Photo: Jeremy Corbyn / Public Domain Photo: Jeremy Corbyn / Public Domain

Lindsey German on Starmer’s war against Corbyn and the need for a left alternative to Labour

The latest move against Jeremy Corbyn by the Labour leadership, while not unexpected, is vindictive, petty and cruel. It denies the Labour membership in his constituency the right to vote for the candidate of their choice – certain to be Corbyn, who has held the seat for 40 years and is an immensely popular MP – but it also shows a ruthless determination to continue the three-year onslaught on the left which has marked Keir Starmer’s leadership.

It is this latter point on which the left needs to focus. The onslaught isn’t accidental, or down to the particularly poor leadership exhibited by Keir Starmer. It is a very deliberate policy to drive out those who joined to support Corbyn so enthusiastically nearly a decade ago now, or if they decide to stay to silence them, remove them from any positions of authority or prominence in the party, and to use draconian methods against them if they dare to disagree.

So we have seen councillors deselected, local candidates not even longlisted for parliamentary seats, continued expulsions and exclusions for the most trivial or trumped-up offences, and diktats against the few remaining MPs who define themselves as left within the Parliamentary Labour Party. This happened most dramatically just over a year ago when MPs were told they had to take their names off a Stop the War statement about Ukraine – a demand to which they immediately and wrongly acceded. This not only weakened the anti-war movement, it also weakened the Labour left. Then Starmer decreed that Labour MPs should not attend striking workers’ picket lines, luckily ignored by even some right-wing MPs who depend on unions for support.

Now he is further baiting the left by saying that Corbyn cannot stand for Labour in his constituency and that anyone who supports or campaigns for him if he stands as an independent will be expelled.

Meanwhile Luciana Berger, who stood against Labour in the last election, is welcomed back into the party, will no doubt be offered a safe seat at the next election. And as allegations of antisemitism are continually used to smear the left and Corbyn himself, the Forde report which highlighted other forms of racism within Labour, lies mouldering in a dark cupboard somewhere, to the frustration of even the report’s author.

So this really is crunch time for the left. Not surprisingly, many of those who had stayed in Labour up to this point, hoping that there would be some accommodation over Corbyn, are now deciding to leave. They are right to do so. The Corbyn project within Labour is over, and there is no possibility of a left leader emerging, or of many new left MPs entering parliament, or of the left influencing policy. All it has to look forward to under Starmer is more punishment beatings and humiliations.

A lot of Labour’s left doesn’t accept this. Jon Lansman, founder of Momentum, has argued that Corbyn should accept his fate and leave his seat to a Labour candidate at the election. That would be a mistake, not least because any such candidate would not remotely be on the left of the party. More importantly, it would be to accept Starmer’s behaviour. Lansman even cites the example of Tony Benn who ‘left parliament to spend more time with his politics’. But the comparison is invidious: Benn was not witch-hunted out, and he left at least partly for personal reasons following the death of his wife Caroline.

Many around parliament agree with this view however, and see supporting Corbyn as threatening their own position. They just wish this particular problem would go away and that they could move on. That’s also a mistake, because it will not protect others on the left who speak out in future. It is also a particularly shabby way to treat the former leader, who has done nothing wrong except stand up for left-wing ideas, and who has helped raise the profile of some of those who now want him gone.

Most important, however, is that the ideas that flourished round Corbynism are not the property of a handful of left MPs. They represent the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of socialists in this country and defeat for Corbyn is to an extent defeat for those ideas as well. They will of course continue and surface in the various social movements, the strike wave, and in political discussions. But Corbyn’s leadership amplified them for several years and achieved a very high vote in 2017, leading to a hung parliament.

I hope that Jeremy Corbyn does stand as an independent, where I think he would win, and I hope that this helps rebuild a mass campaign for an alternative to the dull and punitive neoliberal ideas that dominate the main parties. We are being given plenty of advance notice that a Starmer government will do little or nothing to challenge the attacks on workers, the grinding poverty and inequality, the housing crisis, or the sweetheart deals with the major capitalists involved in the NHS and the privatised industries. It will continue with the racist narrative over immigration that blights our politics. Starmer, Reeves, Streeting and Cooper have no aims except to make themselves acceptable to British capital as its electoral B team.

We can therefore predict that such a government will disappoint on a big scale, and previous experience shows that this can lead to a rise of the far right – something we are already seeing across Europe. The need for a left alternative to the crisis is urgent and were Corbyn to head this up, it would increase the likelihood of success considerably. That left alternative cannot be built within Labour.

But we need to look beyond the immediate questions. One of the main reasons the Corbyn project failed was that the right of Labour was prepared to wreck the party and its electoral chances to defeat the left. That’s what happened in 2019. It’s often said that Corbyn should have displayed the ruthlessness that Starmer now exhibits – but the Labour left has never done so because it fears splitting the party. This means that the party attempts to hold together a ‘broad church’ which is essentially two incompatible wings, of which the left is weaker. The right is wedded to capital, nationalism, the military, and defending the status quo, whereas the left challenges all these things. Hence ultimately the left is weakened because it insists on staying within Labour.

So time to make the break and look for a left alternative. There is quite a hangover from the defeat of Corbynism, and the left is very fragmented at present, despite the rise in struggles round industry. The danger of a new left party repeating the mistakes of old Labour is real, especially the subordination of political principle to electoral success. That means it needs to be built on the many struggles of working-class people, both in and outside the workplace, because this is where real change is effected. It’s worth remembering that Corbyn’s success in winning the Labour leadership against the odds came in large part from his involvement in such movements: against war and for national liberation, fighting fascism, campaigning against cuts. It certainly didn’t come from internal struggles within Labour. Indeed, many if not most of the social movements were led by socialists outside of Labour, often from the Marxist tradition.

It is important to remember this as the left reaches a new turning point. 

This week: On Monday I will be speaking at a Stop the War fringe meeting at NEU conference in Harrogate. If you’re there please come along. My Easter break consists of moving a canal boat through a large number of locks. So no Briefing next weekend. Have an enjoyable break if you can.

Before you go

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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