Jeremy Corbyn campaign in West Kirby Jeremy Corbyn campaign in West Kirby. Source: Andu Miah - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC 2.0

The latest attacks on the left underline the failings of Labourism, but an independent Corbyn candidacy could energise the left, argues John Westmoreland

This week’s blocking of Jeremy Corbyn from standing as a Labour MP for the Islington North constituency he has represented for forty years signifies the extent to which Keir Starmer is determined to drive the politics that Corbyn represents out of the Labour Party. It is a vindictive and bitterly contested move, but one which is unlikely to face a serious challenge from Labour’s left in its broadest sense. That’s a serious error as this is not just about Corbyn. It is Starmer telling the political establishment, and members of his party too, that the interests of capital will reign supreme under a future Labour government.

It, therefore, poses a question for everybody in the labour movement. Not just Jeremy Corbyn, and not just Labour members. Trade unions and all the movements that defend workers from racism, austerity and war have a vested interest in putting Starmer in his place. 

It has been obvious since the 2019 election that the Corbyn project of achieving meaningful reforms through parliament is dead in the water. The Labour Party machine was always going to be in the hands of the right, as it has been since it was first formed. The nature of the Labour Party is bureaucratic and managerial. It was never going to be the base from which to carry through a left-led insurgency against capitalism.

Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised by his former supporters, some of whom were booted out of Labour on trumped-up charges of antisemitism, and who remain bitter about his reluctance to take on the right bureaucracy in the party and MPs who were obviously conspiring within and outside the party to purge the left. Corbyn showed nowhere near the ruthlessness we have seen from Starmer as he has successively reneged on all his original pledges which got him elected and is now systematically denying left-wing members the right to stand as candidates for parliamentary and local council elections.

Opposite sides

The criticism is valid, but Corbyn didn’t let it happen because he lacks courage or principle. It happened because when he became leader he was faced with trying to reconcile two totally opposing sectors of the party. On the left were the young idealists who joined Labour on the back of Corbyn’s energised campaign to become leader, and on the other were the functionaries who were delighted to be considered ‘sensible’ and happily trotted out the line of the political establishment that radical change was a non-starter.

Corbyn and the Labour left generally, are too wedded to Labourism to consider a political strategy outside the party and its various bodies. This is the central weakness that Starmer can use to contain and neutralise them.

The charge levelled at Corbyn that he should apologise for saying that antisemitism in the Labour Party had been ‘dramatically overstated’ for political reasons sums up the problem facing the left in Labour. Corbyn had every right to call out the deliberate betrayal of Labour by the right. However, his desire not to be seen as a splitter simply allows the right to demand ever more concessions.

And Starmer’s strategy is working. As the Guardian recently reported:

‘A large number of leftwingers believe there is little point in incriminating themselves on broadcast media if they want to stay in the Labour party. “We’re not scared, but who wants to follow Corbyn out the door? We have constituents to represent here in parliament,” one left-wing MP said.’

The Labour-left MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group have been on the retreat since they agreed to remove their names from a Stop the War statement, under threat of suspension, over a year ago. Since then, things haven’t got better for the left, but worse, as Starmer presses his advantage.

The contradiction is that while the Corbyn project within Labour is dead, Corbynism is still massively popular on the left. What the left does next will have huge consequences. 

The anger against Corbyn’s victimisation in Labour is unlikely to have any effect if it remains an internal Labour issue. The rule changes brought in by Starmer make it virtually impossible for socialist candidates to run. The domination of the party by the PLP is another obstacle that will keep the party machine under the control of the right. There are simply not enough socialist MPs, and the selection of right-favoured candidates will take a toll. The Socialist Campaign Group is getting smaller. And the smaller it gets, the less it is prepared to rock the boat. This is the central reason why the party’s governing body, the NEC, will remain under the control of the right.

While some left MPs have a good record of supporting strikes and campaigns, they lack the necessary ideological coherence to fight Starmer and the right. As long as they remain committed to change through a Labour government, they are incapable of leading a fightback and remain muted and impotent. Those expelled from Labour are not providing any alternative either. For them, being allowed back into Labour would be a massive victory.  

The main line of attack from left MPs and Momentum has been the undemocratic practice of using Labour’s NEC to block Corbyn when any decision about who should represent North Islington should be made by constituency-party members and affiliates. All this is true but is hardly likely to deter a machine that is in the final stages of purging the left. In fact, it plays right into Starmer’s hands if the victimisation becomes one of the inner-party protocols.

John McDonnell has denounced the victimisation as ‘divisive and brutal’, but went on to say the answer is ‘a campaign in CLPs and affiliates to reverse this decision.’ It is doubtful how far that would be successful with Starmer forbidding CLPs to even discuss Corbyn, but it completely ignores the outrage felt in the wider movement about Labour’s feeble opposition. The working class has to play second fiddle to Labour’s internal strife.

It is important to note that Starmer does not want to completely destroy the left. Corbyn is being used to discipline the left into submitting to Starmer’s leadership. It is a strategy of containment. Starmer needs the left to convince voters that Labour will make a difference. Corbyn’s removal, with little protest, would confirm that his strategy is working.

Corbyn and the working class

Jeremy Corbyn is the most recognisable figure in the social movements. His popularity as Labour leader came from him speaking against war, poverty and discrimination, and calling a timeout on the rigged economy that sees wealth flood to the top. 

It is to be hoped that Corbyn will stand as an independent in Islington North. It is a seat he could and should win after serving his constituents for forty years. If that is to happen it will be a straightforward shootout between Corbyn and Starmer. It would be disastrous for Corbyn and the socialists that support him to play on sympathy for his virtual expulsion. On the other hand, it would be fantastic if Corbyn harnessed the support he has in the wider movement to campaign on clear socialist principles.

A Corbyn victory, especially if Labour wins the election, would act as a rallying point against Starmer’s Tory-light posturing. The reason for socialists standing in elections is to use the campaign and a positive result to strengthen the fighting capacity of the working class. Anything less is to deceive workers and continue to play into the hands of the right.

A campaign over socialist principles linked to trade-union battles and the big issues of poverty, war, and discrimination could be a game changer.

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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