As Labour’s replacement for a party conference ‘Labour Connected’ meets online, Mark Perryman reflects on what’s Left of Keir Starmer.
‘Labour is haemorrhaging Left-wing activists. Will it survive?’ This was the headline to a somewhat breathless Novara media article at the start of September. Will it survive? In a word, yes. Between 2001 and 2010 it is estimated Labour lost 100,000 members, mainly because of the Iraq War. It got by just fine. This is a party that has lasted 120 years, it saw off the Change UK mini-split, and the far more serious split with the SDP in the early 1980s. In the interwar years Labour survived Ramsay MacDonald deserting his own party to preside over a National Government with the Tories and Liberals. To suggest therefore that, in the words of the article’s author Harriet Williamson, “as these activists turn away from the party in droves, the future of a party – one that relies heavily on grassroots supporters door-knocking, phone-banking and small donations – is in question” has a tone of getting-ahead-of-ourselves, and then some.
For those, like me, who identified with Corbynism, signing up as Labour member either for the first time, or rejoining after a long time away, this was the easy part. For many of us, no previous Labour leader had been one that we would enthusiastically identify with in the way we did with Jeremy. Vote for the party, have a liking for particular MPs, take some kind of interest in Labour, in the often forlorn hope it might radicalise itself. But join? Nah. 2015-19 was a unique experience to have a Labour leader we actually believed in, and now that the easy part is over, well, hence the departures Harriet reports. But after that, what’s left?
A Leap in the Dark
Size isn’t everything, the Marxist-inclined parties on Labour’s outside left punch much above their weight, often in a good way, because of their single-minded determination and sometimes creative campaigning. But just in my one Constituency Labour Party- Lewes in East Sussex – we can count on a membership of 1400. I’d hazard a well-informed guess that’s more members than not just most of these parties can count on in total but for many several of them combined. Swapping Labour for any of this lot is one almighty leap into the Leninist dark of ever decreasing circles. Then there’s George Galloway’s latest party incarnation Workers Party GB. George has twice seized sensational election victories at Labour’s expense, Bethnal Green and Bow in ’05, Bradford West in ’11. That’s a record not to be sniffed at, but after both he managed to self-destruct his own party, lose both seats and is now happy sharing a Brexit platform with Nigel Farage while describing his campaign in Scotland ‘Alliance4Unity’ against the SNP as prepared to “work with any and all pro-Union parties to stop nationalists.” It is hard to imagine Corbyn ever doing either, so good luck with that, and George, then.
Rather than either of these minority taste options, for many exiting Labour leftwards the Green Party will be the more attractive proposition. Some will be ex-members, while prior to 2015 lots more will have voted Green with the kind of enthusiasm Labour failed to provide. Again size isn’t everything but given outside of the enclave of Caroline Lucas’s Brighton Pavilion seat, the Green Party has signally failed in a General Election to come second anywhere else, this is the politics of the long, very long, haul. Or to coin a phrase, ‘There’s only one Caroline Lucas’. And in a party which beyond the excellence of policies on the climate emergency and wider environmental crisis no other party can match for the rest is moderately social-democratic, the Red-Greens never having formed a majority, another long, very long, haul, inside the party then too.
Finally, there’s what is often called ‘movement-building’ or as Harriet describes “returning to the grassroots.” Whatever we call this version of an extra-parliamentary, localised, community-based politics, more horizontalist in the way it organises than electoralist, there is little doubt this is where much of the dynamism of social change comes from. The school students’ climate strikes, Coronavirus mutual aid, #BlackLivesMatter each are dramatic testament to that. But isn’t this a question of tactical priorities rather than strategic choices? When local Labour parties organise around, Labour MP’s support, a future Labour government legislates in favour, of these, and other, movements’ demands that’s a plus, not a minus, turning those demands into institutionalised change, for the better. Most Corbyn supporters co-existed in the party, why should the change of leadership necessitate changing that?
2021: A Year of politics living dangerously
OK 2020 has been pretty seismic, cataclysmic even. Brexit signed, sealed if not delivered, yet. The Coronavirus crisis and a recession to follow with unprecedented levels of unemployment predicted. But while Keir’s policy of proclaiming the national interest must come first coupled with his trademark ‘forensic questioning’ of the government’s failures to protect that interest has secured an impressive closing of the Tories lead in the polls, intra-party politics has remained fairly static.
All this is set to change in 2021 with what should be dramatic consequences.
First, in May the Scottish Parliament elections. Despite the Tories failure to replace Ruth Davidson with another leader possessing anything like her kind of reach to offset Johnson’s extreme unpopularity in Scotland, and the SNP suffering the damaging after-effects of the Alex Salmond court case, Scottish Labour is still widely expected to finish a poor third, again. This has severe consequences, not just for Scottish Labour, but the entire party. Labour staged a modest recovery in Scotland under Corbyn in 2017, returning seven MPs, up from the disastrous single MP in 2015, but in 2019 back to one. In ’97 there were 56, even under Blair’s third General Election, in 2005 (with an historically low share of the vote for a ‘winning’ party) there were 41. This is a catastrophic decline and third place in ‘21 will prove definitively there’s no way back in ’24. To date, Keir has said virtually nothing on Scotland except to say “Scotland is deeply important to me and to the Labour party. I am in no doubt that we have a mountain to climb, both at the next UK general election and next year’s Holyrood elections. Our priority will not be another divisive independence referendum.” I’m sorry, anodyne and hopeless, doesn’t even begin to describe this. And to be clear Jeremy was hardly any better with what he said on Scotland. Will this be Keir’s response on Labour finishing third in ’21 when what this would mean is that there will be zero chance of Labour forming a government on its own in ’24, the best it can hope for is to be the single biggest party and form a coalition? If it is then, Labour isn’t only finished in Scotland but across the country too. Keir will be lumbered for three years with perpetuating a double illusion, that Labour can win alone, and ruling out any Westminster coalition with the SNP.
Second, in December 2019 in the immediate aftermath of that defeat a Yougov poll reported 76% support amongst Labour Members for Proportional Representation. Yes the poll was commissioned by the pro-PR campaign Make Votes Matter but there is little to indicate that support amongst members isn’t in or around this stratospheric level, to continue the analogy the aforementioned 3rd place in Scotland will give it another rocket. Yes pockets of diehard resistance remain, both Labour’s hard right and hard left share a touching determination of Labour alone or not at all but that’s not where the bulk of Labour members are. The vote on Labour backing PR which might have taken place this year if it wasn’t for lockdown cancelling a proper party conference is now being actively campaigned for at the ’21 party conference. If PR passes with the kind of overwhelming support to make it impossible for the traditional fix to drop a conference policy as a manifesto commitment then never mind seismic, this changes everything.
With that lot up for grabs it leaves me thinking that 2020 is the worst possible time to be leaving Labour.
Within and without Labour
After the Cameron and Clegg coalition any idea of coalition-building has got a bad name but one mistaken episode shouldn’t put an end to the scale of our political ambitions and how we practice getting anywhere close to achieving them.
If 2021 proves to be as seismic, forcing everything to change in the way I describe, the prospects for a brand-new coalition from below in Labour are considerable. From Keir, a deathly silence on co-operating with other parties, not much to say on PR, more of the same on Scotland, but is this where his considerable support is? Including the 100,000 who as with the 2015 ‘Corbyn surge’ joined the party explicitly to support their favoured and winning candidate’s leadership of the party. Mostly they won’t have a problem working with other parties, many because of Brexit might have voted Lib-Dem in the 2019 Euro elections, a majority if needs must probably tactical voters. Not particularly precious about the Union either, Scottish independence widely regarded now as an unstoppable civic nationalist cause with a social-democratic gloss. And if asked would they want Labour to back PR? Like a shot. These might not be the reasons why they voted for, joined the party for, Keir but they are choices a lot of them would expect him to share with them. And if he doesn’t, the mood of disappointment will be considerable.
A big chunk of the post-Corbyn left would share such a threesome of issues too, and of course many who voted for Corbyn in the ’15 and ’16 leadership elections voted for Keir and Angela Rayner in ’20 rather than Rebecca Long-Bailey and Richard Burgon. This chunk were always in tension with a traditionalist Labour hard left, happy to work with the Greens, tho’ less so the Lib-Dems, critical of the British state in all manner of fronts, supportive of Scottish independence, and have next to no antipathy towards PR either.
This is the potential in ’21 to effect a new politics within Labour, moving on from the Corbyn’s heritage vs Starmer’s present binary opposition to an agenda many on both ‘sides’ share. If Keir fails to recognise this then not only does he implode his own support but a majoritarian coalition could emerge in its place he’ll be forced to face down on his own – his only remaining allies, a Labour Right implacably opposed to a co-operative politics, Scottish independence and PR. Would he really want to end up in such a position?
The approaching terrain within Labour is overflowing with possibilities entirely different to those we don’t have in 2020. But the space opening without the strictures of this one party or that one are even bigger. The Scottish Parliament result will force members of all parties, and none, to shape a winning strategy in ’24 which ejects Johnson from Number Ten and puts Keir in his place, but not at the head of a majority Labour government, rather a coalition. The SNP are the only realistic likelihood to be the second largest party to Labour in such circumstances, the Lib-Dems a handy third, Plaid, with the rising support for Welsh independence, in there as well, and a lone, but very good, Green MP. Party leaders never talk in such terms of stark reality, without them, as members, whatever our party and non-members we’ll need to start the conversation for them. A Labour commitment to legislate at the head of a coalition government for PR the conversation-starter required, within and without parties, articulated not as some kind of mechanical fix for a malfunctioning representative democracy but the basis for an ambitious programme of democratic and economic reform. The one, impossible, without the other, not to sell one Labour message to the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats and another to cosmopolitan cities and university towns, but together, to both.
The Odd couple
Uniquely, as a British political party, Labour is an institutionalised alliance between individual members and affiliated trade unions. The particularities of this odd couple’s relationship changes from one leader to the next but like any good relationship there’s some constants too that keep them together. The trade unions always seek to work with Labour Party leaderships, even when there’s political differences, it’s entirely against their interests not to.
How might this affect the way the unions impact on Labour’s response to my seismic changes of 2021? On Scotland, the Scottish trade union movement, mindful of how many of their members back independence, is much more open to Labour backing it than the Scottish Labour party. This could be a key factor in the choice Labour ends up making.
As for the second, PR, there is already increasing support amongst trade unions, just the same as members third place in Scotland ’21 will only concentrate thinking, ever mindful that a Labour-led coalition government is immeasurably better than a Tory one this can only grow.
If such a mood to both fronts takes hold the individual and collective memberships of the party will be as one, to the benefit of both, cue the chorus of ‘The Union Makes us Strong’. Would that mean the odd-ness of the couple is sorted? No not really, it remains awkward, too often monetised, corporatist in culture but at least we’d be seeing how it might be remade and that’s most definitely something worth sticking around to be part of.
Not my party right or wrong
A watchword for Labour Right and Left is my ‘party right or wrong’, born into Labour, in it to the end. It’s why no MPs and few councillors followed Galloway, or Scargill before him into their parties during the Blair years, least of all Corbyn and McDonnell. Nor did a lot go with Chuka and Luciana either, the ‘Gang of Four’ before them also failed to attract the big beasts of the Labour Right, of either era, Tom Watson or Roy Hattersley. For the rest of us there may come a moment when we’ve had enough, the political indignity of Labour party membership too much, the inclination to give up evenings and weekends no more, and we slip away. In those understandable circumstances, I might find myself there one day, so who am I to criticise those cutting up a party card for a tweet to proclaim the deed has been done? Fine, but please don’t dignify this as some sort of strategy, it’s just weary resignation.
In search of the Labour party of our dreams
We won’t find one, forget it. There’s too many personalities, tendencies, factions, shifts in position from one year to the next, the changing nature of the Tories we’re up against, the soggy, sometimes shoddy compromises this forces upon us. And be warned it only gets worse the longer we stick around. To get anywhere close to something better, if never perfect, requires, a transformative politics. Labour is run from the top, Corbyn or Starmer much the same, but it exists in large measure from below. Too big, too disparate to police, though that isn’t to rule out efforts from above to try, and the rulebook rigours against co-operating with other parties remain considerable, nevertheless, the space and numbers for experimentation are considerable. The Broxtowe Model of turning the local Labour office into a community hub, The Preston Model of Labour local government that has inspired an entire ideology (community wealth–building) and in my own CLP a hugely ambitious programme of public discussion events combining education, ideas, skill-sharing. What all three, and there are others too, have in common is they are self-consciously about the potential to change the party itself, not the ideal left formation within it, not events and campaigns apart from but not part of Labour. To convince and involve in such a project, not just those we agree entirely with but more importantly those we are sometimes in disagreement too because we share a belief in the potential for Labour as a party to be better than it is. A potential that may in the end have to be tested to destruction. But not yet it hasn’t. Not by a long chalk.
A realistic understanding of Labour longevity, a plural left properly equipped for a year ahead of seismic change and a transformative politics in, and sometimes, against, the party. And we need over those next twelve months a sense of both urgency and reality. Jeremy Corbyn 1983-2015 stood resolute in the margins of the Labour Party with next to no influence and no ability to shape the direction of the party after that three decades and a bit he came to lead. His moment came and now went. We cannot afford another thirty-year wait for ours to come along only to end up the same way. It won’t be easy, whoever thought it would be?
Mark Perryman is an events organiser for Lewes Labour Party his latest book Corbynism from Below is available from here.