Keir Starmer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Keir Starmer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Starmer has signalled war on Labour’s left with the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey. It is a deliberate attempt to root out Corbynism from positions of influence

The move was demonstrably unjust. Senior Labour figures have repeatedly claimed that the adoption of the IHRA definition should never mean that criticism of the Israeli state is equated with antisemitism. And yet this is precisely the equation that Starmer is making by sacking Long-Bailey for retweeting Maxine Peake’s article. 

Far from drawing a line under the question, this sacking will reignite the antisemitism row in the Labour party.

But it is quite clear that dealing with antisemitism is not the central issue for Starmer. If it was he would have published and taken action on the Labour Review which documented in great detail the fact that the central claims of the case against Corbyn and the left of the party did not stand up and that the right had deliberately and irresponsibly used the issue against the leadership. 

The rush to judgement against Long-Bailey shows that Starmer puts breaking the left in Labour before everything else. He felt confident enough to do it because he has successfully removed other Corbyn supporters from the cabinet and shifted Labour rapidly towards the centre. 

His ability to do this with so little resistance shows that the alliance between the parliamentary party and the party bureaucracy, with the support of the media and other parts of the establishment, has firmly re-established control of the Party.

It is this alliance backed by right wing trade union leaders that has ensured that Labour’s leadership has, until Corbyn, been dominated by the right and the centre ever since the party was established at the very start of the twentieth century.  

Corbynism was a unique moment. A membership insurgency against the right – powered by Corbyn’s association with the mass campaigns against war and austerity – succeeded in getting Corbyn elected as leader in 2015. 

But what the last five years has shown is that this upsurge could not transform the party itself. The democratic mechanisms simply do not exist in Labour to force deal with the entrenched power of the MPs and the party bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, the role of the Labour right in sabotaging the Corbyn project has been largely ignored. The argument that last year’s election defeat was a product of Labour being too left wing has been allowed to stand even though Corbyn did very well in 2017 on an equally radical manifesto. It has helped to convince even many progressive members to stay in Labour.

It is very important now that the left recognises that the consolidation of Starmer’s leadership means the attempt to radicalise the Labour Party is over. Starmer is abandoning any talk of socialism and presenting himself as the leader of a loyal, responsible opposition to one of the most right wing governments in British history. Anyone in Labour who tries to resist the rightwards shift will come under sustained and vicious attack. Staying and fighting is a recipe for more defeat and demoralisation of left wing activists. That would be a tragedy at a time when the Tory government is floundering and when there is a visibly growing class anger against them.

The open contempt of Dominic Cummings and Robert Jenrick for basic democratic norms has turned ‘one rule for them and another for us’ into a cliche. The idea that there should be no going back to normal after the pandemic is discussed everywhere. 

This mood is turning into a movement. Popular campaigns over migrant charges for the NHS, the reopening of schools and free school meals have forced the government to u-turn. Thousands are joining unions. Impressive Black Lives Matter protests in every corner of the country have created a surge of anti-racist feeling and revealed a deep desire to get out and protest. They have been led by young people but would have been joined by hundreds and thousands more if it wasn’t for the pandemic.

As Johnson fast tracks the business-led lifting of the lockdown and economic crisis looms, the real questions are whether workers have the confidence and organisation to resist and whether we can build mass movements that can stop an embattled Tory government making us pay for their incompetence and greed.

There are going to be struggles over health and safety at work, job cuts and pay cuts, the ending of the furlough scheme and the ban on evictions, continuing protests against police racism and much much more. None of these struggles will fundamentally be decided in parliament. None of the recent u-turns have been forced by the official opposition. More massive movements from below based in workplaces and communities are what is needed here. They can win in their own right and in the process they can push Labour to taking better positions.

This kind of political resistance can stop Johnson taking us back to business as usual. To make it happen the priority has to be building the broadest possible extra-parliamentary left. A Starmer-led Labour Party will not organise any of this. In fact, it will mostly oppose popular protest or industrial action just as it failed to support the teachers in their successful campaign against the reopening of the schools at the start of June.  

Nor will such a co-ordinated protest movement happen automatically. Solidarity between different struggles has to be argued for. Campaigns have to be assembled, pickets and protests organised, workplaces unionised and so on. 

In Counterfire, we are committed to working with those in and out of Labour who want to fight, but we believe socialist organisation outside of Labour is going to be essential. 

Socialist arguments and socialist strategy will be essential to an effective revival of militant class struggle. There urgently need to be groups of socialist activists in workplaces and communities up and down the country organising, agitating and educating and helping to build the widest possible resistance.

Counterfire has local groups around the country and in industry which are trying to do just that. We urge you to join us.

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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.