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Charting a new course for Labour

Labour's future is not only a question of who is leader or what policies conference decides but about organisation and institutional power, argues NICK WRIGHT

IT IS an odd sensation to watch as a whole cohort of Tory MPs call for the resignation of the Prime Minister’s grand vizier while the official parliamentary opposition remains mute. 

Boris Johnson’s dogged defence of his consigliere has legitimised the precipitate relaxation of the lockdown measures that the Prime Minister has until now thought politically unwise. 

Unless Dominic Cummings is sacked and Johnson doubles down on the existing advice to the public, then the sense that if the rules don’t apply to the Prime Minister’s minder then they don’t apply to anyone else will give effect to what big business wanted all along.

Of course, the PM must be calculating the cost of losing control of the narrative if this itself entails a political retreat on other fronts or erodes too much of his authority in the Tory Party.

One wonders if similar calculations are taking place in Labour’s leadership and whether anyone has an eye on the prospects of gaining control of the dominant political discourse if you don’t do very much.

Keir Starmer’s studied low-key posture — perhaps in emulation of Napoleon Bonaparte’s adage “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake” — may be a sensible parliamentary strategy, but it is at a piece with the state of induced coma which seems to have settled on the party.

This week I listened in to a discussion by active Labour Party members — drawn from the full range of opinion in the party — in which the comrades (some would blink at being addressed thus) were confounded by advice handed down from on high that they should not be actively campaigning in the locality.

There was among them a strong desire to break through the isolation and lassitude induced by the lockdown and involve the party in a lively range of local causes and campaigns. 

Lib Dems are active, the Greens are fronting online local “people’s assemblies,” even the Tories are revived.

There is a sense that unless there is a strong effort to get a grip on the formation of local opinion, the momentum which the party gained could vanish and dangerous forces could take advantage of the changed mood that the government’s policies towards the lockdown has created.

We are talking not just about our local Tories who, despite winning the parliamentary constituency, have been squeezed out of the council’s administration by a rainbow alliance very ably led by Labour, but the remnants of the fascist fringe around Brexit politics which sense the deep antipathy to Labour in some working-class circles.

This is a total transformation from the mood of the party from before the general election and markedly different from the high point of enthusiasm when Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership took the party to within a whisker of victory in 2017.

The factors which drove Labour to one of its highest-ever general election votes are worth recalling. 

Labour had emerged from an ideological and policy dead zone through an extraordinary leadership election which saw Establishment candidates reduced to near irrelevance.

Recollect that, in an attempt to marginalise insurgent opinion and diminish the influence of the trade-union affiliates, the leading circles in the party introduced a US-style primary election in which members of the public who sympathised with the party were to be given the right to vote in the leadership election in the expectation that this would isolate the party’s left wing.

Instead, as if obeying Lenin’s injunction, “Be as radical as reality itself,” this had the opposite effect.

When the outsider Jeremy Corbyn topped the opinion polls, Tony Blair’s attack-dog, John McTernan, said that MPs who had “lent” their nominations to the standard-bearer of the left to “broaden the debate” were “morons.”

The significance of this was not simply that these people recognised their error in relaxing the PLP’s monopoly of power over who might be leader. 

Rather that both the right wing of the party and those who had long abandoned fundamentally oppositional politics — what are loosely described as the “soft left” — were united in horror at the effect the great irruption of support for Corbyn meant for the routine politics of a Parliamentary Labour Party generally at peace with neoliberalism and imperial war.

So how did we arrive at a place where the public image of Labour is no longer mass rallies and roused crowds of working people but a smooth and unruffled advocate pleading its case to an almost empty parliamentary chamber?

It is necessary to set aside the comforting but delusional notion that the new leadership of the party has as its guiding principle a renewed party unity grounded in the electorally popular policy decisions of conference and the treasure house of manifesto policies. Or that it envisages a return to mass politics of any kind.

In the selection of shadow ministerial posts; in the suppression of the report to the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation; in its willing submission to hostile external entities like the Board of Deputies and the even more Tory-orientated Jewish Leadership Council, and in the resumption of crude disciplinary measures against even academic supporters of Palestinian national rights we have the unmistakable signs of a palace counter-revolution that goes beyond a superficial change of style.

Recollect that it took three years before Corbyn could see a party general secretary in place who was not actively undermining his authority and the agreed policies of the party. 

Starmer has now secured the appointment of a Blairite-era functionary in a process that showed the disastrous effects of a divided left losing elections to the party’s National Executive Committee.

We are seeing a return to the days when policy was the exclusive prerogative of the parliamentary party and conference at best an advisory talking shop. 

Gone is talk of public ownership. Below the radar there is an active reconciliation with big business and the banks with the recycled arch-Blairite Pat McFadden zooming round City boardrooms as shadow economic secretary to the Treasury.

Grasp the idea that to understand the situation in the Labour Party is see the struggle between contending classes in capitalist society as finding a reflection in every aspect of social life, and furthermore, that this is normal, natural, inevitable and even necessary.

Accept, for the sake of your psychological well-being, that inner-party struggle is a permanent feature of life and that it takes unexpected forms.

How then do we account for the reality that just as Labour’s two main right-wing tendencies have found enough unity with the middle ground to secure a convincing victory in the leadership and NEC elections and that Momentum is now convulsed with a struggle between factions each claiming title to the brand?

Not much purpose here is served by a forensic dissection of the superficial differences which lie behind the rhetorical stance taken by each of the Momentum platforms, save to point out that little divides them in formal policy terms.

In renewing Momentum the key test of maturity is how the general election defeat is understood and what is proposed to root the party more deeply in the working class and find a point of contact with the millions angered at the subversion of the referendum result. 

An additional factor bearing on the choice is the priority assigned to left unity and in this respect any list unable to divest itself of suspicion that it might be the instrument of the divisive neo-Trotskyite AWL sect has undermined its legitimacy.

Each of the tendencies seize on the inescapable fact that the Corbyn moment is over and that, despite Momentum’s great achievements, the inner-party struggle has entered a new stage. 

Charting a new course for Labour is not only a question of who is leader, or what policies conference decides upon but is as much about organisation and institutional power.

There are people in the party — going back to the moment when Tony Benn came within a whisker of winning the deputy leadership — who have long experience in the mechanics of inner-party struggle. 

To this valuable experience Momentum added a flair for communication, mobilisation and social-media campaigning which changed the geometry of inner-party politics.

The last thing we need is for party life to be narrowed down to a bid to grab the Momentum mantle as if this alone might be the golden key to reasserting the viability of a socialist path to power.

The great strength of the Corbyn period was that it reflected very profound movements in British opinion rooted in the great popular sweep of the anti-war movement, deep popular opposition to the austerity policies of the capitalist consensus, along with the crisis of capitalist confidence that the 2008 financial meltdown engendered.

The changes this wrought in the Labour Party took root as a great number of people joined, or in many cases rejoined Labour and the role of trade unions in party life was energised. 

These people and this process gave rise to a new enthusiasm and revived the values and organisational habits developed in mass struggle and union activity. 

Because key sections of the trade-union movement were on the same wavelength, the movement had greater solidity and staying power.

The key to changing the situation inside Labour lies in changing the situation outside. It is important for the left to fight for progressive policies and for leadership in the Labour Party but this is a many-sided struggle that depends on the influence of socialist ideas in the working class, in the labour movement and in society as a whole.

Nick Wright blogs at 21centurymanifesto.wordpress.com.

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