One of the most striking things about periods of profound political upheaval is the inconsistency. The Corbyn moment, which has (for the moment at least) transformed both Labour and the political perspectives of the left as a whole, is no different.
In the spring of 2015, I was writing articles talking about the impending need for the Labour left to split. Here I am a few years later having dedicated my entire political existence to fighting for and within Labour: Momentum, another leadership campaign, the party’s immigration policy, its Brexit policy, yet another leadership campaign, writing minutes and meeting notices for my ward.
Shifting one’s position – whether because of the political context, or because you’ve changed your mind – is a crucial part of everyone’s political development. But in the Labour party, shapeshifting is people’s livelihoods. Our entire internal system is set up to reward the people who are the least offensive, who pick as few fights as possible, who triangulate on every issue they can find to win union backing, faction backing, selection, election; and then a new cycle begins to get them promoted and elected further. Patronage is much more important than having politics. The appeal of both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell was that they broke this system – they said what they thought, for decades, had no patrons, but won.
One of the problems with this mode of politics is that it makes it impossible to take at face value anything that Labour politicians say, especially in the context of a leadership election. On immigration, for instance, all of the leadership contenders are quite willing to put forward a progressive stance and to make the right noises. But unless they are willing to be honest about how such noises contradict their records, the promises are a whitewash.
Lisa Nandy was first out of the blocks with a defence of free movement. Keir Starmer went on record in response to questions from the Labour Movement for Europe to say that “freedom of movement has brought huge benefits to our economy and society. The problems of low pay, poor housing and insecure work are not caused by migrants – but by a failed economic model and unscrupulous employers.” Taking a swipe at a cult favourite, Rebecca Long-Bailey began her campaign saying: “never again will our party put ‘controls on immigration’ on a mug.”
“Let me be clear,” she tweeted. “As leader I will never throw migrants or BAME communities under the bus.”
Yet none of the candidates have ever acknowledged their own role in supporting anti-migrant policies. Long-Bailey was part of the inner circle of the Corbyn leadership which ditched free movement; a move that was not reversed until activists brought a motion to party conference in 2019. Lisa Nandy might like free movement, but she clearly doesn’t like it that much, because she has voted for Tory Brexit deals which aimed at extending the hostile environment. As for Keir Starmer, he has been on record as shadow Brexit secretary arguing that free movement must end, and even that immigration should be reduced.
Perhaps all of the candidates regret these positions, and have honestly changed their minds on them – but unless they initiate a reckoning with their pasts, how can we trust what they say now?
The same is true of a whole raft of issues. Starmer is very good at saying Corbyn was right on austerity – but not very good at talking about how his politics have changed since he abstained on the Welfare Bill in 2015. Long-Bailey has now – rightly – backed open selections and spoken out against the fact that party members have not been given enough power. But she is backed by the same political machine (namely Unite) that blocked open selections at Labour’s conference in 2018, and among the people running her campaign are those who shut down Momentum’s internal democracy in order to make it less dissenting and more of a tool for mobilising footsoldiers.
This constant shifting of positions without acknowledgment, giving different narratives and policies to different audiences, is more than mere personal opportunism on the part of candidates. Rather, it is part of a whole system of rewriting history. Labour has never had a progressive immigration policy. The TUC lobbied for the introduction of the Aliens Act in 1905, in an atmosphere marked by antisemitism. Harold Wilson began the process of ending free movement for Commonwealth citizens in 1968. Tony Blair made a spectacle of attacking the rights of asylum seekers. Throwing migrants under the bus didn’t begin and end with Ed Milliband’s mug – it is part of a tradition of triangulation and electoralism that continued under Corbyn and will never be undone until it is explicitly acknowledged and combatted.
One of the great dangers the left now faces is that a culture of inconsistency trickles down to the grassroots. In the past few years, thousands of activists have poured into the Labour party, including from social movements and the various fragments of the Socialist Workers’ party. But doing so represented a dramatic break from their previously held politics, with many turning from anarchists into reformists almost overnight. Most of the people who spent the first half of the 2010s telling me off for being a member of the Labour party spent the second half of the decade telling me off for being too critical of its leadership.
Joining Labour and staying in it may well be the right thing to do for the activist left. But it is vital to the task of building a healthier left – one that has something more to say than “we agree with the leadership” – that we all talk openly about how we have changed our minds, developed our politics, and now intend to organise together. Otherwise, like the leadership candidates, we will be sucked into a cycle of shapeshifting and never really transform anything.
Michael Chessum is a leftwing activist and writer, and has been active in social movements and the Labour left. He is currently national organiser for the leftwing anti-Brexit group Another Europe is Possible.