Jeremy Corbyn speaks at People's Assembly meeting, March 2020. Photo: Jim Aindow via flickr Jeremy Corbyn speaks at People's Assembly meeting, March 2020. Photo: Jim Aindow via flickr

Counterfire asked six socialists and activists what they think the next steps are for the left

Terina Hine

Terina Hine is the former Cities of London and Westminster CLP Secretary and works for the Stop the War Coalition

Mass unemployment, a global economic crisis, increased international tensions and an ongoing global pandemic – this is 2020.

We could despair, do nothing and hope it goes away. Or we could fight for change, take action and help bring about a better world. I intend to do the latter – but where should the fight be located?

Over the past five years many of us have worked within the Labour party hoping to advance socialism and take the fight to the heart of government. Buoyed by the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a true socialist and anti-imperialist, thousands flocked to the party to support him and help develop the policies needed for change. 

But today the Labour Party is in new hands. It is clear that the new leadership is not of the left nor is it anti-imperialist. For that reason it is no longer where the socialist struggle will take place. This does not mean people must leave – but it does mean that if you stay, are on the left and are active, the struggle will be an uphill one with little chance for success.

To be engaged in a positive way, to make progress, to force change, activists will need to look outside parliamentary politics. We have seen the power of unions and social movements already in the last few months – in the victory of the NEU over reopening schools, in the victory of footballer Marcus Rashford’s holiday lunch-voucher campaign. 

We have built powerful of mass movements before which changed the political landscape – with Stop the War Coalition and the anti-austerity movements. More recently we have seen the XR campaign and BLM movements lead from the ground and have an impact both on the direction of debate and government policy. It is in movements like these where the power now lies – and where my time and energy will be spent.

Mass movements, unions and grassroots campaigning is where the cry for change will be loudest and will most likely be heard.

Cathy Augustine

Cathy Augustine is a campaigning socialist, a member of the Labour Party, sits on the Steering Group of Don’t Leave, Organise and is Co-vice Chair of the Labour Representation Committee

Don’t Leave, Organise has become a rallying cry for socialists to stay and fight in the Labour Party, despite the recent political defeats suffered by the left. While it’s not yet known exactly how many members have left the party since the General Election defeat and the resignation of Jeremy Corbyn, anecdotally, there appears to have been a significant exodus.

Predicting this trend and to offer an alternative response, the Don’t Leave, Organise (DLO) network was launched in April by the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) and Red Labour. DLO supports and links up campaigning organisations and also works to oppose the accelerating move to the right we are seeing within Labour under Keir Starmer.

As John McDonnell – a signatory to the DLO network – has said, we can work and campaign at grassroots level and make a difference to our communities without being in the Labour Party. “But when it comes to policy-making, when it comes to internal elections, if you’re not a member then you’re just looking through the keyhole and shouting through the letterbox.” It is encouraging to see the appetite to stay in the party and fight for our socialist principles and aims. For example, in the 48 hours after Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked, DLO received another 500 signatories to our founding statement.

The next internal party campaign will be around the elections to Labour’s powerful National Executive Committee. The current NEC, controlled by Starmer and the Labour right, has changed the voting system to Single Transferable Vote (STV) in a clear attempt to disrupt a socialist campaign. But key organisations on the left have agreed a united slate of candidates for the seats that represent members. This shows unity and organisation working through a selection process that’s not fit for purpose and overcoming disagreements that have led to split slates in the past.

There is also the rare occurrence of three imminent elections to the influential position of General Secretary in Unite, Unison and the GMB – the largest unions affiliated to the Labour Party. Together with the existing socialist and vocal leadership of the Fire Brigades Union and Baker’s Union – would curb Starmer’s lurch to the right and help preserve the gains made by socialists on policy and narrative under Corbyn’s leadership.

Don’t Leave, Organise – organise the resistance, organise the socialist fightback within our Labour Party.

Yonas Makoni

Yonas Makoni is a 24 year old activist from London who is a new member of Counterfire, having recently returned to London after studying in Scotland.

The first step for the left is to soberly assess the scale of the challenges ahead. Corbyn’s greatest failure was not the election, but his failure to shift the debate from the culture wars paradigm and the Leave-Remain divide. This is a familiar sticking point of the new left populist movements, from Sanders to Podemos, and cannot simply be attributed to personality or incompetence on Corbyn’s part. Corbynism was our warning; the left in Labour can’t surrender to neoliberal party politics and must re-strategise. Starmer has wasted no time dismantling Corbyn’s legacy and alienating core voters. As proven by the leaked antisemitism report, leftists remaining in Labour aren’t battling a few rogue neoliberal MPs, but an institutional machine.

It is not viable for the left to continue to see the Labour Party as a vehicle for socialism. Our short-term goal must be the creation of an independent political organisation with a programme for the radical transformation of society. This could be a party or not, but it should have its home in on-the-ground organising, not parliamentary politics. This must involve constructing a coherent vision of a post-capitalist future and how to get there. The new left economic think tanks have helped this process developing potential economic models, but it might also be time to revive some old debates on the state, party strategy etc.

Such an organisation, allied with grassroots movements, could have profound influence on the course of British politics even without immediately gaining power. Proof of its viability is everywhere: UKIP shifted the entire political landscape from outside No.10. In response to the lesser-evil logic of neoliberal politics, the left must think outside the restrictive parliamentary-Labour-box and affirm the power of collective organisation and solidarity.

Jan Culley

Jan Culley is the Interim Chair of Ceredigion CLP and former Branch Secretary Hackney North and Stoke Newington. She is a Counterfire and People’s Assembly member and a supporter of Claim the Future

So for now I remain a Labour Party member, but one fighting despair and anger. My reasoning?  Comrades, known structure, Benn’s classic words, often quoted: “There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle, to be fought over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up”.

The thing is, I won’t give up the struggle, affirming Ian Lavery’s words. The question is, can it be better fought elsewhere? 

For the time being I’m staying because I have to stay and fight with and for those who have dedicated so much to gain a socialist party. I can’t give the establishment an easy victory.

But, for me the only way to go is to also harness the energies of non-parliamentary left-wing groups that add to a sense of purpose and comradeship and provide education and a different kind of stability. These are the groups providing real force and a sense of activism which the Labour Party is completely bereft of at this crucial point in time. These are the groups that defy the attack on democracy instituted by Party leaders. These are giving a voice to grass roots’ advocacy. They provide a home for transformative action and a refuge for the battle weary to regenerate.

Another but. It may well be that not so far down the line the only way it will morally be possible for me to consider myself a socialist activist will be to accept the stranglehold of the parliamentary framework as the immutable force it likely is. Until then, I try to keep my eye on socialist objectives both locally and nationally and avoid the temptation to be distracted from the cause dropped in my way from my own party. 

Another party?  Yes, I’m toying with that too.

Paul Simpson

Paul Simpson is an academic tutor in Modern History at Sunderland University and the host of ‘Lives on the Left’ podcast

The election defeat in December was unquestionably a major setback for the left. But it should not be seen as a rejection of socialist policies. The primary cause of the defeat was Labour’s disastrous second referendum policy which handed 52 Leave-voting Labour seats to the Tories. The defeat of the left candidates in the leadership and deputy leadership contests was a further disappointment.

Some will now claim that the party is finished a vehicle for socialism, but I would urge every Labour party member reading this to stay and fight. After all, the Labour Party remains a mass party with well over half a million members. For socialists to stand outside of it strikes me as a self-defeating act of marginalisation. The anger and disillusionment at the timidity of the new leadership is understandable, but the more that socialists quit the Labour Party, the easier it will be for the new leadership to renege on the popular socialist policy programme established over the last five years. Despite not holding the leadership, the left can still exert some level of influence within the party. The upcoming NEC elections will be an opportunity to secure socialist representation on the party’s ruling body and activists can support the Socialist Campaign group when it voices opposition to policy shifts, as it did recently over Kashmir. Initiatives such as like Don’t Leave Organise and organisations like Red Labour are attempting to rebuild the Labour left.

With its majority, the Tories are in a position to further escalate their attacks on our public services. We can expect a deepening of austerity on the pretext of recouping the increased spending incurred during the Covid-19 crisis. So, organisations such as the People’s Assembly Against Austerity will be essential to ensure maximum unity in the face of these measures. Nevertheless, as activists like People’s Assembly national secretary Laura Pidcock demonstrate, organising in the Labour left and being active in the broader anti-austerity and anti-war movements are not mutually exclusive endeavours.

The next 5 years will be a time of struggle. So whatever organisation individuals decide to pursue their politics through, I hope all of us on the left will be prepared to work and campaign together to resist the further decimation of public services and living standards.

Jamal Elaheebocus

Jamal Elaheebocus is a former member of the Labour Party and coordinator of Stop the War Youth

In the history of British capitalism, genuine change for working people has rarely come from parliamentary politics; it has come from mass movements and organised working people taking action. From the poll tax protests to the Stop the War movement against the Iraq War, mass movements have brought together working class people and, in the case of the poll tax, have successfully opposed attacks on working people. The Labour Party’s ability to advance the working class struggle has always been limited by the constraints of Parliament and electoral politics.

Under Corbyn, the left was in the ascendancy and this opened up the opportunity for Labour to play a role in building an effective left wing movement in Britain. However, under Starmer Labour has moved back to its traditional role, offering limited support for working people. Especially when workers who are going to bear the brunt of a massive jobs slaughter over the next few months, as capitalists attempt to use the crisis as an excuse to expand profits, Starmer’s Labour is providing no real opposition.

The trade unions have once again become a central part of working class struggle. Union membership has massively increased, with the NEU gaining 20,000 new members during the pandemic. Working people are feeling that their jobs and livelihoods are coming under threat now and the structural inequalities in capitalist society are being exposed again.

The Labour Party has always been limited in its ability to defend working people and this does not look likely to change any time soon, especially under Starmer. We therefore need an extra-parliamentary left which can support the trade unions and build the resistance in workplaces and communities, which is what Counterfire is doing and that is why I chose to join Counterfire.