Lindsey German on post-Corbynism and the trans debate
The danger has always been that Labour’s December defeat would lead it towards the amorphous centre of politics. That it would move away from policies which could actually effect some change in Britain and become an opposition party weakened within parliament, timid and fearful of the Tory government, while being judgmental and restrictive of its own membership.
To be honest, the evidence of the Labour leadership contest so far has not been encouraging. The ruling class and establishment are determined to minimise the chances of Rebecca Long-Bailey, and gleefully report stories of Labour MPs leaving the party if she becomes leader. Many of them would like Lisa Nandy as leader but are perfectly happy to live with Keir Starmer. They see Long-Bailey as the continuity Corbyn candidate and that is anathema to them.
The problem for the left however is that Rebecca Long-Bailey is not continuity Corbyn enough. She advocates the use of nuclear weapons. She declared herself a Zionist at the Jewish Labour Movement hustings. And she has signed a statement over trans policies in Labour which contradicts the manifesto pledges, and which threatens to lead to a witch-hunt against some feminists. I understand the pressure that she is under, but we can see from the experience of Jeremy Corbyn himself over the past four years that giving in to pressure doesn’t mean it gets easier further on down the line.
She will get the majority of the left’s votes, although some of those will go to Keir Starmer, who is tacking very much to the left at the moment. His support for Owen Smith back in 2016, his record at the DPP, his ultra-remain politics, are all on the back burner for the next month and a half. Lisa Nandy is the most right wing of the candidates and has already signalled retreat on nationalisation. All three of the remaining candidates have distanced themselves from Jeremy Corbyn in a number of ways, even though December was clearly a Brexit election and even though there are many signs that Labour’s policies were, and remain, popular.
The conclusion too many in Labour draw from the election results is that left policies fail and that there has to be a return to a form of centre politics which proved to be such a failure for Labour in the past. Blair’s initial success in 1997 was followed by sharp declines in the Labour vote in 2001 and particularly in 2005 following the Iraq war. Brown lost in 2010 and Miliband in 2015, all of them espousing to some degree politics of the centre. Corbyn’s vote in December was higher than that of the latter two. Labour councils following neoliberal policies through closures, privatisations and deals with property developers have all become increasingly unpopular.
The experience in countries such as Germany and France has shown a similar decline in support for traditional social democratic parties. The idea that a return to centre politics in Britain would address this decline is fanciful.
Equally fanciful is the idea that the left-wing policies put forward by Corbyn were unpopular. Indeed if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then we should look at the way in which Johnson’s government is scooping up a number of these policies and claiming them as its own. We’ve already had the nationalisation of Northern Rail, and rail nationalisation is likely to go much further. Now Johnson has declared massive spending on bus services, something that Corbyn was ridiculed over just a couple of months ago.
The danger is that the new leadership will mark a break with Corbynism to the right. Long-Bailey is by far the closest candidate to his ideas, but she needs to stand up to be counted much more. Richard Burgon, standing for deputy, is the only candidate to have done this consistently so far.
There is still much to play for in this election, and the left is still strong within Labour. It is important to vote for the most left candidates and to do everything to maximise their vote. But socialists both in and outside Labour have also to insist that there is an end to witch-hunting inside the party, and that the key to change over the coming years is likely to come from outside parliament.
Here the Tories are more vulnerable than they are when sitting on a big majority in parliament. They have far more problems than they pretend. The treatment of Sajid Javid isn’t clever and will mean simmering opposition on the backbenches from him and other rejected ministers. The Brexit plans seem to be mired in problems over tariffs. The Sinn Fein vote in Ireland brings closer the likelihood of a united Ireland – that and Scottish independence will mean the end of the United Kingdom and many right-wing nationalist pretensions. The economy is already stagnating and the prospects of recession loom. Inadequate flood defences illustrate the governments unwillingness to come to terms with climate change. There is discontent around public services, and work conditions. Their policies over deportations and Windrush are now seen as barbaric by millions.
The Tories have won an election but have a relatively small, ageing membership which is unrepresentative of society as a whole. Serious levels of class struggle and protest can do major damage to them and can help strengthen the left again. But this will only happen on condition that the left fights, that it doesn’t make unnecessary compromises, and that it understands the election defeat can best be countered by organising and campaigning.
Debate not demonisation
Trans people should be able to live free from fear of violence, persecution and discrimination. They should be free to present as they wish without any form of abuse or denial of their rights. However, there are difficult and complex issues in the debate about trans which can’t be ignored or censored. In particular, they come from feminists and socialists who have a long record of fighting oppression and who have no wish to see the oppression of trans men and women, but who have a different approach to the question. This isn’t surprising.
It should be possible for socialists to discuss these issues and reach a position which opposes all oppression. The trans debate in the Labour Party is in danger of ending up in a bad place if it does not do this. Some of the pledges put out by the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights are in my view unacceptable, especially those calling organisations like Woman’s Place UK transphobic, and calling for expulsions of transphobes (presumably including members of WPUK). What I find most worrying here is that women who are good socialists are being branded as transphobes because they have a different perspective on women’s rights and trans rights, and that there are repeated moves to close down this discussion. This is being done in an authoritarian manner through threatening expulsion. We have already seen protests at WPUK meetings, attempts at no platforming women such as historian Selena Todd, and attempts to sack women who disagree.
This leads to a situation where it is impossible to move the debate forward. Labour’s manifesto called for full support for trans rights, but also for retention of rights relating to women as a sex under the 2010 Equality Act. Both Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey seem to have dropped this approach in favour of signing the pledge. Laura Pidcock’s eminently sensible call for discussion led to a stream of abuse directed at her. It really has to stop.
It has nothing to do with theories of liberation and it weakens us all.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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