The Left Won’t Win the 2020s by Clinging to the Corpse of the Labour Party

It's time to ditch the party and organise within movements.

by Jonas Marvin

24 May 2021

Demonstrators take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in London on 12 July 2020.
Henry Nicholls/Reuters

James Schneider’s desire that “the next [socialist] surge operates on more propitious ground”, set out in his recent Novara Media series How We Win, is welcome. However, I disagree with its terms.

Schneider presumes that the next decade will provide similar opportunities to the last five years, and so underplays how different the next period could be. If 2015-20 roughly encapsulates a moment of left electoral opening in the Global North, proceeding from the exhaustion and defeat of social movements and embodied by Corbyn and Sanders, the coming phase will likely be defined by the disintegration of English social democracy and the rise of social movements more directly in opposition to the divisive and repressive ambitions of the Johnson regime. Seizing this moment thus requires a different approach to politics.

Movements.

Schneider’s decision to make movements his first subject of discussion was not only a tacit acknowledgement that they were the missing part of the Corbynist puzzle, but also that social movements are of ever greater importance to political struggle. However, the left has to consider that future movements might not fit into the archetypes we imagine.

Since December 2019, there have been two notable surges.

The first of these, the Black Lives Matter movement, began in the United States but reverberated across the world. In Britain last summer, the BLM mobilisations were the biggest antiracist protests this country has ever had, spanning 260 towns and cities. Homemade placards gave a taste of the issues at stake: stop and search, deaths in custody, a racist education system and the racialised organisation of the economy (the latter, which has left minorities particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, arguably catalysed the uprising).

The second of these is the movement against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill. In March, Sarah Everard was kidnapped and murdered; a serving Met police officer has since been charged with her murder. After the Met banned Reclaim These Streets’ planned vigil on Clapham Common, Sisters Uncut went ahead with the event anyway. When they were met with brutality, the group called a further protest outside New Scotland Yard. Within days, they had turned an issue of gendered violence into one of state authoritarianism.

Both movements took the radical left by surprise. That the British capitalist state – the same the Corbyn project aimed to occupy – was their target bewildered many. In the case of BLM, the left was disoriented. Although individual activists within the Corbyn project had critiqued Britain’s racist state apparatus, the movement distanced itself from such demands. At both of the last general elections, Labour committed to putting more police on the streets. When a movement arose in its wake demanding we defund the police, it became clear that the journey from state capture to state opposition was not so neatly made.

As the emergence of the recent Kill The Bill campaign has made clear, the PCSC bill will only be defeated in open defiance of the law. From the riots in Bristol to the on-going nationwide protests, this movement isn’t going away.

Similarly, the sediments of the BLM movement and the devastating effects of the Covid crisis will have a significant impact on the types of social eruptions we can expect.

As well as responding to existing movements, Schneider argues for a new unemployed workers’ movement facilitated by Unite Community and Momentum. If these organisations were capable of transcending their inertia, this would be welcome. Such a movement would immediately face a glaring issue, however: the dole queue, where unemployed people would once meet, is no longer, its digitisation considerably limiting the associational power the British Communist Party was once able to draw upon for its own National Unemployed Workers’ Movement.

Of course, there are other ways that unemployed workers might find one another, and organise. More likely is that as lockdown loosens and the cocktail of unemployment, emergency police powers and racialised state violence intermingles, riots could consume the country. While the left had some recent experience of this in Bristol, our movement has a murkier history when it comes to defending mass insurrectionary riots against state violence. If riots were to happen, the left would have to get ahead of events quickly and in a manner that doesn’t fit into its statist framings, weaving a narrative against the oppressive conditions that ignited the riots and defending rioters from the inevitable state backlash.

Several unions have experienced increases in membership since the pandemic began, and as Schneider says, we should be putting our efforts into supporting this trend. Yet we also have to construct a worker politics that refuses the limit of trade union leadership, and grasp the messy ways in which change occurs – indeed, the way it must occur if we are to truly challenge state and corporate domination.

The Party.

For James, the Labour party – because of its link to the unions, progressive membership and susceptibility to the radical left’s influence – is still the best political vehicle for socialist politics. Yet the harsh truth is that the only time Keir Starmer has come even close to the thinking of the left as leader is when extra-parliamentary mobilisation (most recently, by Sisters Uncut) has forced his hand. Given he has made it his mission to make Labour an option for British capital once more, and therefore to limit the power of the membership, this should be unsurprising.

In this regard, James’s plan for a committee of left trade unions, the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) and Momentum rings hollow. During Corbyn’s tenure, each member of this triumvirate neglected the membership. Whilst this was understandable (though still mistaken) for Corbyn’s embattled leadership, it was unforgivable for Momentum and the left unions. Momentum neglected the base except for internal and external electoral contests, whilst the unions at points actively worked against the membership, such as over Heathrow expansion and Trident renewal. Even in the wilderness, the SCG’s support for Corbyn has been sparse. Contrary to building social power and reliably coordinating the left, this alliance would accentuate the backroom bargaining James rightly rejects. At heart, this wager is a holding pattern, mistakenly waiting for the circumstances that produced Corbynism to resurface.

We should ask whether transforming the Labour party is desirable. In the context of rapid climate breakdown, do we want to waste time demanding more from a discredited party with a declining membership? Labour’s disastrous local election performance combined with the scorn the party’s ruling elite has shown its members strengthens the claim that building a new left is better than resurrecting this decaying corpse.

We need independence from Labourism, too. The Corbyn years showed how easily independent left initiatives can be strangulated within the party. As well as a parliamentary Labour party enamoured with third way neoliberalism, Labour has historically prospered by dint of its situation within the British capitalist state, justifying the behaviour of the boss to the workers far more than the reverse.

The state.

The capitalist state ensures the functioning, production and reproduction of capitalist society. Whitehall, the Post Office, the prison and jobcentre – all are to varying extents components of it.

At its core, the state is the violent organiser of capitalist social relations. In my own life, I have rarely had a positive experience of the state. As a working-class kid in a multiracial friendship group, we were routinely harassed by the Metropolitan Police. As a depressed welfare recipient, I was subject to the punitive regimes of the Department for Work and Pensions. Even when I became a happily married man, I could not list my mother – my only biological parent – on my marriage certificate. In each instance, the state intervened to reproduce racial, gendered and class domination.

This state – the matrix of bodies through which the capitalist class hashes out strategies for domination – is riven with tensions and contradictions. The most executive of committees, it is the site of both intense dispute and incredibly concerted action.

These truths have confounded socialists. From the popular fronts of the 1930s to the McDonnellite assertion that compromises with productive capital (eg manufacturing) can be made against other sections of capital (eg finance), the left has frequently clutched at cross-class alliances in moments of electoralism. Not only is this unfeasible – industrial companies often own equity capital, while financial power isn’t limited to banks – the need to appear respectable managers of capitalism also sidelines a critique of capitalism’s inherent oppressiveness.

James advocates an “in and against the state” strategy for socialists seeking political power. This strategy, most prominently articulated by John McDonnell, was originally the product of state workers wanting to extend the state’s redistributive functions whilst mobilising against its oppressive rule.

McDonnell’s first-hand experience of such a strategy in the Greater London Council (GLC) gives it some credibility. Yet whilst the GLC was undeniably an experimental beacon of hope against Thatcherism, it was also a defeat. Elected GLC leader in 1981, Ken Livingstone was defeated by two things. The first was his response to the slashing of bus fares. When the Law Lords blocked the planned reductions, Livingstone failed to mount an effective challenge, despite a powerful public transport strike two weeks before the ruling. The second was the 1984 Rates Act that forced local authorities to make cuts. Dovetailing with the miners’ strike, the national anti-rate-capping campaign had enormous potential for several reasons, including disparities between city municipalities and smaller authorities, the timidity of the soft left and, critically, Livingstone’s early breaking of ranks, went unfulfilled.

The GLC isn’t an anomaly. It poses a fundamental dilemma to McDonnell’s assertion that “when we’re in government, we’re all in government.” Torn between doing what is necessary to maintain the state’s function of reproducing order and stability and pushing through with a reform programme, Livingstone was an archetypal state manager. Inculcated into the state apparatus, it is no wonder that leftwing state managers accede even when working-class power and support is in plentiful supply. There is a fundamental contradiction between being in and against the state.

James’s argument that in lieu of state power the left should improve lives through a municipal strategy seems equally unconvincing, deriving as it does from the idea that rightwing local Labour councils have influenced the party’s national performance. The examples we have today are bleak, from the Momentum-led Haringey council selling off the Latin Village to Sadiq Khan’s progressive neoliberalism. Some take inspiration from the Preston model, with its reliance on “public procurement for maximum social benefit”, prioritisation of local government’s economic role and pushing of alternative forms of ownership. Still – it is tame.

While the biggest problem facing municipal socialism is the shredding of local government powers, another is that Labour council groups are notoriously rightwing, while even leftwing councils fail to defy national government diktats. Besides some exceptions in the Blue Wall, Labour was decimated throughout England in the recent local elections, at least partly because of its craven acceptance of this anti-democratic, neoliberal settlement. The scope for reforming Labour’s council groups seems unlikely. The stitch-up in Liverpool some months ago attests to this, as does Starmer’s support for Whitehall’s takeover of the council.

Whilst no possibility should be completely foreclosed, it is just as likely that independent socialist slates will take off as that leftwing Labour ones will – such are the terms of Labour’s centrist restoration.

“Well, what do you propose then?”

The left’s reaction to the Bristol riots showed how little change has occurred since the Corbyn years. Ash Sarkar, while refusing to condemn the rioters, asserted that the riots wouldn’t “help” the Kill The Bill movement, but might “crush the tentative alliance between the left, the Labour frontbench, and grumbling Tory backbenchers”. These comments betrayed a misunderstanding of the period we are entering. Under a massive Tory majority, a coalition such as the one Sarkar is describing could only ever have won minor amendments to the bill. Besides, rioters don’t take much notice of strategic thinking.

Whilst Schneider’s argument rests on the insistence that we should do Corbynism radically better, Sarkar’s comments assumed that our relationship to institutional politics still remains the same in the wake of Corbynism’s demise. But the parliamentary road is closed and the institutional alliances it necessitated should be forsaken. Instead, we should prioritise building movements in order to intervene in the political sphere on our terms, recognising that the state will aim to disorganise us through minor concessions and durable cooptations.

The Corbyn moment saw much speculation among members about what the leadership should do. It was fruitless then and even more so now. The left’s brief march through the institutions is over. Without ruling out electoral interventions, the emerging period in Britain will be as anti-statist as the last one was statist. If James truly believes Corbynism was typical of Gramsci’s “war of manoeuvre” – that is, “intense, urgent moments when the impact of actions can be felt almost immediately” – he ain’t seen nothing yet.

Johnson’s Conservatives are aware of this reality and preparing for it. On the one hand, they have acknowledged the staying power of the pandemic, releasing historic levels of investment in response and seriously contemplating even more. Whilst Rishi Sunak is painted as a deficit hawk, Johnson’s nods towards greater infrastructure investment in the north of England is paralleled by the approach pursued by Tees Valley Metro Mayor Ben Houchen and this new brand of northern Conservatism: taking the local airport back into public ownership; investing in public services; and proselytising a Green Industrial Revolution, in particular its promise of green jobs.

On the other hand, shifts in popular antiracist consciousness and the increased susceptibility of the fossil fuel industry to civil disobedience as the climate crisis intensifies both loom large. The PCSC Bill is an acknowledgement of this reality, supplemented as it is with a wider assault on democratic norms, from the introduction of mandatory voter ID to the normalising of invasive monitoring under the pretext of COVID-19. The possibility that these might be the terms of a new authoritarian regime of consent, with sections of the population included and others excluded, is one the left should seriously consider.

It is probable that, as the representative functions of bourgeois democracy close down, revolt becomes more likely, with the capitalist state as the predominant target. With this in mind, it is clear the radical left ought to recover its traditions of militant struggle.

The form through which socialists organise must stem from the conditions in which we organise. In this sense, the party form isn’t so much irrelevant as premature. Rather than establishing a new party, we must strengthen the ties between the left and working-class struggles. One cannot imagine this within the moribund Labour party (even Corbynism never went beyond seeing the working class as ancillary in its quest for a parliamentary majority). A renewed left must centre working-class agency, necessitating a much more oppositional relationship to the state. It is through the process of resurrecting the gravediggers, the proletarian rebels of the future, that we will resurrect ourselves, the socialist left.

Jonas Marvin is an independent activist and researcher, as well as a participant in the Frightful Hobgoblins Collective.

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