comes about through the action and interaction of major social forces. It is not initiated by-laws passed in parliament. 

The outcome of all these mass campaigns had a profound effect on society, for better or worse. This, of course, is not to say parliament is unimportant or makes no impact. There is a complex relationship between great social struggles and what happens in Westminster. The National Abortion Campaign was a response to attacks on abortion rights in parliament and successfully fought them off by repeatedly mobilising tens of thousands of women and men in the streets. 

The fact that the Labour leadership under Kinnock united with the rest of parliament in opposing the miners’ strike played its part in ensuring the miners’ were defeated. The anti-poll tax campaign and in particular the massive London march and riot of 1990 forced the repeal of the tax and shifted the balance of power in the Tory Party against Thatcher and her supporters. 

Even what happens inside the Labour Party is always shaped by wider social struggles. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership was itself partly the result of extra-parliamentary campaigning. This is true in the sense that the mass campaigns against austerity that peaked in 2015 created a mood for a radical challenge to Tory policies and pulled together a large activist base, tens of thousands of whom joined Labour and turned their attention towards getting Corbyn elected. But also in the sense that Jeremy Corbyn could become the expression of this mood precisely because he had a unique record of extra-parliamentary campaigning. 

The Coronavirus crisis has raised fundamental questions about the kind of society people want to live in. It has made a mockery of neoliberal doctrine by forcing the government into massive levels of state intervention. It has brought to the forefront again huge popular support for the NHS and key workers who are normally treated with utter contempt by the establishment. The outcome of the crisis will depend more than anything on whether the left can successfully develop this mood into a real movement. 

Labour’s limits

It is a simple fact that this task will not be undertaken by the Labour leadership. Since winning the leadership election, Starmer has in fact been keen to be seen as broadly supportive of the government, seeing Coronavirus as a national crisis that requires us all pulling together. There has been almost no calling out of the government’s handling of the situation, even though it has been catastrophic and led directly to the deaths of large numbers of people. Nor has there been any attempt to encourage grassroots opposition to the Tories’ multiple failures. 

It is also a fact that resistance will not come from organisations of the Labour left. Momentum and much of the rest of the Labour left has had a mixed record during the years of the Corbyn ascendancy. Momentum certainly played a crucial role in mobilising activists during the election campaigns. However one assesses that particular balance sheet, one thing is for sure; the Labour left has played no significant part in organising national extra-parliamentary resistance in that time. 

Momentum and other organisations have supported some calls for action, but none of the major national mobilisations of the last few years have been called by them. This is not surprising, because this is not what they are for. The Labour left is one element of a Party whose whole strategy is changing society from above, through parliament. Parliamentarianism runs deep in the party’s DNA. Inevitably all elements of the party will be drawn into that project in different ways.  

Right now there are calls from some of the Labour left for activists to embed themselves in the communities so that they can be shoulder to shoulder with working people. This is positive, but it doesn’t amount to a project for actually building resistance. It is a strategy mainly aimed at rebuilding confidence in the Labour Party itself so that it can bounce back at the next election, not at organising coherent and co-ordinated opposition to the government in the here and now. 

The idea of digging in in the hope of a possible Starmer win in 2024 or beyond is really not a plausible strategy for working people suffering on the frontline. Very, very few will be inspired by it. There has to be an alternative.   

Shaping the future

There are already positive signs of self-organisation emerging, despite the obvious difficulties presented by the lockdown. There has been a surge in union membership, with the NEU education union reporting a 5,000 increase for example. Workers on the London buses and tubes, in schools, in Weatherspoons and Waterstones have all managed to force the hand of managements or the government. There have been scores of online petitions signed by tens or hundreds of thousands and of course the weekly clap for the NHS and key workers which must be the biggest participatory protests in decades. Meanwhile, there have been a spate of well attended online meetings organised by the left and the movements.   

The job of trying to create a viable movement out of all this will fall on the shoulders of trade union activists, campaigners, and socialists who are not focussed on the internal struggles in the Labour Party. Of course, many of these will be Labour members but they will not primarily be acting as such. The impetus for building on the recent burst of growth in union membership, for organising mass protests, for defending workers who take action, will have to come from people whose main concern is extra-parliamentary action. The danger is that a fixation on staying on in Labour and fighting will actually absorb the energy of good people who could be focussing more productively on rebuilding the wider struggle.

All sorts of factors will contribute to drawing the contours of the struggle in the months ahead. These include the severity of the inevitable recession, the extent to which some workers have gained confidence from their role during the Coronavirus crisis and how the government and the employers attempt to transition back to what they hope will be business as usual. These things are beyond the control of activists. 

But there is at least one way in which activists can definitely make a difference. This is by being part of building a socialist left committed to helping to organise popular struggle. This is far from being a marginal issue. Radical socialist organisation has played an important and very often crucial role in most of the great social struggles discussed above. It will have to do so again. Increasing its reach and influence is a matter of some urgency because whether it is strong and effective enough this time around is going to be decisive.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.