A left opposition to Starmer

Submitted by AWL on 11 March, 2020 - 8:46 Author: Sacha Ismail

Barring a surprise, Keir Starmer will be elected Labour leader on 2 April by a big margin.

How will the left respond? The signs are that Starmer will want to not marginalise left MPs, but rather “incorporate” them, as Harold Wilson “incorporated” the left MPs in his day.

Although the 2019 Labour Party conference showed that at constituency level the Labour Party is much more left-wing, in a general way, than it was before 2015, the actual organised Labour left is weak. Momentum has a big membership, but does not even aspire to discuss and campaign for left-wing policies.

What left MPs do, and what the smaller Labour left groupings which nevertheless played a big role at the 2019 conference do, can be critical for the future of the left and the party under Starmer. By those Labour groupings I have in mind for instance Labour Campaign for Free Movement, Labour for a Green New Deal, Labour Homelessness Campaign, Labour Campaign for Council Housing, Free Our Unions, Labour for a Socialist Europe...

Will left MPs accept front bench positions? In which case, who will there be to play the kind of role that, among others, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell played under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband? A role without which the left would not have triumphed, in however limited a way, from 2015.

We should argue for left MPs to throw themselves into helping the grassroots Labour left develop itself organisationally and politically, with clear campaigning goals.

There are multiple reasons to be concerned about the direction in which Starmer will take the party. To ignore the fact that Matt Pound, the Labour First leader who boasts that he “organise[s] full time against the hard left”, is a senior official in his campaign – and that this is emblematic of the bulk of the Labour right rallying to Starmer as a means to defeat and marginalise the left – would be naive.

Many on the left, particularly supporters of Rebecca Long-Bailey, have portrayed Starmer as more right-wing than he is, but often in a despairing “if he wins, then I’m off” way. And many among the significant number of left-wingers supporting Starmer have portrayed him as more left-wing than he is (thehe same goes for RLB supporters’ presentation of her).

In any case, the current reality and direction of the party is not good. After four years of “Corbynism”, Labour is not meaningfully democratic, does very little actual campaigning or supporting working-class struggles, has practically no youth or student wing, and has a day-to-day message which is simply not very left-wing. There is lots of potential, in the larger and generally more left-wing party membership, but most of it is still dormant.

Bringing together left MPs and organised left-wing campaigns to push for the party to get out on the streets campaigning, consistently week-to-week and in larger mobilisations, is surely key. So are arguing for member-led policy- and decision-making, above all through a sovereign national conference, and launching and building democratic youth and student wings.

All link to defending and developing left-wing policies and making them a living political force.

Regrouping the Labour left

Norwich South MP Clive Lewis hosted a second meeting of Labour left campaigning organisations on 4 March.

There were people present from almost but not quite the same list of organisation as at the previous meeting on 5 February: Labour Campaign for Free Movement, Labour for a Socialist Europe, Labour for a Green New Deal, Labour Campaign for Council Housing, Free Our Unions, Labour for a 4 Day Week, The World Transformed, Labour Transformed, and Workers’ Liberty. As before, Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome was there for part of the meeting.

At the first meeting, there was discussion of developing an ongoing network of Labour left campaigns, with the reference point of the former Labour Campaigns Together initiative (labourcampaignstogether.com). Participants wanted to use the second meeting to clarify goals for such a network. Unfortunately, that didn’t really happen. Discussion ranged widely but without much resolution or progress.

There is due to be another meeting in late April (provisionally 22 April). Some things to discuss:
• Would a network exist to develop collaboration on limited campaigning goals, or to unify a chunk of the Labour left around a set of more extensive political ideas, or both? Both ideas are rattling around, but they are distinct.
• In terms of campaigning, which issues can the organisations unite around and which can’t they?
• How can a network avoid becoming a not very effective echo chamber for things going on elsewhere, and make a distinctive contribution to developing things – particularly in the Labour Party, since involvement in and orientation to Labour is what unites the organisations? On the other hand, how to combine a focus within the party with active, visible campaigning?
• In terms of political ideas, what are the areas of agreement and disagreement? The “progressive alliance” and “battle mainly on the cultural front” perspectives raised repeatedly by Clive Lewis in the two meetings (hence his focus on winning PR and defending the BBC) need proper discussion.

A number of speakers raised the question of campaigning to make progress on democratising Labour, with some linking this explicitly to winning a sovereign conference and fighting for left-wing policies passed at conference to be carried out.

Becky Crocker from Free Our Unions raised the question of getting local Labour Parties and the party as a whole out on the streets campaigning, immediately against the Tories’ proposals for a new anti-union law but also on wider questions of workers’ rights, social provision and living standards. It was agreed that Becky will lead a discussion on fighting anti-union laws at the next meeting.

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