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Editorial: Left unity and the Labour leadership contest

THE response to Rebecca Long Bailey’s clearest pitch yet to succeed Jeremy Corbyn at the helm of the Labour Party shows that the contest is going to be difficult to navigate — not just for the candidates, but more importantly for the socialist left.

That isn’t because we need to take seriously snide attacks from Blairites such as Alastair Campbell or John Rentoul, the latter of whom managed to object to Long Bailey’s contention that Margaret Thatcher had attacked working-class communities.

The old right will howl, but the Labour Party has changed and the pro-market, pro-war “globalisation” brand epitomised by Tony Blair is not likely to present a serious threat in the leadership election.

Over four years, in the face of numerous parliamentary revolts and attempts to topple him, Corbyn gathered a leadership team which brought together quite different strands of the left.

These are now starting to unravel as the unifying goal of getting Corbyn into Downing Street has disappeared.

It’s actually an exaggeration to talk of unity during Corbyn’s leadership, given frequent departures from the script even from leading shadow cabinet members.

It’s plausible to see the most vocally pro-Remain shadow cabinet members as having accepted positions under Corbyn because they saw it as the best way to shift Labour to a pro-Remain position.

Emily Thornberry has already distanced herself from the radical economic programme put forward in two manifestos, suggesting that Labour seemed to be promising “the earth, the moon and the stars.”

The centrality of Brexit to Labour’s defeat — with 52 of 54 seats lost to the Tories being in Leave-voting areas — has to be continually highlighted because the whole of the Establishment will be seeking to muddy the water, pinning the blame on Corbyn personally, the economic programme or a myriad of competing factors, most of which were present in 2017 as well as 2019 without doing such damage.

The aim will be to drag Labour away from socialist politics when, as Corbyn notes in his new year’s message, Labour members are going to be the front line of resistance to Boris Johnson’s hard-right government in many areas.

Long Bailey’s first intervention in the race lays down a number of markers, in support for radical economic change and the crucial importance of trade unionism, which show she does not intend to accommodate to the status quo.

It also holds out hope that the role of anti-socialist MPs in sabotaging the Corbyn project has been noted, pledging to democratise the Labour Party.

It reads in many parts like a bid to keep the Corbyn alliance together, which is understandable in light of Labour’s need to lead opposition to Johnson’s government. 

But advocating unity cannot become an excuse to avoid the hard questions. The left has frequently pulled its punches in the name of unity since 2015, whether over reselection or in the battles over Brexit where elite-funded campaigns such as the People’s Vote were able to exercise a huge and distorting influence on Labour, dragging it towards a liberal accommodation with market principles and resulting in the absurd contradiction where the party of the organised working class was demanding that the Conservatives do more to ensure the frictionless movement of capital and goods across borders free of the threat of economic policy being changed by elected governments.

Anger at growing inequality and poverty, insecure work, failing public services and unaffordable housing is impotent without an understanding that there are people who are growing very rich out of exactly this state of affairs.

In short, that the interests of working-class people and those of capitalists are diametrically opposed.

A movement which forgets that, which cites Bank of England and big business concerns to oppose popular sovereignty, cannot authentically speak or fight for workers. That truth will need articulating as Labour picks its next leader.

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