Jeremy Corbyn, No War On Iran demonstration, January 2020 Jeremy Corbyn, No War On Iran demonstration, January 2020. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

In our continuing series on left strategy, Chris Nineham from Counterfire responds to Laura Smith and John McInally

For all of us the first thing is that the left must overcome our setbacks and continue to fight. This is urgent. The government’s combination of incompetence, corruption and class arrogance has brought us the worst recession in Europe, the highest expenditure on Covid and the second worst death rate in the G7.

The media seems to have mislaid the list of catastrophic failures that got us here, but the public has a good memory. Fewer people in Britain have confidence in our government than all comparable countries. A recent survey reported in the Financial Times shows the pandemic has created a ’lurch leftwards’ and stoked existing anger at inequality, government corruption and attacks on working people.  

These kind of poll findings, the huge support for key workers over the summer and the series of U-turns the government has made when it has met resistance, show what a fighting left could achieve. As Laura Smith says ‘the positive shoots of the future are starting to spring up across the country’. Far from the confident right wing regime some were fearing, the pandemic has exposed Johnson’s government as shambolic, divided and vulnerable.

The problem we all recognise is that Starmer’s loyal opposition has let the government off the hook time after time. If we leave the job of opposition in his hands, the government will continue to  wreak havoc and create misery for millions.

Movements in the making

So the key thing that the left needs to do is to try and give expression to this widespread anger and help get people organised, ‘movement building’ in Laura’s words. Above all that means supporting the growing number of protests, strikes, rent campaigns and occupations around the country. It was great to see Manchester students occupying and winning against their horrible management last week. It is encouraging that Barnoldswick workers are taking up the fight against Rolls Royce’s plans to close their plant. Given the mood on the ground a few more strikes and especially a few more victories could start a trend.

How best should the left organise to encourage this? Laura is right that parliament is not the key battlefront, and Starmer’s rightwards lurch means that Labour will either be silent or on the wrong side on many of these campaigns and struggles. A left committed to staying in Labour faces the twin dangers of being associated with its leaders’ politics and being paralysed by party structures now under tight right-wing control.

Because of this, and despite the hard work of many Labour activists, Labour Party branches are unlikely to be the main hubs for building solidarity and active resistance to government attacks. That job will fall to trades union branches, trades councils, solidarity groups and the wider movements like the People’s Assembly. The strengthening of these extra parliamentary type of institutions has to be a priority.   

Stopping Starmer

The immediate problem of course is that Starmer is now following a Blairite directive to destroy the left in the party once and for all. As John McInally says the right is prepared to pursue ‘a scorched earth policy and destroy the party rather that allowing the left to reclaim the party’. Angela Rayner’s outrageous comments at the recent Jewish Labour Movement meeting that she would be prepared to expel thousands of people show that the hostility to Corbynism extends quite far across the Parliamentary Labour Party.

John is absolutely right that calls for unity in Labour at this situation are worse than pointless. As he says ‘there can be no unity with people conducting a witch-hunt, they must be taken on and defeated’. Unfortunately he is also entirely accurate about the weakness of much of the official Labour left’s response to the attacks on Corbyn and the spinelessness of most of the left commentariat.

The good news is that since Starmer refused to restore the whip to Corbyn there has been an impressive pushback from the grassroots. This needs to be encouraged and supported in every way possible. All of us committed to defending Corbyn and Corbynsim need to stand together whether inside or outside Labour.

However, I don’t think it necessarily suits the right wing or sends out a defeatist message if activists leave. The leadership doesn’t care whether activists stay or go, their aim is to demoralise and silence the left. Debate is being closed down and people are being intimidated in the most outrageous way. Some people are leaving precisely because they want the freedom to be able to speak out and organise. Some of the most powerful defences of Corbyn and the clearest arguments against the weaponisation of antisemitism have been made in various movement meetings where people are free to say what they mean.  

The long view

That brings us to the longer-term picture. Starmer and his Blairite backers are clearly not interested in the traditional kind of co-existence with the left in Labour, even in a subordinated role. They want to destroy the left completely. They have to be fought and fought hard. But in these circumstances, when the right has control of the party leadership, the parliamentary party and the party bureaucracy, the question of  alternatives to Labour is going to keep coming up.

People are drawing conclusions from the experience of Corbynism too. We have just lived through the most favourable conditions for the left in Labour since the party was founded. Even with hundreds of thousands of left wing members and a widespread left wing mood, the combined forces of the PLP, the party bureaucracy, and the media beat the left back. That is as near to a controlled experiment about whether you can reform the Labour Party we are ever likely to get. 

Defending Corbyn and his legacy is a big priority for all of us, and people will do that in whatever ways they think are most effective. It seems to me expanding and strengthening an extra-parliamentary left dedicated to building the resistance in the workplaces the colleges and the communities is absolutely crucial. The fact is, with an election way off and Starmer in charge of Labour, the fortunes of the left are going to depend on the outcome of struggles in the workplaces and the streets.

Historically, revolutionaries have almost always played a central role in the big social movements in Britain. The Marxist left has also always made a very important contribution to the process of developing socialist theory and education that Laura so rightly flags up. An estimated 60,000 members have left Labour in anger and frustration since April. More will be leaving over the next weeks and months. As we fight together against the Tories’ attacks, and rally to Corbyn, at some stage I think we will need to come back to the question of a mass, socialist alternative to the Labour Party.

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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.