Ken Loach at Filimoteca. Ken Loach at Filimoteca. Photo: Filmoteca de Catalunya / Flickr / cropped from original size / licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Ken Loach speaks to Chris Nineham about his expulsion from the Labour Party and the next steps for the left

What is your response to your expulsion from the Labour party and what do you think is driving the Starmer leadership?

I am not at all surprised at my expulsion. It is part of a wider witch hunt against thousands of activists and socialists and principled people in the Labour party in order to root out the Left. It is about destroying Jeremy Corbyn’s and John McDonnell’s project of transforming society in the interests of ordinary people.

The right are ruthless and unpleasant. They lie. I wouldn’t want any of them as neighbours or as friends and false accusations open the door for really vicious personal attacks. 

In some ways, it’s worse for families and close friends because they can’t answer back and they feel powerless. Of course, it’s not been nearly as bad for me as for those who have been in the eye of the storm. For Jeremy and John and others, it must have been quite overwhelming. Their resilience has been absolutely remarkable. 

Starmer’s project is primarily about making Labour into a smaller party, a party without radicals, a party that is acceptable to the establishment and will work within the parameters of free market economics. This is why his energy is being used almost exclusively against the left. He wants to take Labour back to the kind of party it was under Blair, compliant, obedient, a party that the bosses will be comfortable with. He wants a party conference when the members will give him a standing ovation whatever he says.

What do you think are the lessons of the Corbyn experience?

Corbyn and the handful of socialists around him were elected because the right made a mistake. To give the impression of having a broad democratic election some of them backed Corbyn to get him on the ballot paper. And then, to everyone’s surprise, the members voted overwhelmingly for him.

This worried the Labour right. But his near-victory in the 2017 general election really rattled the establishment and they had to move very seriously to stop him. That is when they started to use the claims of antisemitism to attack him. They painted Corbyn as a racist which was  shameful. They had the support of the media and the wider establishment but it is important to recognise that most of the work was done by the Labour right. Jewish socialists spoke of the ‘weaponising’ of antisemitism to undermine Corbyn’s leadership, and that view is widely accepted now.

The media used confusion around the issue of Europe against the left. The European situation was difficult for us. The EU is a free market organisation, which is very much attached to neoliberalism, but it has a kind of social democratic veneer. The referendum was a choice between staying within that effectively neoliberal union or leaving and going into partnership with a very right-wing USA or fighting for a left-wing independent position which was unlikely to succeed. This was never a matter of principle, it was a tactical question, but the Labour leadership was not clear and Starmer, who led on Europe, embodied that confusion. I think the call for a second referendum was a serious mistake. I changed my position on this as I came to realise that people felt angered that their opinions were being ignored. People were saying the decision has been made, the vote has been taken and the issue should not be reopened. It looked like we were saying we are going to keep taking the penalty until we score a goal.

My overall conclusions are twofold. The first, easy to say in hindsight, is that the Corbyn leadership should have been more assertive from the start. It should have called on the many left-wing Jewish party members to speak on the issue of antisemitism. They spoke with authority, had spent their lives understanding and fighting antisemitism and were very clear the campaign was exaggerated and a political attack.  More generally we should have taken control of the party machine more decisively so that it reflected the views of the many who had elected Corbyn.

Secondly, the whole experience raises the question of whether the left can ever use the Labour party as a vehicle for radical change. It is important to understand that the Labour rights are not just people with different but benign ideas, they are the agents of the ruling class within the labour movement.  They will organise ruthlessly against any challenge to their dominance.

They will adopt some policies that improve the lives of the working class but they absolutely will not allow any real threat to the status quo. At times they will support the nationalisation of services that are crucial to sustaining the economy but are failing or in danger of collapse. But they won’t impinge on the core interests of capital.

The Labour right has always been the biggest obstacle to lasting progress. They act to divert the energy and the desire for change into channels that are safe for those in power. They are part of the establishment, and they will work with other elements of the state to pursue their shared objectives. This is what happened to Corbyn and this is how they would deal with any similar project. We have to prepare for that.

There is a spectrum of different views about the nature of the Tory leadership. Some see it as a hard-right populist party, others stress personal greed, short-termism and opportunism. What is your take?

I think it is a combination of the things you mention. There is a right-wing ideology but Johnson is a man of soundbites and an opportunist. The Tories are committed to neoliberalism at home and following the USA lead abroad but they are also revealed as looking after their own self-interests. Their total commitment to the free market causes them some real problems. It means they can’t plan. They can try and nudge the market, make modifications but planning is anathema and this means they have no way of dealing with the existential problem posed by the climate emergency.

This creates a new situation for the left, especially for those of us who were schooled in the Marxist texts. Marx and Engels discussed the prospects for a socialist future in terms of decades or even longer. Now we have to recalibrate. It looks like we don’t have decades. We are faced not just with the choice of socialism or barbarism, but socialism or survival. The left needs to respond very urgently.

It seems to me we on the left are faced with a very contradictory situation. On the one hand, we have to accept the defeat of Corbynism and the demoralisation that has been generated. On the other hand, there are hundreds of thousands of activists and millions of people who voted for Corbyn who could form the basis for a very serious mass left-wing movement.

Yes, I think you are absolutely right, there are on the one hand huge numbers of activists who are looking for an alternative and there is a wider mood for change. The problem is we have to move quite quickly because this will dissipate and people become demoralised. There are some strong left unions and others, around Paul Holmes in UNISON for example and some in UNITE. There is the Black Lives Matter campaign, the anti-war movement, there is some excellent campaigning over housing, against austerity and so on in communities up and down the country. The Palestine solidarity movement mobilised considerable numbers earlier this year and has become a symbol of the demand for human rights internationally. These are all important and inspiring campaigns and they need to be sustained and developed.

At the same time, it is crucial people recognise that you can’t just fight on a single issue. There are limitations to what you can achieve if you see things in isolation. There is a common denominator with all these issues and that is the nature of the economic system. Questions of racism, workers’ rights, housing, insecurity in all its forms, they are connected and they spring from and are generated by the economic system, which is defended ruthlessly by those who benefit. Privatisation and outsourcing lead to the gig economy which in turn leads to insecure jobs and poverty pay. Wars are fought for corporate influence and economic dominance. This is fundamental. We have to challenge the free market and the power of big business.

Problems caused by the free market bring us back to the question of control and planning. If there is no way to plan society and if we have no control over it then there is little we can do. As well as fighting on all the various fronts we need to develop a project that links all these issues to economic transformation, and starts to talk about working people having real democratic control, in workplaces and in communities. This is the urgent question that faces the left.  Not easy!

What are the steps that the left needs to take in this situation?

Well, this is an exceptional, probably a unique moment.

First, we need those both outside and inside Labour to work together. Those who are staying should continue to fight whatever rear-guard action they can but they need to link up with those outside the party. At the same time the left in the unions should no longer give Starmer a blank cheque. They should demand an end to the purge, the restoration of party democracy and a programme that defends workers’ interests.

One of the reasons why this is so urgent is that if the left fails to respond properly it will provide an opening for the hard right to channel the anger and alienation that exists in society. There is a potential overlap from far-right figures like Tommy Robinson to Nigel Farage and sections of the Tory right and that can be very dangerous. This is one reason why the left needs to get its act together.

In the end, the old truth remains. The radical left, the real left, must act together or it is redundant. That means a movement that unites all those, inside and outside the Labour party, and is not defined by restrictions imposed by Starmer and his clique. If we cannot achieve that it will be historic failure. Let’s rise to the challenge!

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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.