US workers probably pay more attention to the politics in Britain than any other country outside the US. Therefore, the widening split in Britain’s Labour Party, and what may come out of it, are important for us in the US. Here, Roger Silverman reports. (Article originally published in On the Brink.)
Labour’s Widening Split
by Roger Silverman
The recent Labour Party conference began with a new round of illegal expulsions and an attempt by the leadership to ring-fence the divine right of MPs and prospective leaders. It continued with delegates forcibly turned back at the checkpoints and armed police stalking the aisles.
This must prove beyond any last lingering doubt that the right wing will never repeat their blunder of 2015, when they had deluded themselves that by extending the franchise to non-members they could be assured of victory for a new Blairite leader. They will never again throw open the floodgates to a mass membership.
Huge numbers then surged to support a left alternative. But even then the left never captured the party. It won the leadership, but left the parliamentary party and the bureaucratic apparatus in enemy hands. It was a crucial mistake not to seize the opportunity to challenge them.
Now, by false promises and draconic repression, the pro-capitalist wing is back in power, and determined at all costs to keep it. This is not like the purges of the Gaitskell, Kinnock and Blair eras. There have been crackdowns aplenty before, but never on a scale like this. Starmer and Evans are out to crush all opposition and all democratic rights. This is not just a purge. It’s the systematic destruction of the party: a one-sided split.
Sir Keir Starmer won the leadership promising to make Labour electable. In fact, under his leadership, in the three successive bye-elections held since the general election Labour has lost two-thirds of the votes it gained in the same constituencies under Corbyn’s leadership in 2017.
He won the leadership promising to continue Labour’s “radical socialist tradition”. In fact, he has ditched all the manifesto policies that gained the party hundreds of thousands of new members, three and a half million extra votes in the 2017 election, and more votes even in the 2019 election than in 2015, or 2010 – or even 2005, when Labour won.
He won the leadership promising to build the party. In fact, under his leadership Labour has lost at least 150,000 members and millions of pounds, reducing party funds from record reserves of £13 million to the brink of bankruptcy. Labour now spends more money on legal costs against its members than on political campaigning against the Tories.
Just as the original witch-hunt sprang initially from the needs of the church to stamp out all traces of pre-Christian paganism and folklore, this one too has a rational motive: to drive out the half a million members who had surged into the party to support a socialist leader, by plunging the membership into despair, and where necessary with wholesale expulsions, suspensions, special measures, shutdowns of party branches, all without due process.
It has long been David Evans’ strategy to scrap Labour’s identity as a political party, strip the CLPs of all political rights, and replace the membership with passive “supporters” whose only function is to pay subs. He is also on record as wanting to sever the union link altogether – an aim he has already made a good start on, with the suspensions of UNITE’s Howard Beckett and the Bakers’ Ian Hodson.
Countless party activists have received “auto-exclusion” e-mails, accusing them of supporting groups that were only subsequently and retrospectively proscribed, and, just as in the original witch-hunts of the seventeenth century, placing on them the onus of proof of innocence. As a former civil-rights lawyer for Liberty, Sir Keir should know that under rules of natural justice suspects are under no obligation to prove anything.
In the past, members had the right to appeal in person to the NEC, and even directly to the party conference. Under Starmer and Evans, there is no hearing, no trial, no appeal – just an email, Trump-style: “you’re fired”. It’s the kind of pantomime justice described in Alice In Wonderland (“off with his head!”), or the nightmare novels of Kafka.
These comrades will feel only pride at their admission to an eminent circle, including George Lansbury, Stafford Cripps, Nye Bevan, Michael Foot, the Militant Liverpool councillors, Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Loach and countless more. Far better to find themselves in their company than to rub shoulders with the likes of those MPs who plotted to undermine Labour’s most popular leader for decades, and those bureaucrats proven to have sabotaged Labour’s election campaigns.
There is an unbridgeable gulf between the left and the leadership. The leadership are acting on it with ruthless determination. It’s time the left drew the logical conclusion. However, that leaves us with a dilemma.
In the past, it made sense to advise socialists in the Labour Party to stay and fight. But under today’s regime, any members who try to resist find themselves instantly excluded, deprived even of the right to appeal. So on its own, that is just a token mantra that risks widespread demoralisation.
Conversely, any attempt to set up a new party is doomed, as can be shown from countless earlier quixotic attempts. The stage is littered with the political corpses of one hara-kiri martyr after another: James Maxton, the charismatic ILP leader who in 1932 led its exodus from the Labour Party into oblivion; Arthur Scargill, leader of Britain’s greatest strike since 1926; George Galloway, who had won a stunning by-election victory; the MILITANT supporters who had led successful mass campaigns against Thatcher; the Socialist Workers’ Party; and so many other now impotent fringe groups.
Neither of these false alternatives are viable options. What we are witnessing is a long drawn-out historic split. The fact is, there are two Labour Parties. One is the party founded by the trade unions and committed for almost a century to Clause Four – an explicit commitment to socialism that was even printed on our membership cards. That Labour Party may always have been awash with the “flinching cowards and sneering traitors” brigade immortalised in the party anthem The Red Flag, especially at its upper levels, but it remained fundamentally a workers’ party – the party of labour.
Then, over a quarter of a century ago, the party leadership was captured by an alien faction. Blair even spelt out in so many words that this was a new party: “New Labour”. Big Business donations flooded into its coffers, and for the first time ever, the Tory party was starved of funds. Rupert Murdoch, who had rightly boasted that “it woz the Sun wot won it” for the Tories in 1992, threw all his power into supporting New Labour in 1997. At that time – after four successive election defeats, the crushing of the miners, the collapse of the USSR, and the prevailing mood of capitalist triumphalism – rank-and-file resistance to the takeover was weak. Blair’s very first act on becoming leader was to call a special conference to delete Clause Four – a symbolic guarantee to the ruling class that New Labour could henceforth be trusted as its faithful servant. It was only following the 2008 crash that the capitalists withdrew their support and power was restored to the Tories.
So a split was always inevitable. It has been long delayed, but now it is gathering pace. That is the explanation for the convulsions of the last few years: the left surge under Corbyn, and the subsequent counter-revolution under Starmer.
Those who see this situation as simply another round in an endless repetitive cycle have not appreciated the true dynamics of the situation. What we are witnessing is a sharp polarisation between the capitalist and socialist wings of the party. It’s a historic division, so far pursued with ruthless determination by one side, while the other, stunned, is still stumbling and only just picking itself up off the ground. If the Socialist Campaign group had taken a clear lead, there could already be in existence a mass left party of hundreds of thousands. As it is, the split is still taking place, but in a slow, messy, protracted, one-sided and unco-ordinated way. And yet, make no mistake, on a localised scale it’s happening right now, with “shadow CLPs” springing up, unofficial meetings and campaigns, and zoom meetings often attracting hundreds or even thousands of participants.
The living proof is brought to life in our report from one such “shadow CLP”: Newham Socialist Labour. Significantly, when this group of local activists recently hosted a national discussion meeting under the heading “What Now for Labour?”, not only was its zoom room instantly filled to its capacity of 100, but to its own surprise the meeting’s facebook livestream version registered another 800 views.
The key to the future lies with the trade unions, the historic backbone of the party. One by one, they are beginning to weaken their links to Labour. The RMT broke loose several years ago; the Bakers’ Union has just disaffiliated; the FBU and the CWU and several other unions are actively considering following suit; and UNITE has drastically cut its affiliation fees.
Not only can we see this incipient split happening in front of our eyes; it simply could not be otherwise in this period of flux and decay. The worst mistake socialists can make is to seek to impose stale formulae from a bygone era on to a living process; that is the definition of sectarianism. Programmed over decades into repeating the simplistic truism that the Labour Party is the party of the working class, and oblivious to the metamorphosis it underwent in the New Labour era when it became two unnaturally conjoined antagonistic parties, some left groups still cling to the dogma that this is simply another loop in an endless circle: that some day the wheel will turn and the left will resume the leadership in a future new dawn; that meanwhile socialists can hibernate until the blossoming of a new spring.
It is a sterile approach to continually repeat outworn formulae as if history keeps retreading the same old circuits. The crisis in the Labour Party is rooted in the disintegration of the old social order. History moves not as a perpetual seesaw, but in a rising spiral.
Whether it proves possible to reclaim the Labour Party or whether it will be necessary to replace it remains an open question; time will tell. Whatever our respective membership status, politically we stand together. The key task is to mobilise the hundreds of thousands who rallied to Corbyn’s support, and the first step is to mobilise the left to campaign together both within and outside the party.
Socialist Labour groups should be formed in every area, composed of socialist activists irrespective of their party membership status, linked together nationally to build the foundations for a mass socialist alternative. We support Ken Loach’s proposal for a socialist movement which can cut across the existing logjam and create a common space open to socialists. To rally mass support, it is time to go beyond arguments about arcane rule changes or faith in abstract ideals, and launch a public campaign for a £15 minimum wage, an end to privatisation of the NHS, a living wage for all claimants, and all the policies that won millions behind Labour’s popular manifestoes in 2017 and 2019.