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What becomes of our socialist movement without a leader?

Mass support for Corbynism endures in Labour without Corbyn, but what do the party's socialists — and Communist Party members, too — do now that Starmer's neoliberal steamroller rolls onwards regardless, asks NICK WRIGHT

JUST over three months ago the polling organisation YouGov published the results of a survey which showed Labour Party members in a radical state of mind.

Only 3 per cent opposed the party’s signature policies of mail, rail, energy and water nationalisation; nine out of 10 wanted a 50 per cent top rate tax on incomes over £150,000 a year; two-thirds favoured full nuclear disarmament when Trident finally sinks beneath the waves, and two-thirds were for scrapping anti-union laws.

On a range of other issues party members showed remarkable fidelity to the main policy advances of the Corbyn years — on carbon emissions, the abolition of private schools, for free tuition, free broadband, a shorter working week, compensation for the Waspi women and a 20:1 pay ratio for all employees.

We can estimate the effectiveness of Keir Starmer’s restoration regime in the party by the disappearance of these measures from the public profile of the party, by their absence from parliamentary interventions and by the brutal sidelining of any figure associated with them.

When the poll results were released — during the Labour leadership campaign — John Trickett MP commented: “Whoever the next leader is will have the support of our membership to build on the past four years.

“This polling,” he said, “shows there is no support for turning back on what the members have won these past few years. Our party has a great future if we are proud of who we are, our working class politics, trade-union link and common-sense socialist politics.”

Earlier this month Rachel Reeves, his successor as shadow minIster for the Cabinet Office, declined to confirm that tax rises on the fortunes of the rich would play a central part in Labour’s economic strategy for our country’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. It was too early to formulate election policy, she argued.

The strategic thinking behind official Labour’s positioning is that — in the interregnum before the next scheduled general election — Brexit will be done and that the normal functioning of two-party politics will have restored the equilibrium between the two major parliamentary parties.

Note that a frank appraisal of the disastrous election positioning that saw Labour’s conference policy on respecting the referendum result abandoned plays no part in the public acknowledgment of the defeat.

In the calculation that Brexit will be a dead issue next time an election takes place there is an unspoken tribute to the judgement of Trickett and others.

The thinking appears to be that a studiously conventional approach to economic policy coupled with reassuring noises to the City, big business, the banks and the US (perhaps by then under a more conventionally capitalist president) might enable the party to win over enough of the middle ground to finesse a parliamentary majority.

The expectation is that a Johnson government — mired in incompetence and held to account by the electorate for the manifest failures of its public-health and economic policies — would be so compromised that a new administration could win an election on the basis of stirring up as little controversy as is consistent with its official role as the opposition.

There is no sense that a party and an electorate might be animated by a radical programme of change.

Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy’s collapse into Cold War-style posturing towards China and Russia marks a departure from an independent foreign policy – or even one that serves British manufacturing’s commercial interests.

That this strategy also entails a complete capitulation to the assault on Labour’s culture of solidarity with the oppressed is demonstrated by the re-institution of the inner-party policing regime in which reference to the character of the Israeli state or its policies is, prima facie, a case for investigation, suspension from membership and exclusion from party life.

Labour’s only electorally successful policy platform in decades lies abandoned. The politics of the overwhelming majority of the party’s members are regarded as an embarrassment, and the division between the parliamentary party and the membership and most of the affiliated unions — so readily apparent during the serial assaults on Corbyn’s mandate — is reinforced by Starmer’s disciplining of the parliamentary left.

The effects of this transformation of Labour’s political landscape is entirely predictable and consistent with the designs of those who have initiated it.

The question naturally arises in the working class, its movement and much of the left — a category that includes not only organised and experienced Labour people but also many, many voters and much of the membership — is what to do?

Some Labour people have retreated into passivity while others have abandoned their earlier positions in the expectation that a period of penance will, in time, earn them the favours of the new regime.

Many of the more committed socialists are actively looking for arenas of activity in which they can be more immediately effective and some of the more impressionable, and perhaps naive, among those mobilised by the Corbyn years have dropped their membership or activity.

The internal life of the party is suspended. By administrative fiat the leadership has changed the method of electing the party’s national executive committee from the first-past-the-post system for those members to a variation of the single transferable vote system.

STV, which ensures that any candidate or political formation that gets above a basic minimum of votes is guaranteed representation, is fiercely resisted as a system for electing members of parliament but, because it allows a challenge to the left’s predominance among the mass membership, it is now opportunistically deemed the best system for NEC elections.

If nothing else this shows that the right wing are really serious about winning the inner-party struggle to control the policy agenda and the candidate-selection process.

The normally fractious constellation of inner-party left-wing groups have found a measure of unity in drawing up a list of candidates for the NEC election. Last time round the various contending left-wing lists cancelled each other out and allowed the right to gain a majority.

But bear in mind that under STV only the highest scoring candidates on any list, or those benefiting from transferred votes from eliminated candidates, can hope for success.

There are a whole host of questions in which the left can and will find disagreement. The last thing we should expect is for a complete uniformity of view among the forces thrown up during the Corbyn years.

But winning the battle of ideas also entails winning the battle of position within the party and that requires open minds, brotherly and sisterly debate and an end to moralising and posturing.

Already the most disruptive element on the ultra-left fringe have found a reason to qualify their support for some of the names on the joint list of candidates and — in the rarefied atmosphere of an election campaign conducted in the often uncomradely social-media climate — this poses a real risk that the various tendencies on the right, who have sunk their differences, will prevail.

All of this raises questions for the wider left — rooted in the trade unions, the anti-austerity and anti-war movements, in solidarity and community campaigns — and in socialist organisations that are in broad solidarity with Labour. Like left wingers in the Labour Party, they are asking where they might best place their efforts.

This poses something of a dilemma for the Communist Party, which committed its disciplined but modest forces to support the new direction Labour took when its vastly expanded membership elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

A whole host of Labour people have approached the party, some to join, others to discuss the prospects for the left, many to think through what might be a realistic programme to achieve working-class political power in contemporary Britain, and more to seek advice and guidance on what is possible in these new circumstances.

It goes without saying that when socialists who have given their all in an attempt to reorientate Labour in a socialist direction see joining the Communist Party as an effective way to fight for working-class power they receive more than a welcome.

At the same time communists are very keen to see those people drawn into political activity by the last few years to stay in contention, fight for their politics, defend every policy gain, support every unity-minded left-wing MP, transform the parliamentary party and continue in their efforts to restore Labour’s connection with working-class communities.

This is not a new problem. When the Communist Party was formed — from existing socialist and working-class organisations a hundred years ago next weekend — Lenin advised the comrades to find their strongest connection with the federal party of Labour the better to overcome its class collaborationist and imperialist right wing.

He advised the anti-imperialist revolutionary Rajani Palme Dutt to found Labour Monthly as a platform for such unity around principled socialist positions.

Every subsequent controversy until victory over fascism raised this perennial problem. When, during a wartime conference of the Labour Party the engineering union called for the Communist party to be re-admitted to membership it was only narrowly beaten.

The left in Labour is always stronger when the communists are more influential — but it is pretty clear that in present-day circumstances the battle for unity will not assume this particular organisational form.

But it is equally clear that finding the broadest possible unity of left-wing, class-conscious and socialist forces is a precondition for winning our working class to socialism. This depends on the left as a whole renewing its connection to working-class communities and immersing itself in the broad anti-austerity and anti-war movements.


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