Roger Silverman reports from London
The British Labour Party is currently convulsed in a historic crisis.
Founded 120 years ago as the political voice of the trade unions at a time when Britain was the world’s leading industrial power, Labour won its first landslide parliamentary majority in 1945 amid the worldwide wave of radicalism following the second world war, and gained the lasting loyalty of millions through the reforms it introduced, including the establishment of the National Health Service and the nationalisation of several basic industries.
Subsequent Labour governments elected in the 1960s and 1970s balanced precariously on the crest of a rising tide of strikes and workers’ militancy, while always ultimately inflicting cuts on workers’ living standards under pressure from the bankers and the IMF, and even at times open threats of military coups.
In 1979 the Tories launched a parliamentary counter-revolution. The new Thatcher government declared war on the trade unions and on workers’ rights and living standards.
In the wake of a decade and a half of major setbacks for the working class – successive election losses, defeat in major trade-union battles including the year-long miners’ strike, the deliberate shutdown of entire industries, and a worldwide context of retreats including the restoration of capitalism in Russia and Eastern Europe – the Labour leadership’s record of capitulation reached qualitatively new depths. With the active support of the ruling class, Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, explicitly declaring it a new party: “New Labour”. New Labour was the product of a skilful operation by hostile forces to carry onward the Thatcherite programme of cuts and privatisations wrapped in new packaging, once the Tories had become too discredited to do it themselves under their own banner. It served a very specific historical purpose. Under Blair’s “New Labour”, the socialist clause in Labour’s constitution was peremptorily cut out and the rights of the membership and the influence of the trade unions drastically curtailed.
While the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party’s bureaucratic machine were firmly under the control of the outright pro-capitalist Blairite wing, the membership at the base was still rooted in the trade unions and at least a section remained broadly socialist in their aspirations. This contradiction became especially inflamed in the wake of the worldwide economic crisis of 2008. It was then that New Labour was deemed to have outlived its usefulness; once having served its purpose in government, it was soon afterwards unceremoniously ditched, and direct Tory rule was restored on a platform of harsh austerity.
Tens of thousands of members had left the party during the New Labour years, and in successive general elections under its rule Labour lost in total nearly five million votes – almost one-third of its previous support.
Then, after two successive electoral defeats resulting in new leadership elections, in 2015 the Blairite party hierarchy suffered a shocking defeat. Fearful of the influence of the trade union machine, and deluding itself that its right-wing reformist policies still enjoyed mass support, it had thrown open the franchise to anyone willing to pay £3 to become a Labour “supporter”. There was an influx of hundreds of thousands of new young members, eager to flock behind a clearly anti-capitalist banner. The result was a totally unexpected landslide victory for the veteran left reformist MP Jeremy Corbyn, who had been elected with the biggest mandate of any political leader in British history.
In a desperate rearguard action, the Blairite MPs flaunted their contempt for the rank and file by passing a vote of no confidence in Corbyn, thus precipitating an immediate showdown. It was not, as they pretended, the risk of defeat in a coming general election that the MPs were afraid of; it was the prospect of victory under a socialist leadership. In
Having failed in a brazen plot to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper this time – a provocation that risked an immediate split – in an act of pure spite they disenfranchised over 100,000 Labour members at a stroke by imposing an arbitrary cut-off membership date, and raised the affiliation fee for new supporters from £3 to £25, while giving them a deadline of just two days to register. And yet all these tricks blew up in their faces. The outcome of the right wing’s failed coup? Corbyn won with an increased majority of over 300,000 votes.
The ruling class were shaken. The new prime minister Theresa May called a snap election, hoping to smash Labour, but lost her majority. Labour under Corbyn had regained another 3.5 million votes. Excluding Scotland, which had been lost to Labour by decades of bureaucratic corruption, it was Labour’s best ever result – better than 1945, better even than 1997. If Labour had managed just 2,227 more votes in a few key marginal constituencies, it would have been in a position to form a government. As was to be revealed later, it was the treachery and sabotage of the official party bureaucracy that ensured that it was not.
The ruling class too was reeling from the shock. Jeremy Corbyn had been elected Labour leader twice, overwhelmingly, on the votes of hundreds of thousands, and now he had come within a whisker of becoming prime minister. At one point during a Prime Minister’s Question Time, Theresa May leaned over the despatch box and hissed at Corbyn: “We will never let you be Prime Minister.”
And this was no empty threat. The odious former Tory leader Ian Duncan Smith announced that “Corbyn’s sole purpose in life is to do damage to the country”; a general openly threatened mutiny against a Corbyn government; paratroopers were videoed using a photo of Corbyn for target practice. One Labour MP had already been murdered by a Nazi assassin, and another escaped the same fate only in the nick of time.
A sustained campaign of dirty tricks was launched. On a deafening scale, Corbyn was now branded not as before just a harmless screwball vegetarian beardy digging his allotment, but now, somehow simultaneously, as both a pacifist and a terrorist sympathizer, and as a Stalinist spy, and – most bizarrely of all for this most prominent and outspoken of anti-racists – an anti-Semite.
THE 2019 ELECTION
The unremitting hysteria, together with the wave of chauvinism promoted by the Brexit campaign, had some effect. In the 2019 election, although Labour was offering the most radical and popular manifesto since 1945, Labour lost votes and seats.
The capitalist media willfully misrepresented the result as “Labour’s worst performance since 1935”. This was true in terms of seats, largely due to the collapse of the Brexit vote into Johnson’s Tory party. But the most obvious measure of a party’s popularity is how many votes it gets. And the truth is that even in 2019, under Corbyn’s leadership Labour won over ten million votes – more than under Miliband in 2015, Brown in 2010… or even Blair in 2005, when he won! Labour also gained a higher percentage than in 2010 or 2015. Only in 2017 – also under Corbyn’s leadership – did Labour do better. And in 2019 too, Labour still commanded a majority in most of the big cities, among those of working age, and overwhelmingly among the youth.
A secret report into the Labour officialdom exposed the treachery at the heart of the party machine in both elections. These paid officials discussed “hanging and burning” Jeremy Corbyn and called him a “lying little toerag”. Senior staff expressed a hope that one left Labour MP would “die in a fire”. They said that those Labour MPs who had nominated Corbyn “deserved to be taken out and shot”. During the 2017 general election, they joked about “hardly working”, and created a chat room so they could pretend to work while actually speaking to each other (“tap-tap-tapping away will make us look very busy”). During the 2015 leadership election they described their work as a “Trot hunt”. The black woman MP Diane Abbott was the subject of especially vile and disgusting abuse.
In March 2020 Corbyn resigned and the establishment lawyer Sir Keir Starmer – a former Director of Public prosecutions – was elected in his place, by a membership deceived by his promise to carry onward Corbyn’s “radical programme”. In reality, under his leadership the party machine has proved hell-bent on purging the ranks of all traces of socialism – first, by demoralising the membership and plunging them into despair, and where necessary by mass expulsions, suspensions, special measures, and shutdowns of party branches. His deputy Angela Rayner has spelt out in so many words: “we will expel thousands of party members”. For every member they suspend, a thousand more walk out in protest or drop out in despair. Members are leaving the party in their tens and hundreds of thousands.
This is not the first witch-hunt in Labour’s history – but never before has it been so vast, sweeping and dirty. Starmer is desperately trying to reassure the ruling class that Labour is now safe again and open for business, as under Blair.
Wild accusations of anti-semitism are trumped up to brand anyone who protests at Israel’s murderous repression of Arab and Palestinian rights. It is Alice-in-Wonderland justice: first the sentence, then the verdict, and only then (if at all) the trial.
More than 100 Constituency Labour Parties have defied instructions and passed resolutions of no confidence in the leadership. All have been automatically suspended or put in “special measures”. There are other places in the world where you’re not allowed to question who is leader: Putin’s Russia, for one; the generals’ Myanmar; or Thailand, where it’s against the law to criticise the King. Starmer’s Labour Party has now joined them.
This road can lead only to the eclipse of Labour. In three parliamentary by-elections under Starmer’s leadership, Labour lost two-thirds of their votes since 2017. Look at the collapse of all those European social-democratic parties that have tried in vain to ingratiate themselves with the ruling class: the downhill slide of the Swedish Social-Democrats at 22%, their lowest vote since 1918; the German SPD at 20%; the French Socialist Party at 6%; all formerly in government for years or decades. Under its left leadership Labour did well in 2019 to retain the loyalty of 32% of the electorate.
If Corbyn and the Socialist Campaign group of left Labour MPs had the same courage and determination as Starmer and the right, the Labour Party would have split by now, and the working class would be represented by a mass socialist party. As it is, the same process is still happening, though on a painful, protracted, unco-ordinated and localized scale. But the eventual outcome is the same: a renewed fighting working-class party.
A split in the Labour Party is not just a distant prospect – it’s already happening now. That’s not due to wrecking tactics by the left; it’s being pursued with the utmost vigour and determination by the right. They are determined to drive the left out; to transform the Labour Party back into a tame network of aspiring careerists. This is a one-sided civil war. There’s no other conceivable outcome. The split in the Labour Party has already begun. We are not calling for a split. Starmer and Evans and Rayner are making one.
Starmer is hoping to repeat the experience of New Labour, when New Labour was awash with big business donations and the support of the Murdoch press. But today, in the worst slump for over 300 years, there is no room left for Blairism, New Labour, “moderation”, a “third way”. There is no “middle way”. The choice is between a capitalism red in tooth and claw, or a socialist solution. That is why Starmer will never succeed in his doomed attempt to follow in Blair’s footsteps.
A new party will not be created out of thin air. No individual, no matter how charismatic, has succeeded in launching a new mass socialist party – not James Maxton and his fellow members of the ILP in the 1930s, who were giants with a proud history in founding Britain’s first mass workers’ party; not Arthur Scargill, who had led the biggest strike in British history since the general strike; not George Galloway, who had defied Labour to win a historic bye-election as an independent; to say nothing of the myriad ultra-left sects.
The key to building a mass workers’ party lies as always with the trade unions, who formed the original Labour Party. That’s where the fight has to be taken. It is up to the trade unions either to reclaim the Labour Party or replace it to found a genuine socialist party of labour. This is not an unrealistic prospect. In 2004, the railway union the RMT and the fire fighters’ union the FBU disaffiliated from Labour, and as recently as 2015 UNITE threatened to launch an alternative party. And just recently it cut its funding to the Labour Party in protest at its direction. And outside the heavily bureaucratised traditional organisations are new fighting unions representing office cleaners, couriers, fast-food workers and those on zero-hours contracts.
The party membership are fighting back. My own area, Newham, is an inner-London borough with strong Labour roots. Labour’s first ever MP Keir Hardie was MP for West Ham North in this borough, and it has a 100% Labour council, an elected Labour mayor and two Labour MPs with massive majorities. It is a vibrant multi-ethnic borough, and also the second most deprived borough in London. Labour activists here have a proud campaigning record.
And… we too have been shut down by the Starmer bureaucracy. In one fell swoop, over 5,000 local Labour members find themselves disenfranchised. So, pending our unconditional reinstatement, in my locality we are carrying on under the name NEWHAM SOCIALIST LABOUR. This is our small local step towards a national regeneration of socialist resistance.
The millions of victims of capitalism will find their true voice: the workers without a job, the families without homes, the youth without a future. The time has come to challenge this government of speculators, hedge fund sharks and black money launderers. The time has come!
It was just a few years ago that the rise of Corbyn had inspired so many and was even starting to be noticed by workers and youth here in the US. As to the issue of the unions: It may be very different there, but here in the US the unions continue to spiral downward, due to a leadership that is determined to help boost the profits of the employers. The result is massive alienation from their own unions on the part of most members. The unions are not present in the thinking of the membership most of the time. Therefore, while the unions must play a key role in the building of a mass working class party here, it seems most likely that such a development will start mainly outside the unions. Also, any campaign to break the unions from the capitalist Democratic Party must also link that up with a campaign to make the unions really fight for the members on the job.
Regarding Corbyn: From here in the US, it always seemed that an Achilles Heel of his was the whole Brexit issue. While he opposed it (weakly, according to some), the real point was that the British working class cannot advance alone; it can only advance in connection with the working class of the rest of the EU and globally. That means a cross-border campaign for a minimum wage, social benefits, environmental protections, etc. Corbyn never raised anything like that, at least not consistently.
Roger Silverman is a long time socialist, a leading member of the Workers International Network, and a former candidate for the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. He writes regularly for Oaklandsocialist as well as elsewhere.