How We Win: The Party
Labour is not a socialist party, particularly not with Keir Starmer as leader. Yet it remains the best vehicle for socialism we have. The third instalment of the six-part series How We Win.
by James Schneider
15 March 2021
Labour’s rapid transformation from a party that put taxing the rich centre-stage to one in danger of being outflanked to its left by the Conservatives has disorientated socialists. Empty suits and West Wing rerun enthusiasts seem more at home in the party than trade unionists, environmentalists and antiracists.
But realism, not exodus, is our answer. There is no promised land in a new left party, nor the Greens. Nor will movements alone win the 2020s; they need a political party to unite them and seek state power. Parties don’t just reflect the current development of social forces – they shape them, too. Parties construct class power as much as reflect it.
But Labour is not a socialist party. Even when led by one, it did not adopt a consistent socialist strategy. Rather, it is a party that has historically been made up of four political orientations: two from the working class, two from the professional class.
The two working-class orientations are socialism, which seeks to transform the existing system in the interests of the working class; and right-wing social democracy, which seeks to improve the lot of some workers within the existing system. The two professional class orientations are Fabianism, which seeks to manage progressive reforms from above and without social conflict; and social liberalism, which seeks mild reforms to humanise the system.
These observations should not lead socialists to disengage from Labour. It is critical we continue to act within it, not just because it is the only major party in which we have influence but also because – improbable as it may seem now – we may yet get another chance to transform it. Given how close we got to electing a socialist prime minister, it would seem odd to decide it is impossible now.
Keir Starmer won the leadership with a superficially attractive offer of maintaining the bulk of Corbyn’s policy advances while providing strong opposition to Boris Johnson’s government. The first 11 months of his leadership have demonstrated that he is no friend of the left. Since his election, he has either shied away from or actively opposed progressive solutions, opting instead for managerial and technical opposition to the government. He has suspended his predecessor and let his Blairite general secretary loose on the party left.
Jeremy Corbyn and the wrongly suspended local party officers deserve our solidarity. However, socialists must be wary of making this battle just about Corbyn. The attacks he suffered and continues to suffer aren’t because the British establishment and its satellites in Labour loathe him as a person, but because they oppose what he represents; Corbyn would be the first to make this point. The more we allow our movement to be expressed through an individual, the more the ruling class will move to crush that individual. Those inspired by Corbyn owe him a deeper movement.
However just because antisemitism makes terrible ground for a battle between socialists and anti-socialists, does not mean we can afford to ignore it. On the contrary, socialists must finally learn how to talk about “Labour antisemitism”, because neither actually existing antisemitism on the left nor its reactionary uses are going away any time soon.
We must avoid two siren calls that could lead us to ruin. The first is denying the reality of antisemitism in our movement. The second is capitulating to the dominant and false media narrative about it. Both condemn us to morally shattered marginality.
Instead, we must have the confidence and capacity for self-criticism to argue that the “Labour antisemitism crisis” has three interrelated elements, none of which have been engaged with effectively.
The first is that antisemitism on the left is more widespread than we imagined. While only a tiny minority of Labour members are antisemites – with cases against around 0.3% of members under Corbyn’s leadership – ignorance about antisemitism is more pervasive.
Contrary to those seeking to use Jews as a shield against progressive social change, antisemitism is not a predominantly left-wing issue; it exists across British society. Antisemitism is not a surplus of left-wing radicalism, as some on the right argue; it exists across British society. It is a reactionary consciousness that props up the existing social order by blaming Jews for any and all social ills, be that capitalism, communism or anything else. The socialist movement should seek to expunge it from its ranks.
The second is how anti-socialists, both within the Labour Party and without, used Jewish pain as a battering ram against the left. Socialists have both been insufficiently aware of antisemitism or empathetic to its victims, and have failed to call out the dramatic overstatement of the problem in a heavily mediatised moral panic that hurt Jewish people more than anyone. The perception of Labour antisemitism towers over the reality like King Kong over a gorilla. The gorilla must be tackled, but doing so will be harder if we are scanning the skyline for its more terrifying cousin.
The third element that makes up the Labour antisemitism crisis is how antisemitism is defined, and the role this definition plays within discussions of Israel and Palestine. Some argue that anti-Zionism is “the new antisemitism” because Jews are hated for their nation-state, the primary form of collective Jewish existence – a notion anti- and non-Zionist Jews, as well as some Zionist Jews, forcefully reject.
Following this logic could render much activism by or in support of Palestinians antisemitic by definition; indeed, it is what led Labour Friends of Israel chair Joan Ryan to describe Palestinian flags at Labour conference as “a weapon against Jewish people”. This disagreement is at the root of the disagreement over the application of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, whose accompanying examples mainly relate to Israel.
Socialists should understand that while the concepts of Israel, Zion and Jerusalem run deeply in Jewish religion, history and culture – and are, for many, symbolic of national liberation and collective safety – to many Palestinians, Zionism represents their eviction and occupation, and the denial of their rights. The injustices inflicted upon the Palestinian people need not be obscured by an essential sensitivity to Jewish people.
A key test case could come this autumn at Labour’s annual conference. It is likely that the leadership will propose an omnibus rule change motion to implement the EHRC’s recommendations. These recommendations should and must be implemented. However, it is possible that the rule changes will also bundle in key demands of the Labour right, such as increasing the influence of local councillors in party structures. If socialists are still tongue-tied on antisemitism, they will not be able to argue their case.
The Labour left will have to be alive to the threat posed by anti-socialist rule changes if party transformation is to remain possible. The key battleground will be over the rules and electorate for future leadership elections. Jeremy Corbyn only made it onto the ballot in 2015 by the skin of his teeth because MPs who didn’t support him leant him their nomination to broaden the debate.
Under his leadership, MPs’ ability to block candidates was further reduced, with the threshold for nominations dropping from 15% to 10% of MPs. It is extremely likely that the Labour right will try to reinstate the primacy of MPs in selecting future party leaders; either by increasing the nomination threshold, or by returning to the electoral college system, which would give each MP the same vote weight as around 2,500 members.
Such changes could foreclose Labour’s future as a vehicle for progressive change, let alone a socialist advance. Hollowed out social democratic parties are sinking across Europe: the once-mighty German SDP polls in the teens; Italy’s PD can’t make it into the 20s; France’s Socialist Party is polling on average seventh. Labour must not join them.
The road for socialists through Labour is fraught with danger – but that should not lead us to despair.
A large majority of party members support progressive policies. The unions continue to anchor the party in the working class and several, notably Unite and the CWU, are led from the left. The left has a virtual monopoly on new ideas and approaches to policy, while anti-socialists haven’t produced a policy in years. Starmer’s recent speech, trailed grandly as setting out the “intellectual basis” for social democracy in the 2020s and as a “policy blitz” containing three policies shows quite how empty their policy arsenal really is. All Starmer could muster was a commitment to keeping the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, a proposal to turn pandemic business loans into student-type loans, and a bond for middle-class savers to invest in post-pandemic recovery.
There are still some good ideas within the party, including the 10 pledges with which Starmer won the leadership, and which retained much of Corbyn’s policy agenda. It seems unlikely he’ll keep these pledges by choice. But there are three ways we may be able to force his hand.
The first is backroom bargaining with the leader of the opposition’s office. While this could lead to the odd small victory, it will fail to provide an effective counterbalance to the anti-socialism weighing on Starmer from his allies.
A second, more promising approach would be to turn each of the 10 pledges into a party conference motion, strengthening the language as well as updating them for the pandemic era. A motion for increasing corporation tax; a wealth tax; increasing taxes on the top 5% of earners; and a pandemic profits windfall tax could be repackaged as constituting Starmer’s first leadership pledge of “economic justice”. The overwhelming majority of party members and trade unionists – as well as the public – support these policies, so it would make it difficult for the leadership to dump them.
A third would be to champion in the party the demands made by the movements. For example, Labour for a Green New Deal has provided a powerful link between the party and the environmental movement; the 2019 party conference saw the membership move to a more advanced position than the leadership for the first time, forcing bolder climate policies onto the agenda. It is imperative that socialists harness this grassroots organising to challenge the party to champion the solutions we need to deal effectively with the crises we face.
To achieve any of the above, socialists will have to organise. This is easier said than done; the Labour left can be fractious. While Corbyn was underratedly successful at uniting most of the left, this unity was institutionally weak, with MPs, trade unions, members and activists held together by ideas rather than by organisation.
To win the 2020s, the constituent parts of our movement – parliamentary, grassroots, trade union and social movement – need to be brought together. I propose this should take the shape of a formal alliance between the Socialist Campaign Group MPs, the left-led trade unions and Momentum.
This alliance would not limit the autonomy of its constituent parts but coordinate their activities, share information and develop campaigns. It would also provide the legitimacy to replace the failed backroom bargaining model of the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance for determining candidates for internal party elections and replace it with a democratic primary system. Once established, such an alliance could expand to take in other parts of the left, such as socialists within other unions not led from the left, other grassroots groups of Labour members and social movements.
The prize of greater coordination and organisation for socialists in the party is great. We will be more likely to win policies we support, internal elections, selections of candidates for elections and perhaps even vote out general secretary David Evans at party conference this year.
The need in society is even more pressing. Since Starmer became leader, socialist perspectives feature much less frequently in public debate. The Labour leadership has made a conscious decision not to lay out a vision for how we should change society after the pandemic.
Socialists should not cheerlead for this pitiful abdication of responsibility, but nor should we abandon Labour. Starmer has argued that the pandemic changes “what is necessary and what is possible”, but refuses to say how. If socialists can’t articulate this for him, the public debate will face one-way traffic from the right, as it did after the financial crisis.
Socialists cannot afford to desert the pitch at this pivotal moment. Some will find it impossible to remain members and can find many other ways to stay active in the movements. But those that do stay should seek to reveal the party’s two greatest strengths: its membership’s support for progressive policies, and its vital link to the trade unions. If we fail, Labour will remain a party that seeks to administrate a broken system, and will never become a force capable of transforming it.
Such fundamental change requires more than powerful movements, more even than a Labour party able to champion them. What we will need is something Corbynism lacked: a socialist analysis of the state. Tomorrow I will present one, in the hope that when socialists win elections, we are not just in office, but in power.
James Schneider is the communications director of Progressive International, co-founder of Momentum, and a former spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn.