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Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey at the 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings in Bristol.

Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey at the 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings in Bristol. Photo: Rwendland / Wikicommons / cropped from original size / used under license CC4.0 link at the bottom.

Until such time as a new parliamentary vehicle for the working class emerges, socialists should continue to vote Labour, argues Martin Hall

It feels like each day heaps new trials and tribulations upon Labour members and voters. The party has opposed Tory plans to put up corporation tax, failed to oppose the Tories over their pitifully slow Covid response, the Spy Cops Bill, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (initially, at least).

Then there have been rightward moves on policing, defence and the environment, a failure to back unions and workers and, in general, thinking that the way to win back the so-called ‘Red Wall’ is to wrap themselves in the Union flag and talk patronisingly about family and community. While all this has been going on, there have been constant attacks on the party’s left, including the proscribing of various groups, and the continued withdrawal of the whip from its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

It has been eighteen months of Thermidorian reaction, and the above is only a very selective list. More could be said.

This has led some on the left of the party to argue that they won’t vote Labour while Keir Starmer is in charge. Social media is full of such proclamations. In just the last week, the Morning Star has published an article entitled, ‘Should Socialists vote Labour under Starmer?’ The writer, a Labour member, thinks not.

This is a mistake, for a number of reasons.

Limits of the Labour Party

First, it misunderstands the character of the Labour party, in two contradictory ways. Let’s deal with the first of these and return to the second later. Labour is not a socialist party that has fallen from grace, rather, to repeat a hackneyed phrase, it is a party with socialists in it. Keir Starmer is not a Tory, but solidly in the tradition of statal figures from the party’s right who have sought to position Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition (when not Her Majesty’s Government) as the second party of capital in the world’s oldest liberal democracy.

Second, it attaches too much importance to voting and to parliamentary politics full stop. For reformists, elections are the end game, so when winning them seems incredibly remote, and on an unattractive platform as well, then not voting, or voting for another ‘progressive’ party like the Greens, can start to look like a radical gesture. The reformist road to ultra-leftism is an easier one than the revolutionary.

Why? Because for the extra-parliamentary left, the election of a Labour government is only one aspect of the struggle. Understanding that socialism is not achievable via parliament means it is easier to take a pragmatic view and not go down the road of ultra-leftism. It is worth stating this unequivocally: even under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour in power would not have brought socialism.

Similarly, Labour in power under Keir Starmer – no matter how remote a possibility – would be a victory as it would remove the Tories. It is about resolving the contradiction between thinking that voting is the be-all and end-all, and throwing your vote away.

To explain why Labour winning under any leader is preferable to them not winning, requires us to return to the second way in which the argument not to vote Labour under Starmer misunderstands the character of the Labour Party, in this case, its class character. 

Labour was born from the trade unions, and more to the point, is umbilically connected to them. All of the UK’s biggest unions are affiliated to it. When Labour wins, trade unionists are stronger. When Labour wins, its activists – many of them trade unionists – are stronger. And, the Tories, and the class they represent as an unapologetic party of the ruling class, are weaker.

Understanding this is how many socialists, fresh from forming Stop the War and organising the biggest march in UK history, could vote for Labour under Tony Blair at the 2005 general election.

Roadblocks to a new party

The counterargument is to say that this link is so broken and weak as to not be worth preserving, so let’s form a new socialist party. A part of this, the argument goes, will involve a form of left accelerationism, where not voting Labour will hasten its demise and get us the new parliamentary party that we need.

The problem with this is that it puts the cart before the horse in terms of organisation. Before saying more about that, it is also worth mentioning that despite repeated humiliations, none of the Socialist Campaign Group, not even after the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn, shows any sign of resigning the whip and sitting as an independent group on the opposition benches, nor from that first step forming a new party. 

So concretely it is not on the table. Why? The two-fold pressures of first past the post, which makes it incredibly difficult for new parties to gain an electoral footing, and labourism. Labour’s left in parliament is tied to the Labour Party.

Even if it were on the table, a new party will not come simply from such a top-down approach; conversely, a grassroots organisation without some big beasts will not cut it, either. Moreover, if the unions were all to disaffiliate without some new form of organisation coming from that, then the UK would find itself in a position similar to the US, with two capitalist parties. Similarly, just seeking the electoral destruction of the party will hasten its realignment to being a version of the Democrats, unmoored from the working class, something that Starmer undoubtedly wants.

The focus for activists

The key, then, is this ‘new form of organisation’, but it will have to come from the trade-union movement, as the Labour Representation Committee did in 1900. It will need to be an organic expression of workers’ struggles in the coming period, of which there will be many, as strikes increase, and workers start to win in a tightened labour market. 

For the avoidance of doubt, saying that socialists should vote for Labour is not the same thing as saying that they should be spending their time organising in Labour. There was a thirty-year gap between the expulsion of Militant and the rise of Corbynism. There is nothing to suggest that the gap between the death of Corbynism and the left again gaining some control over the party is going to be any shorter. This is one reason why it is crucial, in fact, that we build a dynamic and combative extra-parliamentary socialist organisation that relates mainly to the protests and the strikes going on now. 

Indeed, the argument in the Morning Star piece is predicated on the idea that Labour is the only path to change, so don’t vote for it while it’s in the hands of the enemy, but instead, stay and fight and work to change it from within. This puts too much faith in the party as an instrument of radical rupture and too much faith in its left’s ability to effect change. At the same time, the argument is that further setbacks for Labour will somehow see those who hold power removed from the field of battle, leaving things clear for left advance, at some point in the future. It’s just as likely that further defeats will drive the party further rightwards.

What socialists need to do is recognise that there is no space for left advancement in Labour but hold our noses and vote for them the next time we have a chance. They’re rubbish but they’re still our rubbish, and will be so until such time as a new parliamentary expression of the working class takes shape. For that to come, activists need to concentrate their efforts on building mass resistance through the unions and the movements.

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