Is There Any Point Staying in Labour?

Resist the siren calls of despair.

by Gaya Sriskanthan and Andrew Scattergood

10 April 2022

Tejas Sandhu/Reuters

“Stay and fight” was a mantra often heard on the Labour left in the early days of Keir Starmer’s leadership. Two years in, it rings hollow. Starmer has junked the Corbyn-continuity, party unity platform on which he was elected in favour of retro-Blairism. Hundreds of members have been unjustly expelled from the party, while tens of thousands more have been hounded out by a hostile, rightwing leadership.

This purge shows no signs of relenting: last month, Starmer threatened to remove the whip from 11 Socialist Campaign Group MPs, as he did to Jeremy Corbyn, simply for signing a Stop the War letter; days later, Young Labour had its Twitter account suspending, conference cancelled and funding pulled by the party leadership.

In this context, many of our fellow socialists have concluded that they can’t see a path forward within Labour. As national elections approach on 5 May, it’s worth revisiting the question: is there one?

In and against the state.

We shouldn’t be naive about our immediate prospects. While a Starmer-led Labour government will provide some break from the rampant authoritarianism of the Tories, it will not bring about socialist transformation. Yet state power remains essential to any transformational socialist project, especially given the urgency of the climate crisis. With its links to the trade union movement, Labour remains the best chance we have for a socialist government; the inability of independent parties to make any mark in the last half-century reinforces this point. While the left is not in the ascendancy within Labour, our aim should be to build socialist foundations for the future.

This is exactly what we as Momentum’s leadership have aimed to do since being elected in 2020, setting out a strategy for maintaining a vibrant Labour left with a strong voice in the party and deep connections to the extra-parliamentary left. On some of this – including democratising Momentum with member assemblies and all-member ballots – we’ve made progress.

Yet we have faced major obstacles. Starmer’s McCarthyism has been more vicious than anyone predicted, while the shift to a single transferable vote for NEC elections has weakened our ability to resist it. Demoralised after two years of relentless attack, the Labour left is shrinking. But whilst we might be down, we’re far from out.

20,000 strong.

Despite crackdowns and purges, Momentum’s membership remains around 20,000 strong; meanwhile, the majority of Labour members joined under Corbyn. We control hundreds of CLPs across the country, even recently gaining Oxford. In recent months, our members have worked diligently and, despite purges, successfully to get more than 200 candidates trained up and selected for local government elections. While the national door might be slammed shut in our faces, there is a myriad of local doors to municipal socialism: next week, as part of Momentum’s local elections campaign, we will be launching our Community Wealth Building toolkit and training programme, distilling the learnings and practices of fantastic left-wing councils like Preston and North Ayrshire and propagating it throughout our vibrant, hundreds-strong Councillor Network.

Building up left leaders.

While we grow the roots of municipal socialism, then, we’re also building up future leaders in parliament. We retain a substantial bloc of socialist Labour MPs using their platforms to defend their communities and push socialist ideas in the public debate, even with the leadership breathing down their necks. Looking at the consistently principled leadership shown by the likes of Zarah Sultana, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Nadia Whittome, Apsana Begum and Richard Burgon, the future of the parliamentary left looks bright. And it’s only possible through Labour.

In difficult circumstances, our goal is to increase the number of socialists MPs, even with the leadership blocking grassroots candidates and imposing its own. Our parliamentary selections operation, though it requires discretion, is underway in targeted seats across the country.

It’s not just in parliament that we’re cultivating left leaders. Young Labour may be under attack, but it remains a red bastion; its outgoing chair Jess Barnard, is running for the NEC. Alongside the new Labour Students body, we’re working to keep Young Labour left in this summer’s elections.

Harnessing a movement.

Leaders alone are nothing without movements. Momentum plays a vital role here too: over the last two years, the national organisation and our local groups have rolled out political education campaigns from trans rights to racial justice, from a Trade Union Day school to a future leadership programme. We are building up a layer of skilled activists (something we lacked when Corbyn was first elected) who are primed for the next opportunity. At the same time, we are still reaching a huge audience with political videos that propagandise for the cause: half of UK adults on Facebook watched a Momentum video in 2020.

We don’t just want to train members; we want to give them a real say over Momentum’s direction, too. Last year we instituted the first-ever policy primary, in which 3,000 members voted. We got flagship policies passed at Labour conference, including a £15-an-hour minimum wage and a socialist Green New Deal, keeping these issues firmly on the agenda, if not yet in the Labour manifesto. Having listened carefully to feedback, we will be pushing key issues at this year’s conference in a more targeted way, putting pressure on the issues where the leadership is drifting rightwards, such as policing and migration, or out of step with the public mood, as with public ownership of energy.

But we realise that, as with the police, crime and sentencing bill, the best way to shift Labour in a progressive direction is in concert with social movements and trade unions. The relationship between Momentum and extra-parliamentary movements is still evolving; we haven’t yet cracked the formula of organising inside and outside the party simultaneously. Groups like Waltham Forest are showing how it can be done, however: by helping to build a broad community coalition around the cost-of-living crisis and resist evictions. With a cost of living crisis compounding war and climate chaos, we must continue to deepen our relationships with the extra-parliamentary left, building coalitions with trade unions and social movements on touchstone issues such as soaring energy bills.

What next?

Against the siren call of despair, it’s vital we remind ourselves that our movement is still strong, thanks to years of hard organising. We have a responsibility to protect and build on this success, not abandon it because the party is going in a rightward direction. Whilst Change UK split and failed, the Labour right waited and won. There is nothing to be gained, and a huge amount to be lost, by throwing away the organisations, leaders and infrastructure we have built up.

The dizzying days of Corbynism are gone, but the work continues. Together, we are agitating, educating and organising for a socialist future. We are building municipal socialism, training future socialist leaders, and collaborating with labour and social movements to keep up the fight beyond the party. Get involved.

Gaya Sriskanthan and Andrew Scattergood are co-chairs of Momentum.

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