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Editorial: Labour, ‘left unity’ and socialist advance

MOMENTUM’S assessment that the left in Labour is “disastrously split” was immediately followed by the launch of Forward Momentum, a campaign accusing its namesake of being London-centric and insufficiently democratic.

In the wake of the left’s defeats in December’s general election and Labour’s leadership election, analysis of the causes of these reverses is essential.

Momentum’s concern that without unity the left will be reduced to irrelevance is valid. 

The Jeremy Corbyn leadership brought hundreds of thousands of people into political activity and exposed the decades-old political lie that socialism was outdated and unpopular with the huge increase in the Labour vote in 2017. 

The nature of the attacks it was subjected to was a political education of itself, alerting millions of people to the character of the Establishment media, the depths to which many MPs were prepared to sink to bring down a leader who answered to the movement rather than themselves and the extent that supposedly neutral arms of the British state such as the army and the intelligence services were prepared to intervene politically against a candidate promising real change.

It is vital that the left learns from these experiences if the Corbyn phenomenon is to presage a wider, deeper and more radical socialist revival.

Part of that involves a united fight, as Momentum envisages, against a retreat from the left policy positions that even Keir Starmer largely pledged to uphold in his leadership campaign.

In his campaign for the deputy leadership, Richard Burgon identified “three pillars” of the Corbyn project that need to be fought for: support for public ownership, party democracy and international peace. 

But the call for unity only goes so far. That is not only because it can be used cynically, as it was repeatedly to try to silence objections to the highly contentious uses to which Labour’s disciplinary systems were put during the last five years.

It’s more because the Corbyn project failed to win power because it wasn’t radical enough. Part of that was Momentum’s failure: founded as an organisation to defend Corbyn’s leadership, it did not consistently do so.

Part of it stemmed from a misreading of 2017’s narrow loss to the Conservatives. The apparently small distance left still to travel to 10 Downing Street induced an overly cautious attitude among some Labour strategists who tried to do the impossible — win over sections of the Labour right, British finance capital and the state — with “moderation.” 

This could take the form of presenting Labour as the champion of the status quo against a reckless government, as it did over Brexit talks or the quarrel between Boris Johnson and the Supreme Court.

It took the rather uglier form too of refusing to show solidarity with left-wing MPs and activists subjected to right-wing smear campaigns.

But the ultimate failure was the failure to turn a socialist moment into a socialist movement. Corbyn’s overwhelming leadership victories made much of the left complacent. Efforts to develop political education were patchy.

A failure to encourage political debate — in a context of suspensions and expulsions that made discussion of some topics hazardous — meant the left failed to really challenge an Establishment-funded campaign to reverse policy on Brexit and left it without the tools to secure victory in the leadership election. 

Now the left, in and out of the Labour Party, is organising in unions, in communities and workplaces to ensure people are given the best protection possible against a deadly pandemic. Labour’s internal factional wars may seem of small significance by comparison.

Yet what the coronavirus crisis has done to expose the broken nature of the capitalist system puts the onus on the left to step up with answers.

That means building a left that is confident in its criticisms of capitalism and able to embrace a struggle for an entirely different global system.

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