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Labour’s succession: what’s left?

Updated: Feb 12

Davy Jones assesses the candidates and the issues in the Labour leadership election.

13 January 2020.

The Labour leadership election says more about the state of the party’s Left than it does about the candidates.


We’ll not delve too deeply into each candidate, but try and raise questions about what socialists need to be asking of them: can we defend – if not extend – the gains made during the Corbyn years, and if so how?

Starmer alarm

One startling thing about this contest is that many who backed Corbyn are backing Keir Starmer, on the basis that – we assume – he’s not as right-wing as some, and his election video makes lefties go all misty-eyed. For example, he’s got the Unison nomination – albeit without having to trouble any of the members of the UK’s largest union – and Corbynite twitterer Dave Osland has been making approving noises regarding Sir Keir.


Paul Mason, in a distinctly odd article in New Statesman, has Starmer as his number-two pick, after Clive Lewis, who struggled to hit the threshold of nominations and later withdrew. Mason reckoned that ‘if Lewis cannot make the ballot, the Left’s way forward is to back Keir Starmer as leader. The internationalist Left should build something independent, which I hope Starmer will listen to and protect.’


The reason for this support is that, while you ‘can criticise Starmer for many things – the compromises he made as director of public prosecutions and his resignation during the chicken coup – you cannot say he is not left wing’. Evidence for this claim included him ‘co-editing a Trotskyist front magazine in his 20s’. You can’t deny Starmer’s weathered well, but his 20s were a long time ago. After all, even Neil Kinnock was a leftist in his 20s.


Surely these ‘compromises’ – on weakening prosecutions over rape, over not prosecuting the killers of De Menezes, and of targeting of ‘benefit cheats’ – and of his support for the chicken coup precisely define him as not being left-wing?


You can’t point to Starmer’s defence of miners and printers, while conveniently ignoring his regressive role as Director of Public Prosecutions, or campaigning for Owen Smith in the chicken coup – nor the fact that a number of people in his campaign today are inherited from the coup campaign. Not to mention Labour First’s witchfinder general Matt Pound. Indeed, while the PLP backers of Corbyn from 2015 are now supporting RLB, Starmer has garnered the support of those who opposed him. By their friends, and all that…


Weirder – far weirder – than Mason’s article, is that the Left is having this conversation at all. Only four months ago, the Left was utterly dominant at conference. The dead hand of the Right had been gradually prised off the party machinery, with Jennie Formby replacing Ian McNichol as general secretary, accompanied by a steadily increasing left influence on the NEC.


So, where did the resurgent Right come from, that we need to hide behind a ‘unity’ candidate such as Starmer? Or perhaps, after rejecting solutions in well-cut suits when they elected Corbyn, many have now decided the suits are once more the only option. If nothing else, this demonstrates the shallowness of the Left – both in terms of political nous, and of how secure its roots in the party are.


The problem of Corbynism – to make a pretty obvious point – is that, post-Corbyn, it’s in danger of melting away, like a dropped Mr Whippy on a summer’s day.


Dwindling Left

In truth, there were only ever two left candidates: Rebecca Long-Bailey and Clive Lewis. So the options for the Left are now whittled down to one – and this after five years of the most progressive leader the party has ever had. RLB has been attacked as ‘continuity Corbyn’. That can be both a good and a bad thing. After all, hundreds of thousands of us joined Labour precisely because of him. Now there’s lefties queuing round the block to deny JC three times before breakfast. Bit late for that – the crucifixion’s done. And, no, we’re not arguing he’s the messiah: he wasn’t even enough of a very naughty boy.


There’s a lot of good things about RLB, not least that she had a central role in the Green New Deal, and is supposed to have been heavily involved in many of the economic policies coming out of John McDonnell’s office, which have consistently been among the most stimulating that the party has produced over the past few years.


But then there’s the ‘progressive patriotism’ shtick. Don’t groan – we see you groaning. Yes, it’s a one liner; yes, she’s come out with better stuff since, but her proximity to the Unite bureaucracy, given Len McCluskey’s known hostility to migrant workers, remains a concern. Her statement that ‘as leader I will never throw migrants or BAME communities under the bus. Never again will our party put controls on immigration on a mug’ is welcome – but she’s not explained at all what this means in terms of policies such as freedom of movement.


Her claim that ‘Labour should have focused on trying to get a good deal because the party was losing trust with communities that voted Leave’ repeats the Lexiteer fallacy that the Remain vote was in the bag. Labour’s problem was that it was losing trust with Leave and Remain voters, and as a result was roundly hammered in the European elections in May, where it lost many more votes to Remain rivals than it did to Leavers.


That’s why, let’s not forget, Labour was forced into a second referendum position – to prevent this catastrophe reoccurring in a general election. Well, we still had a catastrophe, but possibly a smaller one as a result of attempting to turn the tanker round at the eleventh hour.


This tendency to pander to the reactionary sentiments that underpinned the Leave vote is why ‘progressive patriotism’ sets alarm bells ringing. So it would be good to have a better understanding of the degree to which ideas of ‘national interest’ characterise her – and other’s – politics. Class, not national, interest must be the foundation of a socialist perspective.


Mason reckons she’s ‘clearly struggling with her core backers – the pro-Brexit union bureaucrats of Unite and the Communication Workers Union and the Lexiteer grassroots who would have preferred Ian Lavery to stand instead’. If he’s right – and he’s generally got a better insight into the Labour bureaucracy than we have, even if his interpretations are sometimes a little eccentric – let’s hope she doesn’t just struggle, but that her better self prevails.


Capitulation


Early signs don’t look good, however. This contest is proving that candidates are determined to double down on the venality that allowed the campaign around accusations of anti-semitism to gain such traction against Corbyn. Prospective Labour leaders are demonstrating that opposition to the Israeli state won’t be tolerated in the Labour Party.


Jess Philips has suspended an aide who dared criticise Israel’s actions on Twitter, Thornberry is in favour of literal prostration, and both Starmer and RLB have unconditionally supported the Board of Deputies 10 conditions – despite the fact that they’re both lawyers, and point 5 may not even be legal.


This misconceives the nature of the attack as being one of genuine concern by the BoD, rather than a confluence of right-wing community representatives – happy to give a free pass to the blatant anti-semitism rampant in the Tory Party – and an attempt to make any solidarity with the Palestinian people beyond the pale. It’s succeeding, and the candidates are signalling their willingness to throw the Palestinian people under a bus. The 2018 conference saw a mass display of Palestinian flags from the conference floor. We may ne’er see the likes of it again.


As an aside, between Lewis and RLB on ‘would you push the button?’, it was Lewis who had the better answer. Emulating Dr Strangelove isn’t something we see as being a plus-point for any leader. From progressive patriotism to progressive annihilation?


On member-led democracy, Lewis had a clear advantage over RLB, as he expressed a strong commitment to mandatory reselection for party positions – not least, MPs. It’s no surprise that he then struggled to get nominations from those self-same MPs: no demon ever cuts off its own claws. Those green leather benches are very cosy and, once on, it takes a lot to prise an MP’s fat arse off them.


RLB’s not really said anything on either party democracy or reselection, and her proximity to the Unite bureaucracy is a concern, as it seems to want anything but member-led democracy. But, again, let’s hope she can make a positive stand on this issue. Party members should certainly put pressure on her to do so.


Question time


It looks pretty likely that if we don’t put the pressure on, the gains made by the Left under Corbyn will be thrown rapidly into reverse by the next leader. So, members and affiliates should be asking questions of candidates, to get answers on the issues that will define the party from April. Such questions include:


Party democracy: Over the past four years a lot has been spoken about member-led policy. Do you support this as a principle and, if so, how should it be enacted? Should conference be the sovereign body of the party?


Climate: Do you support Labour’s adoption of the Green New Deal? Do you also support the goal of the UK being – not working towards – carbon neutrality by 2030?


Migrant rights: Where do you stand on freedom of movement? Do you support retaining it for EU citizens? Do you support its extension? If not, why not? If so, to what degree?


Palestine: Are you in favour of the right of party members to support the struggle of the Palestinian people against Israeli occupation – including to identify the Israeli state as an inherently racist endeavour?


Nationalisation: What are your views on Labour’s 2019 manifesto pledges regarding nationalisation – too much, too little, or entirely wrong? Do you also agree that worker participation and democratic control should be central to any nationalisation programme?


Trade unions: Do you support the repeal of all anti-trade union legislation from the Thatcher era and beyond? If not, why not?


Working class communities: There has been a lot of concern about the collapse of Labour’s ‘traditional heartlands’. The working-class communities and sense of solidarity that have been the bedrock of the labour movement since inception have been disintegrating for decades. How do we restore that sense of solidarity and community? And what does that look like in a largely post-industrial Britain?


Defence: Would you press the nuclear button? And would you cackle like a Bond villain when you did?

Saving Momentum?


Momentum declared in favour of RLB, with no consultation. The objection that the Momentum leadership should have put who we back to its membership makes intuitive sense, especially given its poor record on democracy. But I don’t think it’s right.


If Momentum had had a vote on this – so what? Say 70% vote for RLB, and 30% Starmer (or whatever figures you like), what does that change? It’s not a democratic centralist organisation (thank God), and individual members would vote for who they’d picked to start with. All you could say of an indicative poll… is that it’s an indicative poll.


On the other hand, there’s no problem in principle with a democratically elected and accountable leadership making a decision of this sort on behalf of the organisation. That’s what leaderships do. The problem is that the Momentum leadership isn’t (apart from in the most formal sense) democratically elected and accountable. There are no structures to facilitate this.


What Momentum should have done was to facilitate an open and informed debate within its ranks, and in the broader labour movement, as to what sort of Labour leadership and party we need, as soon as the contest was announced. That it hasn’t, and seems to have absolutely no notion as to why it should, begs the question of what its purpose is.


It built its brand around Corbyn. It squandered an opportunity to be the heart of a democratic, vibrant left, instead remaining a bureaucratic cheerleader for Corbyn. And with the demise of the Corbyn leadership, this could be the demise of Momentum.


Can it be saved? In the absence of any meaningful structure, it’s hard to see how. That doesn’t mean we should be neutral in this: Momentum is the largest political force on the Left, and the main target for the Right’s purge. A witch-hunt against it is in the offing, and should be fought by all socialists, whether members of the organisation or not, irrespective of what they think of the leadership of Jon Lansman.