Demonstration People's Assembly 'NHS at 70 - Free For All, Forever' demonstration, London, June 2018. Photo: Jim Aindow

To preserve and build on gains made, we must respond to the lack of leadership on the Labour left with wider extra-parliamentary struggle, writes Alex Snowdon

The Labour leadership contest, triggered by Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that he will step down in March, will officially get underway on 7 January. So far only two candidates – Clive Lewis and Emily Thornberry – have declared formally that they are seeking nominations from their fellow Labour MPs (plus – following rule changes agreed since the last leadership election in 2016 – some constituency parties and affiliates). Others, however, are expected to soon follow. 

Left winger Rebecca Long-Bailey and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer are widely regarded as the favourites, with Jess Phillips tipped to be the standard bearer of the unreconstructed Right of the party. After potential candidates have gathered their nominations – a process that is likely to limit the number of candidates – it will be party members and registered supporters who decide. There will also be a vote for a new deputy leader, following the departure of Tom Watson. 

Whoever becomes leader, there will be at least a partial shift to the right in the leadership. That is partly because even the most left-wing candidates being speculated about are not as personally radical as Corbyn. There is no avoiding the fact that Corbyn was unique due to his combination of authentically socialist politics, long-term roots in social movements and extensive experience. The most plausible successor with extremely similar politics, Laura Pidcock, regrettably lost her seat at the general election.

But it is also because the political pressure now is mainly from the right. An election defeat tends to boost the Right. When the defeat is of a Labour Party led from the left, with the most left-wing manifesto in decades, that pressure is even greater. 

There is currently a barrage of commentary in the Guardian, Observer and elsewhere insisting that Labour must move to the right, though shrewder elements frame this in terms of ‘electability’ and ‘credibility’ while avoiding direct attacks on Corbyn. This will not fade any time soon and it resonates at least to some extent with much of Labour’s activist base. 

It would be dangerous to underestimate the power of the pull to the right now underway. Labour is ultimately an electoral party, where the concept of ‘electability’ is supreme. Enormous ideological effort is being exerted by right-wing MPs and former politicians, together with media commentators, to strengthen the (inaccurate) association between electability and a move away from the left. In current conditions, after the general election defeat, that could have a big effect on Labour members and the shape of the entire debate. 

The broad pro-Corbyn bloc familiar from the last few years is probably beginning to fragment. It was held together by support for Corbyn’s leadership and a shared opposition both to the outright hostility from the Blairites and to the Tories. Now that Corbyn is going, with no clear successor in place, the divisions are opening up.

Many Corbyn-supporting Labour members are committed socialists with roughly the same politics as Corbyn. Beyond that left-wing core, however, there is a large layer of left-leaning members who are receptive to different pressures. It would be naive to assume that all those grassroots members who previously voted for Corbyn (in 2015 and again in 2016) will automatically support the most left-wing candidate, likely to be Long-Bailey, this time. 

The fragmentation and division is reflected in the candidates and would-be candidates. The left, broadly defined, is not united around a single candidate for leader or a single candidate for deputy leader. 

Long-Bailey may seem the obvious left candidate, but Clive Lewis is making a pitch – with a strong emphasis on democratisation, especially open selection of parliamentary candidates – that can potentially divide the left vote. His political record – especially during his time as shadow defence secretary, when he was pro-NATO and pro-Trident – and his ardent support for a hardline Remain stance indicate why he would not be a credible candidate of the left. There is, though, widespread scepticism and caution about Long-Bailey among the grassroots. 

But the confusion spreads further, as it seems that many erstwhile Corbyn supporters are even receptive to backing Keir Starmer. There tends to be an underestimating of the extent to which Starmer is a right-wing option. His willingness to serve on Corbyn’s front bench should not mislead people. He is not in any sense from the Left and he has repeatedly undermined the left-wing leadership, in particular over Brexit.

The openly right wing Jess Phillips candidacy is not a serious threat, though she can help pull the entire debate to the right and will find her views amplified by the sympathetic media. The real danger is posed by Starmer, whose victory would be very damaging. The decisive issue in Labour being badly defeated in the election was the shift towards a second referendum position – and the very negative impact of that on Leave-majority seats previously held by Labour.

Starmer is the single person most closely associated with Labour’s shift towards a strong Remain stance. He embodied the politics of Continuity Remain. His victory would strip Labour of any sense of anti-establishment insurgency whatsoever and make it look tame and respectable. It would signal a failure to learn the lessons of the election defeat. 

There is currently a strange vacuum of leadership on the Labour left. There are a number of elements to this, including quite long-term factors, but the most immediate problem is Long-Bailey’s near-total silence since the general election. She certainly isn’t helping her chances by remaining silent on the major post-election debates and by allowing rivals a head start. If this is a deliberate strategy it is extremely risky.

Much of the above will seem rather gloomy for the left, yet realism about what is happening in the Labour Party (and the scale of the political pressures at work) is important. The bigger picture, however, is that – while what happens in the Labour Party clearly continues to matter – the focus is shifting. A renewed focus on building stronger social movements and trade unions, together with sharpening the left ideologically, is going to be crucial. 

Victory for a genuinely left-wing candidate in the Labour leadership race is important for sustaining many positive elements associated with the last few years. It will make a difference to the political direction of Labour and to the confidence of left-wing activists. But more importantly we need to look beyond the specific project of shifting Labour to the left, towards lifting the self-activity and combativity of the labour movement.

The Tories will be in office until 2024, with the benefits of a sizeable majority. Effective opposition will involve going way beyond the narrow confines of Westminster, orienting instead on the streets and the workplaces. That wider extra-parliamentary struggle can, in turn, potentially feed back into the Labour Party. 

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).

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