Lindsey German on Labour, the left and taking on the Tories
It isn’t always comfortable to look reality in the face, but it is increasingly necessary for the Labour left to do precisely that. If there is one thing that Keir Starmer’s brutal sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey shows, it is that there is no road to success for the left inside Labour. The huge advance that the Corbyn victory represented and the boost that gave the whole left has been reversed. It so terrified Labour’s right and centre that they will never allow such a development to happen again. Starmer’s own failings will be ignored as the left is blamed for electoral failure and given no credit for electoral success. The atmosphere of witch-hunting which now pervades Labour will continue, not least over antisemitism but over a range of issues, including union militancy.
The issue of Long-Bailey’s sacking is important but only highlights wider issues. The sacking itself is indefensible: her tweet of an interview in a national newspaper with a nationally known actor promoting a new film was deemed antisemitic because the article contained a sentence about Israel training US police who killed George Floyd. The links between the two countries’ police are indisputable, even if more close connection to any crime or any specific technique cannot be proved (although the technique is used by both forces). It is not antisemitic to say so, nor is this a ‘conspiracy theory’. The journalists and editors on the Independent clearly wrote, subbed and passed the article for publication, but have not come in for the same approbation as Long-Bailey.
It is hard to disagree with John McDonnell’s response to the sacking when he argued that criticism of Israel should not be equated with antisemitism, but this is precisely what is happening. It is designed to silence such criticisms but also to target the left. Hard also not to contrast Starmer’s wooden stance and failure to act over a range of issues with his rapid and ruthless response to this tweet. He never called for Dominic Cummings to resign, and he has been underwhelming in the face of the leaked Labour report highlighting racist and sexist abuse of Corbyn supporters.
Starmer has now cleared out the left from any prominent position in his shadow cabinet. The move was at least in part motivated by Long-Bailey’s effective stance over school reopening which supported the unions’ position and so put her at odds with Starmer. Her replacement by Kate Green, who ran right-winger Owen Smith’s campaign challenging Corbyn in 2016, speaks volumes and means that the teachers will face a much more hostile response to their demands from the Labour leadership than previously. But it demonstrates more widely that Starmer was never interested in unity with the left but in grabbing a tranche of left votes to win the election and then moving rapidly towards the right.
The process is well underway and unstoppable. I mean this in the sense that there is no force within Labour which has the strength, or in many cases the desire, to stop it. The various parts of Momentum are engaged in an internalised operation centred on NEC elections, and their published platforms do not inspire confidence that they will look outward any time soon. The NEC in any case will not act to control Starmer in any meaningful way, and there is zero chance of a leadership challenge, as some are demanding. It just isn’t going to happen.
This should be a major time for reflection for all of us on the left. Many Labour lefts backed Starmer despite the fairly obvious writing on the wall. This was for a variety of reasons: the shock and demoralisation of defeat and the call for ‘electability’; the continuing Brexit debate (where the People’s Vote campaign did real damage to the Corbyn left); the promises of Starmer that he would unite the party; the continuing rows over antisemitism. Some are doubling down, some plead for him to be more responsive to the left – but why should he?
Perhaps the most important reason for the failure of Corbynism was that there was none of the ruthlessness towards the right that we now see being used against the left. But it is what always happens. The right knows that the left will buckle down, usually in a subordinate position. Meanwhile, we have a case study of how the right behaves when the left is in the leadership – the last five years shows us the lengths it will go to, including losing elections, to ensure the left’s defeat. This isn’t a moral or personal failure, it is inherent in the nature of Labour’s electoral coalition which means that the parliamentary party and the trade union leaders call the shots, and the right and centre dominate in both.
So what now? Starmer will continue on this trajectory, moving right even further and faster than most predictions allowed. His response to the abject failure of Johnson’s government over the coronavirus crisis has been craven and cowardly. His electoral fortunes will grow as Johnson’s decline, but it is hard to see what this means. Scotland is already lost to Labour, and its anti-independence line is both narrow and unionist, and electoral suicide. I’m quite sceptical about whether Labour will win back all its ‘red wall’ seats, at least without a level of social upheaval in which Labour under Starmer will be on the wrong side. We’ll see, but already he is moving away from policy over the environment for example. Expect a lot more of this.
Many socialists have left Labour over the past days and more will do so. There are others who will stay and urge their comrades not to desert the field of battle. There’s much to respect in that, but the slogan of ‘stay and fight’ is increasingly lacking substance. The fight is going to be outside of Labour, and organising inside will be an extremely pale shadow of that, with very high likelihood of failure on every major front.
We desperately need a mass socialist party in Britain, but Labour is not going to be it. At present there is no such party on the horizon, however there are hundreds of thousands who would identify with it. There are also major struggles ahead as we face unemployment, pandemic and attacks on workers. The building of such a party will most likely come from working in those campaigns and perhaps with an organised split from Labour (although this is unlikely to contain MPs). It has to be centred on those struggles and not on electoralism. Every socialist should be involved in those – join a union, get involved in campaigns, and join a socialist organisation, in my case Counterfire which has always been committed to building the movements while also fighting for socialist ideas.
Because whether you stay or go, the key thing is to fight.
Their profit, our health
According to the latest Observer Opinium poll, 54% of people think lockdown is ending too fast, compared to 46% last week, and 59% think testing levels are insufficient. The government is carrying on regardless however, promising a phony economic boom, and next Saturday we will see Johnson downing a pint somewhere just to encourage people to frequent one of the most dangerous places for transmitting the virus. The number of deaths from Covid-19 on Saturday was announced as 100 – still a huge figure. There are startling figures of rapid resurgence of the virus after lockdown is lifted, including in Germany and in a number of US states, where Texas has gone back into lockdown following a sharp rise in infections.
This is all business-driven rather than ‘following the science’, which Johnson doesn’t even pretend to do. The question of a second spike is not if but when. The teachers have done a splendid job forcing the government to observe health and safety in schools, but they will find this harder as September approaches. Already there are many small and some potentially very big skirmishes over safety at work, jobs, wages and conditions. We need to open up fronts on all these – some are already underway, but we will need much more from across the workforce, and not least in the NHS. Then there are fights over rents and evictions, public spending, asylum seekers’ conditions and much more.
There’s only one answer to this government and to employers like BA who want to cut salaries by 20%: we won’t pay for your crisis.
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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’.
More articles from this author
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- Stop the culture war against the old and unite against the Tories – weekly briefing
- The ignominious end of liberal interventionism
- In the Blair bunker war never ends – weekly briefing
- Afghanistan: the collapse of the war on terror – weekly briefing
- Blairism: first time tragedy, second time farce – weekly briefing