Britain: battle for control of the Labour Party

Voting has begun for the Labour leadership contest in Britain. With their champion Keir Starmer, the establishment hopes to regain control of the Labour Party. We must fight to continue the 'Corbyn revolution', this editorial by Socialist Appeal explains.


Voting is now underway for the Labour leadership contest. It is clear that the battle for leader has come down to a choice between Rebecca Long-Bailey and Sir Keir Starmer, with Lisa Nancy relegated to third place. The outcome of this election is not a secondary question. In the short run, the result could either enhance or even undermine the ‘Corbyn revolution’.

For their own reasons, the capitalist media are playing up the idea of a convincing Starmer victory. But that could well prove premature.

What is clear is that there has been a lot of confusion in the Labour Party since the election defeat last December. This was compounded by the decision of Jeremy Corbyn to stand down as leader. The capitalist media and Labour’s right wing were quick off the mark to blame Corbyn and his ‘utopian’ ideas for the defeat.

The rank and file of the party were disorientated in face of this hysterical campaign. This was followed with a noisy demand that Corbyn should resign immediately. In this way, the party could be placed immediately back into ‘reliable’ hands and the left-wing programme abandoned in favour of more acceptable ‘moderate’ policies, as in the past.

Election aftermath

Labour’s right wing have been praying for such an electoral defeat for four years. Unfortunately for them, Corbyn did rather well in the 2017 general election, seeing the biggest increase in the Labour vote since 1945. This forced them to bide their time.

The defeat in December was therefore the chance they had been waiting for. Having forced Corbyn to announce he would stand down, the task was then to prevent the election of a Corbynista as leader.

Corbyn Boris Image Socialist AppealLabour's defeat last year gave the Blairites the opportunity to try and recover lost ground in the party / Image: Socialist Appeal

They wanted a reliable right-winger as leader, who could hand back control to the right wing. The most brazen Blairites were hoping that Jess Phillips – who once promised to stab Jeremy Corbyn in the back and front – would have been their standard bearer. But when she dropped out, they shifted their support behind Sir Keir Starmer, who had opportunistically placed himself as the ‘unity’ candidate. With the support of the capitalist media, he became the front runner.

Rebecca Long-Bailey, a close collaborator of Jeremy Corbyn, became the standard bearer for the Corbynite left. We support her election, although we believe she made too many concessions to the right by talking in terms of party ‘unity’, when the right wing are out for blood. For example, she has unfortunately buckled to pressure from the Board of Jewish Deputies in accepting their 10 pledges on anti-Semitism. This is a grave mistake.

Nevertheless, Rebecca Long-Bailey supports open selection of Labour representatives and the left policies of Labour’s manifesto. This marks her out from the rest as the best candidate for leader.

Starmer, as well as Nandy, comes from the party’s right wing. Starmer has attempted to reinvent himself as a ‘centre left’ in order to appeal to the rank and file of the party. Nandy has been more vocal in her right-wing views, also pushing her northern credentials.

Both have gone out of their way to stress that Labour has experienced its worst electoral defeat in 80 years, and that the very future of the Labour Party is at stake. Nandy even said, “Labour must change or it will die, and it will deserve to die.”

This wild exaggeration is what the establishment and the right wing want us to believe. While Labour won the fewest seats since 1935, the Labour vote was higher than in 2005 under Blair, higher than 2010 under Gordon Brown, and higher than 2015 under Ed Miliband.

We do not need to prettify the electoral defeat. But we must not exaggerate it either, which only serves the right wing’s agenda by maximising the blame on Corbyn, and by implication the left. Of course, they have to be careful in what they do, in order not to overplay their hand.

Champion of the establishment

The leadership contest is therefore taking place after four years of bitter civil war between the party’s two wings — the radicalised ‘Corbynistas’ and the Blairites within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). While Corbyn genuinely wanted to transform the party into a socialist party, the right wing is determined to drag it back to the Blair years, if they can.

Sir Keir Starmer, the main right-wing candidate, has the backing of the right wing of the Parliamentary Party, having secured 89 MP and MEP nominations. They regard him as a ‘safe pair of hands’ in pushing the party towards the right.

Starmer was a barrister who served as director of public prosecutions — head of the Crown Prosecution Service — between 2008 and 2013. He was elected as MP for the London constituency of Holborn & St Pancras in 2015.

Official portrait of Keir Starmer crop Image Flickr Chris McAndrewKeir Starmer has the backing of the right wing, who regard him as a ‘safe pair of hands’ in pushing rightwards / Image: Flickr, Chris McAndrew

He then served in the shadow cabinet for several years under Jeremy Corbyn, which has made him more palatable to party members. In his role as Shadow Brexit Secretary, he was the main architect of pushing the Labour Party to support a second referendum, which was essentially a Remain position. In other words, he was the architect of the party’s defeat.

Starmer has pitched himself as a political chameleon, somewhere between the radicalism of Corbyn and the ‘pragmatism’ of Tony Blair’s New Labour governments. He has sought to endear himself to younger Corbynistas by pitching himself as a radical reformer. This was underpinned by his campaign videos that have stressed his work as a young lawyer, defending dockers, print workers, miners, and poll tax protesters.

However, behind him stands the party’s right wing, the capitalist media, and big business. They see him as the means to regain control of the Labour Party.

Starmer has also been exaggerating his working-class credentials. But he attended private school and was enough of an establishment figure to be knighted by the Queen in 2014. This alone tells you which side his bread is buttered on.

In the middle of 2016, he was part of the ‘chicken coup’ against Corbyn, when he, together with more than 60 shadow ministers (he was home affairs spokesman at the time) resigned. Following a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn by 172 members of the PLP, they forced him to stand for re-election as leader, hoping to push him out.

This was a golden opportunity. Corbyn could have told these renegades that if he had won, every Labour MP would have to face their own democratic reselection process. But this opportunity was missed. This failure was to have grave consequences.

In the end, Corbyn was re-elected by a greater margin than in 2015. But the right wing nevertheless used every single opportunity to undermine Corbyn, especially in the media. This went on right up until Corbyn resigned as leader, which for could not come quick enough for the Blairites.

Sabotage

Unfortunately, the left Labour leadership has made some very serious mistakes. For example, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (and those around them) – all in the name of party ‘unity’ – conspired at the 2018 Labour Party Conference to have the question of open selection manoeuvred off the agenda.

Blairites v CorbynCorbyn's refusal to seriously take the fight to the Blairites allowed them to sabotage the 2019 election / Image: Socialist Appeal

In the end, this went a long way in sealing their fate. It allowed the Blairites a free reign to continue their sabotage. Instead of mobilising the membership to challenge and oppose the right wing, the Labour leadership attempted to appease them both politically and organisationally. It was this grave weakness that has led us to the present situation, where the right wing threatens to make a comeback. It is essential we learn this painful lesson.

Behind the Labour right wing stands the ruling class, which gives them their confidence and strength. The right wing are nothing but bourgeois agents in the Labour Party. They controlled the party until 2015 – that is, when Corbyn won the leadership and 300,000 flooded into the party.

For the first time ever, the ruling class had lost control of the Labour Party. This was a serious blow for them, as the Labour Party under right-wing domination was used to prop up capitalism, acting as a safety-valve when the Tory Party was in difficulty.

For four years they tried everything to destroy Corbyn and win back control. But they failed at every attempt. For them it became a question of ‘rule or ruin’.

A number of Blairites split from the party with the intention of causing maximum damage. Then they used the issue of anti-Semitism to further their aims in a vicious campaign, day-in and day-out. The suggestion that the Labour Party is institutionally anti-Semitic is a complete fabrication. Unfortunately, right-wing MPs were allowed to get away with this, unchallenged by the leadership.

When the 2016 coup failed, Keir Starmer returned to the front bench, and skilfully positioned himself to advance his career when the opportunity arose.

Where next?

Neil Kinnock Image Roland GerritsThe FT has offered Neil Kinnock's leadership as the Blairites' model in winning back control of the party / Image: Roland Gerrits

The Financial Times, the organ of big business, have lamented the fact that Starmer and the other leadership candidates have willingly committed themselves to backing, to one degree or another, left-wing policies.This “threatens to constrain the freedom of the next Labour leader to manoeuvre the party’s policy platform back within the bounds of electability,” said Miranda Green of the Financial Times (17/2/20). In other words, shift it towards the right.

“It was not always this way,” she adds. “Back in 1983, Neil Kinnock was also faced with reforming a party that had become unelectable — those who worked for him at the time are dismayed by Sir Keir’s pledges. Lord Kinnock was careful at the time, they warn, to avoid firm pledges: but he did drop the promise to leave the EU. Oh the irony!”

“...But Labour should be aiming to compress Lord Kinnock’s nine years of reforming the party into at most half of that time. Binding the hands of the next leader will hamper the process.”

This mouthpiece of the ruling class is eager to get the Labour Party back into its hands via a new right-wing leader.

A Starmer leadership would certainly look different to Corbyn’s. The Labour shadow cabinet could possibly include the likes of Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband. As a sop, Starmers has said if he wins he will bring Rebecca Long-Bailey into the shadow cabinet. In effect, RLB would be a left cover for a shift to the right.

If Rebecca Long-Bailey wins the leadership she is likely to continue from where Corbyn left off. She is committed to the left policies of the manifesto, and has even come out in favour of open selection. If this measure is introduced, it will open up a struggle to make the Parliamentary Labour Party more representative of the rank and file. This, in turn, is likely to push the party more to the left, which would be the best outcome.

A Long-Bailey victory would be a massive blow to the Blairites. Significantly, a threat has been made that, if RLB is elected leader, a group of 50 right-wing Labour MPs would split from the party. These elements represent a Tory Trojan horse within the party. At a certain point, they will certainly split – if not now, then later – to create the maximum damage. From our point of view, the earlier they go the better.

It must also be said that a victory for Richard Burgon in the deputy leadership election would also strengthen the left. While he has illusions in the UN and international law, he is the clearest in regard to socialist policies. Notably, he has come out in favour of a socialist new Clause Four.

On the other hand, if Starmer wins, the right wing will be over the moon. They are also rooting for Angela Rayner for deputy leader. They hope that very soon the right will be back in the driving seat.

No return to Blairism

Tony Blair recently gave a speech on the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Labour Party. In his talk, he proposed an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. He is the only Labour leader in history to lament the creation of the party. According to him, Labour should never have split from the Liberals in the first place.

But the foundation of the Labour Party represented the creation of a workers’ party, independent of the capitalist parties. Blair wanted to transform the party into a bourgeois party. New Labour went very far in this direction. But in the end, he failed.

No return to Blairism Image Socialist AppealDespite the wishes of the PLP, there is little appetite for Blairism. The centre ground is dead / Image: Socialist Appeal

Blair bemoans the fact that Labour membership is out of touch with the country. “I’m not sure what you can do with them – they are not an asset, I’m afraid,” he said, in reference to the party’s mass membership. In other words, there should be a campaign to cleanse the party of hundreds of thousands members and replace them with more ‘reliable’ people.

Under Corbyn, the mass of members wanted a break with Blairism, privatisation, and austerity. There was a yearning for genuine socialist policies. At the last party conference, 62 percent of CLP delegates voted to restore the original Clause Four, removed by Blair. This remains the dominant view within the party.

However, there has been a great deal of confusion as a result of the election defeat and the right-wing offensive against Corbyn. This has opened the door for the possible election of Starmer.

If he is elected, any attempt to abandon left-wing policies will lead to an uproar. Starmer would have to proceed very carefully, or face a massive backlash. This is not the 1980s, when Kinnock and Hattersley were elected, and when there was a shift to the right in the movement. Today, capitalism is in a deep crisis. The system cannot afford any lasting reforms. Councils are faced with horrendous cuts. This means reformism without reforms. It means austerity and counter-reforms.

We saw what happened in France to Macron, the darling of the liberal establishment. As soon as he started to implement ‘reforms’ by attacking pensions and so on, he provoked an enormous backlash, and was forced to retreat.

A Starmer victory, while a significant setback, cannot lead to an immediate restoration of Blairism. Even Blair realises that the only way to ‘reclaim’ the Labour Party is to get rid of the 300,000 new members who joined to support the ‘Corbyn revolution’. This will be no easy task!

Battles ahead

The gains won by the mass membership will not be given up lightly. On the contrary, there will be sharp battles ahead. If the right wing becomes over-confident they will risk a massive reaction and backlash from the members.

The attempt to push the party to the right will not be plain sailing. Jeremy Corbyn has let the genie out of the bottle and it will not be easy to force it back in.

Labour election rally Corbyn Hackney Dec 2019 Image Socialist AppealThe gains won by the mass membership will not be given up lightly. On the contrary, there will be sharp battles ahead / Image: Socialist Appeal

There will be a renewed struggle between the brazen right wing and a left-wing rank and file who are opposed to their policies. They will fight tooth and nail to retain the radical programme introduced under Corbyn.

The ranks of the Labour Party will be further radicalised on the basis of events. The coming attacks on the working class by the Johnson government – together with a deepening crisis of capitalism in Britain and internationally – will radicalise the labour movement. The right wing will find itself increasingly isolated.

But we must learn the costly lesson of recent years. Rather than placate the right wing in the cause of ‘unity’, the left must go on the offensive, politically and organisationally.

Momentum under Lansman has proved to be utterly incapable of building a genuine left movement. In fact it has become a barrier. Throughout this crucial time, the left had no democratic organisation through which it could exercise control and support for its own leaders.

This was a fatal weakness. It meant that the left was isolated, atomised, unable to generalise its experiences, and unable to organise effectively against the right. This problem must be resolved.

The Marxists have a vital role to play in this process in the coming period. We must argue for a clear socialist programme and perspective in the face of a deepening crisis of capitalism. We must hammer home the fact that there is absolutely no solution to the problems of the working class on a capitalist basis.

Only by politically rearming the working-class movement – committing to do away with capitalism – can the Labour Party become a real instrument for the socialist transformation of society.