From left to right: Alex Nunns, Leah Levane and Emma Dent Coad. From left to right: Alex Nunns, Leah Levane and Emma Dent Coad.Source: Alex Nunns - OR Books, Leah Levane - JVL and Emma Dent Coad - Steve Eason, Flickr

Chris Nineham spoke to three key figures around Labour about what is driving the Starmer clampdown and how the left should respond

Alex Nunns: Author and former speechwriter for Jeremy Corbyn

Historically, the right wing in the Labour Party and in the trade-union leaderships were happy to tolerate the left playing a subordinate role in the party because they saw them as a vital component of Labour’s electoral coalition. That’s not to say it was happy families – many a right-wing bureaucrat has fantasised about kicking out the left down the years, but it was never worth the risk, because Labour needed to keep on board the significant part of the population with left-wing sympathies, the left in the trade unions, and forestall challenges to Labour from the left outside the party.

Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party changed that calculation. Suddenly the right saw the left as an existential threat.

Alex Nunn

Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party changed that calculation. Suddenly the right saw the left as an existential threat. Whatever electoral benefits there were to having the left in the tent were outweighed by the risk of the Labour right permanently losing the party they saw as their property. Something they believed simply couldn’t happen because of the way the party works – a left-wing leadership – was suddenly a reality.

Corbyn gave the Labour right the fright of their lives. That is why Starmer is behaving as he is. He and the people around him decided to crush the Corbynite left – changing the party’s rules to make sure nothing similar can happen again by raising the nomination threshold for an MP to run for leader, excluding left candidates from selections, purging left-wing members and, most spectacularly, suspending the former leader himself and then, once he was correctly readmitted to the party, withdrawing the whip and barring him from standing again.

Barring Jeremy Corbyn is not intended to send a signal to the electorate, despite claims to the contrary and the wording of the NEC motion. This is about sending a message, first to the left, and second to the establishment, that they have nothing to fear from a tamed Labour Party. They want to prove that the insurgent, radical leftism that Corbyn represented will never be repeated.

The response from the Labour left has exposed its weakness. The left fragmented after losing the leadership and has been rolled back bit by bit. The turn away from politics on the left of the trade-union movement following the experience of 2019 has made it more difficult for the left within Labour to coalesce.

MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group have faced a genuine dilemma. They know that some in the leadership wanted to go further and suspend them at the time when they withdrew their signatures from the Stop the War letter. Without a strong, united left bloc behind them, without being integrated into wider sources of power through a formal alliance with unions and left organisations, they fear being picked off one by one if they put their heads above the parapet. There was an opportunity for a stand to be taken at the time of Corbyn’s initial suspension from the party, but it was missed and it has become increasingly difficult since now they are isolated and the left’s position in the party is weaker, as 200,000 largely left-leaning members have left under Starmer’s leadership.

So the right has done a very thorough job on the Labour left. The picture within the party is bleak. But the situation outside offers signs of hope. The strikes show alternative ways of building power, and give an indication of the level of anger that exists in society. The Tories normally know how to retain power and they will recover some ground, but they have a number of problems, in particular the fact that Rishi Sunak has inherited an electoral coalition shaped by Boris Johnson, which the current prime minister will struggle to maintain.

If Starmer does become prime minister, he will be unable to deal with the deep-seated problems he will face as the right is devoid of ideas. Only the left is offering policy solutions to match the scale of the crises coming our way. Unable to deliver, within a couple of years of coming to power, Starmer will be hated on every street in Britain. In that situation, there will be new possibilities for the left.

Leah Levane: Co-chair of Jewish Voice for Labour (personal capacity) 

Consciously or unconsciously, Starmer is serving the interests of the ruling class. The kindest interpretation is that he has rejected all his pledges so that he can win over Tory votes. It’s funny, a right-wing press report opining that Corbyn was a liability in the population, but was popular amongst Labour voters, as if Labour voters weren’t real people. The argument will be that Labour voters will stay loyal and the key is to prove that Labour is not a big leap to wavering Tories. That may work with some Tory voters, but I am not so sure that traditional Labour voters will necessarily turn out for Starmer. 

He is a man without principles and his claims that he ‘has experience’ in government don’t really add up. He talks about running the Criminal Prosecution Service as if that was a major government department, and he was apparently extremely unpopular when he worked there and, of course, there were some worrying decisions made while he was in charge. Really what this is about is to try to demonstrate to the ruling class and to the media that he is a safe pair of hands for their interests.

The attack on democracy in the party is really worrying. It is not just about stopping Jeremy Corbyn standing and imposing candidates, appalling though that is, it has got to the stage now where you are not even allowed to discuss things like the suspension of Corbyn, the EHRC findings or the Forde report. Councillors in various places have been told if they don’t campaign enough for their locally imposed candidates, they won’t be eligible for selection in future.

Tony Blair was dreadful and he paved the way for the kind of top-down party we have today, but his leadership never actually told local parties what they could or couldn’t discuss.

The left has been very weak and confused in its response. It has been damaged by the whole experience, people have lost confidence, and there is no leadership. The Campaign Group MPs were very cautious from the start, and when they took their names off the Stop the War statement a year ago, it sent a message that it is too risky to stand up to Starmer.

People say the left should stay in Labour and fight, but where is the fight? If you speak out or fight back you get kicked out, and if you can’t speak out, what is the point?

Leah Levane

People say the left should stay in Labour and fight, but where is the fight? If you speak out or fight back you get kicked out, and if you can’t speak out, what is the point?

The treatment of the Forde report on racism in Labour is another indication of how bad things have got in the party. Martin Forde himself is now coming out publicly because he is shocked by the way that the findings of the report have been suppressed or misrepresented. The report was done by people who may be closer to Starmer’s policy approach than Corbyn’s, but they were clear that there was a ‘hierarchy of racism’ in the party whereby even the most marginal claims about antisemitism were taken much more seriously than even grave cases of racism against other groups.

It is quite clear that Corbyn was systematically vilified in the most horrible way. The reason why they attacked him in this way was that that they knew they couldn’t take him on over what was a moderately redistributive programme. They knew his policies were popular. 

While things are awful in Labour at the moment, there is a real fight going on outside the party. The strikes have been very impressive, the fightback has been great, though even here the question of leadership is important. I know some nurses, people who have become leaders in this struggle, who are quite upset about the inadequate pay deal they are being asked to accept. The struggles remain at the level of trade-union battles and the question is, who is going to join the dots? 

Some of the leaders like Mick Lynch regularly challenge racism and make the links with refugees for example, but quite a lot of them don’t and there still remains the question of a political alternative. There is a lot of anger, but who is going to channel it?

In the absence of a united, politicised fightback, I worry that the right can be resurgent. I live in Hastings and nearby Bexhill is one of the places where the government plans to put a refugee camp. The rhetoric around refugees is creating a dangerous situation and I think we need to take this issue very seriously.

We need to go door knocking and talk to people. It is not about calling people racists, we are also against having a refugee camp of this kind here, or anywhere, because they are barbaric. So we have to talk to people and we need to do this on the basis that there are a huge number of very good people in the area who understand what is going on and support a much more humane approach to refugees. This is an argument and a campaign we can win.

Emma Dent Coad: Former MP for Kensington and current leader of Kensington and Chelsea Labour Group

There are two ways of looking at why Starmer is doing what he is doing. He wants people who won’t challenge the direction in which he is taking the party, and he wants people who have no blots on their copy book. Everyone who has real political experience will have made one or two misjudgements. So what this boils down to is that he doesn’t want any MPs with independent political views. 

This is worse than the situation I remember under Blair. There is even a ban on certain things being raised in the CLPs now. We didn’t like what Blair was doing, but at least we were able to discuss it, to have some sort of debate.

My CLP has been completely taken over by London region. We haven’t been told why and as far as we know we haven’t done anything wrong, we have always been painstaking in following the correct procedures. All of a sudden myself and another sitting councillor were blocked from being longlisted. 

I would have no problem if members in the local party argued against me standing or voted me down, that is democracy. But for the centre to just take over and dictate who is in and who is out is appalling. It is not just undemocratic, it is anti-democratic.

I am frustrated by the left’s response to all this, but I can understand it. The problem we face is that if we are kicked out for our political views, we can no longer serve our constituents. I feel that we do valuable work here. Most of my constituents are not Labour members and they need hard-working and dedicated people on the council. It may look like cowardice, but I want to be able to continue to do my job.

The most optimistic thing I have experienced this year was the conference that brought together people from the unions with Stop the War and CND for a discussion about war and the trade-union movement. That was brilliant and I learnt a lot. I remember someone saying war is a bayonet with a working-class person on both ends. That really stayed with me. It was great to see these different groups working and discussing together and coming up with a real plan of action.

The strike movement in general has been extraordinary. It is fantastic to see so many people radicalised for the first time. I have health workers in my family and I have seen them change their views and take the huge step of striking which is very inspiring and something I would never have imagined.

It is of course just ridiculous what people have had to put up with. I see junior doctors and nurses who simply can’t survive on their wages. It is all so different from when I was brought up. I was raised in a hospital doctors’ household and we were comfortable. That is simply no longer the case.

The thing that worries me is that Labour is not offering hope or a vision that can inspire people who are striking and the many more who are angry and fed up.

Emma Dent Coad

The thing that worries me is that Labour is not offering hope or a vision that can inspire people who are striking and the many more who are angry and fed up. I was talking to some young people near Grenfell the other day, and they were saying they had no hope for the future. They don’t feel included. Young people are very politicised these days and they had something to hold on to when Corbyn was leader, now quite simply they don’t. 

The Grenfell Tower is a symbol of what has gone wrong. There are thousands of people around here, including me, that have PTSD as a result of the catastrophic fire. When people see the tower they get re-traumatised. But there is no plan for the future. Where is the vision for housing and communities from Labour? My worry is that there is none.

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.

Tagged under: