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2020 was a bad year for the left. Where do we go from here?

Socialists must fight to stop supporters abandoning politics and try to build a more coherent and united movement, says Morning Star editor BEN CHACKO

CHE GUEVARA’S maxim that “the revolution is not an apple that falls when ripe. You have to make it fall” has been vindicated over the last few years. 

Years in which the capitalist system and its institutions have lurched from disaster to disaster, blatantly incapable of mastering the social, economic, environmental and now health emergencies it has created. 

Years in which the ruling class has been confronted, in Britain, the United States, France, Spain, Greece and other countries, with serious challenges from the socialist left. But it has unfortunately so far proved capable of mastering them.

2020 opened in the wake of the crushing defeat of Labour in the December 2019 election after almost five years of socialist leadership. 

Establishment papers and politicians have been all too keen to bury a movement they regarded from the outset with fear and revulsion, but it would be a mistake for socialists to do the same.

If the Corbyn movement was unsuccessful, it was also more successful than any socialist project in this country for many decades. 

As Unite’s Andrew Murray said at the Morning Star Christmas rally, a general must be able to organise a retreat — and the left should see setbacks as imperatives to regather around strong points, assess our forces, counterattack.

That Corbynism was not a dead end should be clear from the enormous efforts being made to stamp it out. 

The crackdown in the Labour Party is extraordinary, with branches forbidden from questioning the findings of an Equality and Human Rights Commission report that has been widely misrepresented in the media, and forbidden from discussing the removal of the whip from the current leader’s immediate predecessor. 

The deputy leader uses doctored photographs that rewrite placards in praise of Corbyn from old rallies. 

These are not the practices of an ordinary bourgeois democratic party, but of one that has been seriously rattled. 

And by what? By many measure Labour has been an unusually successful political party over the last five years. 

Its 2017 vote surge was its biggest vote-share increase in 70 years. Even in 2019 it won more votes than it had done in 2015, 2010 or 2005. 

This compares favourably with the performance of social-democratic parties throughout Europe.

It swelled in size to become the biggest party in western Europe. It did so after decades in which membership of political parties in Britain was in decline. 

In size, it was not simply in the lead, but orders of magnitude bigger than its rivals, at least outside Scotland — the only party in Britain with an army of activists.

“What’s the good of all those members if you can’t win an election?” Andrew Neil shot at Ian Lavery on election night. 

If we say this attitude reflects narrow-minded parliamentary politics, we will meet the old accusation that the left aren’t interested in winning. 

But the mass membership should be at the heart of our assessment of the Corbyn project’s strengths and weaknesses. 

An army of activists had significant electoral power, as we witnessed in 2017, when Labour’s advance took place in the context of a relentlessly hostile media and a largely disloyal parliamentary party that had tried to overthrow him just a year earlier. 

As we learned from the report leaked last Easter, Labour also secured those millions of extra votes despite what amounted to deliberate sabotage from its own party HQ.

But it also had the potential to do much more, to build a mass participatory politics rather than one that is the preserve of a particular professional caste. 

There was talk after 2017 of Labour being on a permanent campaign footing, though in fact the party leadership became much more narrowly focused on Parliament between 2017 and 2019. 

Perhaps a weakness of the concept was that even its leaders viewed it too much through an electoral slant. 

A Labour Party that formed an active mobilising force in communities around day-to-day struggles would have done more to transform democratic politics from the bottom up. 

But of course that is why the Labour hierarchy did everything they could to disparage, demoralise and divide that membership from 2015 on, with the bogus scares around entryism, the media picture of Labour members and volunteers as thugs and bullies and of MPs — among the most powerful and privileged people in the country — as their hapless victims. 

The leaked report details the casual purging of members on the slightest pretexts during the 2016 leadership election in a bid to disenfranchise Corbyn supporters; in one revealing discussion of the political reliability of a member of staff, a colleague remarks critically that the employee under discussion seems to see the rise in membership as positive. 

In the end, the elite-led People’s Vote campaign succeeded in turning the membership into a weakness, a Remain bulwark that swung the leadership’s fatal decision to call for a second referendum on the EU. 

The origins of this disaster lie partly in a lack of political education, but also in the way the factionalism of “official” Labour politics found its echo among the mass membership and meshed with the social-media culture in which many younger activists moved to create a sometimes intolerant and unthinking tribalism that elevated heresy-hunting over debate and denounced rather than trying to win over opponents.

The determination of Labour’s new leaders to alienate and purge “thousands and thousands” of members is rooted in the Establishment’s fear of mass participatory politics. 

From that point of view Labour needs to be brought back to politics as usual not just in terms of content but form: not just through abandoning transformative policies but through ending the active role of a mass membership.

So Labour under Corbyn was a real threat to the Establishment. But it failed. The reasons why are already the subject of several books. 

Some, such as Owen Jones’s This Land, argue the case in largely personal terms. 

Indecisive leadership and poor management of the party and media play a prominent role. 

Jones’s view, consistent with much of his journalistic output since 2015, appears to be that Corbyn was an unrealistic politician, whose refusal to compromise was a strategic weakness. 

The problem here is that Corbyn’s Labour did compromise — or rather make concessions — repeatedly. 

It compromised by giving MPs a free vote on bombing Syria in 2015. It conceded to the Labour right on the IHRA definition of anti-semitism, and again on the second referendum. 

It constantly put out feelers to the right and it often failed to defend left-wing activists and MPs who came under attack from the right. 

None of these concessions worked, because the right had no intention of reaching compromise with the left. 

Their goal from the beginning was Corbyn’s total defeat, and as we know from the leaked report, this was a much higher priority than defeating the Tories — just as Starmer’s Labour today is far more decisive in its crackdown on the left than it is when confronting the government.

The “Corbynism without Corbyn” formula leads rapidly to the total rejection of socialist politics we see in Starmer (himself elected on a platform of being a smoother, more electable face for the same policies as his predecessor) because what the media found objectionable about Corbyn was his politics, especially his anti-imperialist politics.

But to state that Corbyn’s error was to make too many concessions is unfair too, since the concessions were generally forced and resulted from the leadership’s lack of reliable support, not just in the almost totally hostile parliamentary party, but among trade unions and the membership too on crucial questions like the EU, and even in the shadow cabinet. 

It has been said that the worst thing you can do is to give the ruling class a fright but not overthrow it. We might go further and say — and not try to overthrow it. 

Corbyn was the figurehead for a broad coalition — revolutionary socialists, social democrats, people new to politics who were sick of austerity or recognised the need for radical change to address poverty, inequality and the environmental crisis, unions tired of funding a party that treated their members with contempt. 

Not all of these people were anti-capitalist and only a minority believed in transforming the political system itself.

If that was its weakness — and the root cause of particular weaknesses, such as a failure to recognise the anti-socialist nature of institutions like the EU or indeed the British state — it shattered the neoliberal consensus in Britain and demonstrated the mass appeal of socialist policies.

Socialists must fight to stop its supporters abandoning politics and try to build a more coherent and united socialist movement that draws on the lessons of the last five years, including the undemocratic nature of British political institutions from Parliament to the armed forces and Civil Service, and the nature of the mass media as a propaganda arm of the elite rather than a purveyor of news and a forum for debate.

The experiences of Covid-19 in Britain have made the case for the policies that inspired millions under Corbyn stronger, and there is no evidence that support for them is any weaker.

What we need is an independent socialist left, one which does not subordinate itself to other causes such as the liberal Remain campaign or even the election of a Labour government. 

This is not to say that electing a Labour government is not a positive aspiration: but it cannot be an excuse to drop the more fundamental fight for the socialist transformation of the country.

An “independent socialist left” is not the same as “a new political party.” 

Rather, socialists in and out of Labour can make common cause in unions and community campaigns in the fight for jobs or the push for a zero-Covid strategy to build a movement with real weight in towns and workplaces.

But it does mean a real break with Establishment politics and, in the media, recognition that we need a bigger reach for socialist and revolutionary media and greater scepticism of the narratives in the mainstream papers and on TV.

The Morning Star will play its part in this through 2021 and beyond. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our readers, we have survived repeated lockdowns that seriously affected sales and advertising revenue, and in the process seen our online readership grow considerably. 

We have recognised that with the recruitment of an additional member of our web team, and are discussing how to use the extra resources to develop new content, including more regular video interviews and debates. 

January will also see two part-time industrial reporters begin, to replace the single full-time industrial reporter role, which has been vacant since the spring. 

Our intention is to increase the breadth and depth of our trade union coverage and make the Morning Star an unrivalled resource for trade-union militants across Britain, co-operating with exciting new initiatives such as Strike Map.

It’s been a horrendous year, but that should only reinforce our determination to overturn our broken and bankrupt political and economic system in 2021.

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