As Starmer prepares another round of attacks and expulsions against the left, we need a united response across the labour movement, argues Kevin Ovenden
Two news stories this weekend capture the moment of challenge and opportunity facing the left and labour movement.
There is the almost comical U-turn by Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak saying that they will, after all, go into self-isolation on account of contact with the health secretary who tested positive for Covid. That shows the Tories are not the masters of public opinion they would have us believe.
On the same day the Mirror splashed that Labour's Keir Starmer is to drive through wholesale expulsions of hundreds of socialists in the party next week. The story, not denied, is that a proscribed list is to be passed through Labour's National Executive Committee, which is essentially under Starmer's control.
Those deemed supporting the campaign groups or publications on the list are to be expelled, or, in the Orwellian language of Labour's witch-hunters, ‘auto-excluded’.
And a witch-hunt is what it is. It is a carbon copy of then-Labour leader Neil Kinnock's war against supporters of the Militant newspaper and others on the left in the mid-1980s. He lost the 1992 election.
The loss of the recent Hartlepool by-election prompted calls from the Labour right for Starmer to do something dramatic to signal a complete rupture from the Jeremy Corbyn period. The former MP for Hartlepool Lord Mandelson, who did so much under New Labour to shatter the party's working class support, was given an increasing role.
Mandelson, twice sacked from Tony Blair's cabinet under allegations of corruption, started his path to fame and later fortune as Kinnock's spin doctor.
It is little surprise that in the face of today's crises facing working people – the pandemic, fire and rehire, financial hardship, climate chaos and more – the Starmer-Mandelson response is again to witch-hunt socialists in Labour.
That it comes in the summer should be no shock either. That is when the blitzkriegs to destabilise the Corbyn leadership used to take place from 2016 onwards. Ordinary people have little choice about taking desperately needed time off in summer. Millionaires and the bureuacrats they sponsor can do so whenever they wish. They do skiing holidays or Indian Ocean islands in the winter; the Carribean in the spring.
This is a continuation of the war to remove from British public life not just Corbyn but also the insurgent left politics that surged around him.
That is why it is so vicious. We at Counterfire were among those who warned that the election of Starmer would not mean that the left would continue to have a role in Labour's structures, diminished but still respected as a loyal congregation of a ‘broach church’.
It was going to mean war. A war of destruction of the left inside the party, in fact. Mandelson further signaled this following the Batley and Spen by-election when he attacked the left of the party even though Labour had scraped home.
That Corbyn remains expelled from the Parliamentary Labour Party, with no-one renouncing the whip in solidarity, means it will be much easier for the Labour apparatus to expel from the party itself many others.
Everyone on the left should recognise what is going on and come together to oppose it, whether in the Labour Party or not. A lot of the impetus for fighting against the attacks on the left has come from socialists outside the Labour Party. That was the case over standing up to the weaponisation of antisemitism, which was to attack the left rather than racism.
We are likely to see that cynical attack again in the coming weeks. It will mesh with a Tory government reeling from the anti-racist upsurge triggered by England in the Euro 2020 football tournament and trying to reheat talk of ‘left anti-semitism’ as a diversion instead. Starmer is allied to that and is helping to take the heat off the Tories on racism by switching the focus onto online abuse, which is an effect (not a cause) of racism pushed from the top.
As with previous witch-hunts, this is not about what some individual has said – even if it's confused or just plain wrong. It is about a wholesale assault upon democracy in the labour movement and upon the socialist left.
The Socialist Appeal newspaper, which is reportedly a target, points out that Blair and prominent figures who have welcomed votes against Labour candidates are lauded by the party apparatus. But socialists who remain committed to backing the party are threatened.
It is, however, about more than good arguments about rules and regulations. This is not even mainly about the hundreds of members in the firing line. It is about generating stories across the media – and here the centre-left Mirror and Guardian are likely to be as vicious as the Tory rags – to show that Labour has nothing to do with the left any more. It is likely to be used in the general secretary election of the Unite union by the hard right candidate Gerrard Coyne, if it is not already fully aligned with his campaign.
It's on that basis that this should be fought in the trade union and working class movement. At the same time, socialists have a right not to be persecuted by their own party leadership in Labour – but there must surely be an alternative to feeding the hand that bites you?
A serious electoral alternative does not yet exist. And Starmer-Labour is relying upon telling people that there is nowhere else to go – so put up and shut up.
However, recent elections and other indicators show that people can easily just stop voting Labour. There's no sign of them coming back, despite Tory chaos.
What does exist right now is the potential to resist the Tories and out of those struggles to build a much stronger opposition than anything Starmer-Labour can provide.
You can guess the Starmer-Labour plan for this summer: throw the left into a crisis with expulsions to get good headlines; continue tailing the Tories, just trying to sound a bit more competent; and reshape things further to the right in the autumn around the party conference season. That plus copious Union Jacks.
It would be a mistake for the left to fall into that trap by focusing primarily on internal processes to resist the witch-hunt. And history shows it will not stop at the first tranche of named groupings.
It has to be fought as part of turning outwards and developing the struggles against the government and bosses, and on that basis showing in practice an alternative to Starmer.
That will involve people in and outside the Labour Party – those who want to stay and those who want to leave, preferably in an organised way. It will involve a debate about how best socialists should organise.
The best place for that to take place is to be organised, uniting in diverstity in fronts of struggle against a Tory government that is doing so much damage but is also showing all sorts of weaknesses and perhaps a bit of return of its reputation for U-turns two years' ago.
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Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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