For Labour to beat the right, the left must stop retreating, argues John Rees
Can it possibly be a coincidence that the two issues on which the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party find themselves in most trouble, Brexit and antisemitism, are precisely the issues on which they have retreated most?
Of the trouble there can be little doubt. Brexit will be contentious for at least as long as the process of leaving the EU lasts, and possibly longer. Accusations of anti-Semitism have now been going on for years and show little signs of abating.
There can scarcely be any greater doubt about the retreat. First let’s look at Brexit, where there is a kind of double retreat.
Firstly, there is the initial retreat in which Jeremy Corbyn abandoned a lifelong commitment to the traditional Bennite opposition to the EU. Early in his leadership the right wing of the PLP exacted this compromise.
In all likelihood Corbyn imagined, like many others, that the referendum would vote to Remain and that the issue would be back in the margins of British politics for at least a generation.
We all know now that events turned out very differently. It is one of the tragedies of modern politics that when the left eventually came to lead the Labour Party it did not maintain its long-held opposition to the EU and thereby place itself at the head of what turned out to be one of the greatest anti-establishment voter rebellions of the modern era.
How different politics would be now if Leave had become predominantly associated with Labour and the left, with an anti-austerity politics which would have banished Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson to the outer reaches of the political galaxy.
Instead, Labour has been left to try and triangulate its own position between its Leave voting supporters and the right-wing-organised Remainers within the party.
It didn’t do too bad a job at recovering from the initial compromise when it developed the People’s Brexit strategy in aftermath of the referendum result.
The problem is, and this is the second retreat on Brexit, it’s months since anyone has heard the leadership utter the words People’s Brexit, despite the obvious voter appeal of such an approach to both Leavers and working class Remainers.
Under pressure from the Remain camp the People’s Brexit strategy has been quietly dumped.
Was it a good idea to get rid of an approach which held out the hand to Leave voters? Well May’s local election results give us at least a partial answer.
The most important aspect of the result was that it was a disastrous night for the Tories. Let us put aside for the moment the fact that the mass media, led by the BBC, have tried to pretend that Labour losing 10 times fewer councillors than the Tories is a defeat of equal magnitude.
Let’s ask instead why it should be that Labour lost any seats at a time when the Tory government is imploding in an historic and unprecedented way?
Just a little psephological analysis reveals that Labour lost seats, and practically only lost seats, in Leave-voting areas, predominantly in the North East. It is blindingly obvious that if Labour looked ‘more Leave’ it would not have suffered these losses.
Secondly, the question of Palestine. Many Labour Party activists report a climate in which they are reluctant to speak out over Palestine for fear of being accused of antisemitism.
They are right to be worried. For while there have been some disciplinary measures rightly taken against those who have expressed antisemitic views, it is also absolutely clear that in a number of cases action has been taken for the remarks that were legitimate criticisms of Zionism and/or have no antisemitic content at all.
Mark Wadsworth, longtime black activist and prominent Labour left campaigner, was expelled for a remark with no antisemitic content whatsoever. Outrageously, MP Chris Williamson remains suspended although no one has suggested that he personally made any antisemitic remarks. Shadow Cabinet member and close Corbyn ally, Richard Burgon, felt he had to apologise for a remark which specifically distinguished between criticism of Jews and criticism of Zionists.
What chance do rank-and-file activists have if MPs and shadow cabinet members can be forced into apologies or face expulsion?
There is virtually no defence from the left over this issue. Indeed, the main organisation of the Labour left, Momentum, is leading the argument that any criticism of Zionism is a form of antisemitism.
And this is part of a wider pattern in which existing Labour Party policy in favour of Trident and in favour of NATO go unchallenged by the left.
Of course, no one would blame the left for the Labour Party's right wing instrumentalising the question of antisemitism in order to attack the Corbyn project. The opprobrium for that disgraceful act lies fairly and squarely with the right wing themselves.
But the left is culpable for not mounting a sustained defence of the traditional Palestinian solidarity movement position of criticising Zionism as a colonial settlement project which in its fundamental nature is racist.
It is sadly no exaggeration to say that the Labour Party, including much of its left wing, have harmed the Palestinian solidarity movement. Meetings and protests in support of Palestinians are more difficult to organise because of the poisonous debate around the Labour Party and because the left in the Labour Party has given so much ground, specifically in accepting the IRHA definition of antisemitism.
It’s not even as if retreating on the Palestinian cause has bought the Labour left any room for manoeuvre. We were told at the time of the acceptance of the IHRA definition that it would draw a line under accusations of antisemitism. But the reverse has been true.
There is no retreat complete enough to satisfy the right. They are out to get Corbyn and nothing less will satisfy them.
Retreat has not and will not work, even in Labour Party terms, even if one discounted the damage done to the Palestinian cause. The Labour left needs to cast off this frame of mind and get back on side with the Palestinian solidarity movement.
The lesson from both these cases – Palestine and Brexit – is that retreat doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in the most important broad political sense that it disrupts and disorganises mass working class consciousness and organised political resistance. In doing so it enables the political right.
Moreover, at a time of political polarisation it doesn’t even work electorally. The whole of international politics in the current configuration shows a vanishing political centre and the race to what is conventionally described as ‘the extremes’.
The Labour left cannot deal with this new geography by shuffling two steps to the left and restarting the tired old business of triangulation from that point.
Radicalism, although not always their own, is what got them where they are today. Providing an alternative to the political establishment is what got them where they are today. Further radicalism is what is needed to combat a resurgent right and provide leadership for an increasingly desperate working population.
Failure to do so, at any level, will be immediately punished by both right-wing political opponents and the mass of people. Left radicalism is the only language which can beat the right and provide alternative leadership for working people.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.