British Labour and the Starmer counter-revolution

Keir Starmer, 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings, Bristol (photo by Rwendland, CC)

In any battle, the tactical details and their timing always have an element of the accidental and unexpected in them. Keir Starmer’s suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party on October 29 and – after the decision by a disciplinary panel of the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to reinstate Corbyn on November 17 – the withdrawal of the parliamentary whip, may not have followed a prepared script.

It could be, as the former Labour Party chair and Corbyn-supporting MP Ian Lavery said of the October suspension, that there was “a miscalculation” involved, at least initially. Others, like the columnist Owen Jones, have spoken of Starmer’s ‘panicked’ reaction to events.

But a move against Corbyn himself had been an inherent possibility in the single-minded campaign against ‘Corbynism’ that Starmer has conducted since his ascent to the Labour leadership earlier this year.

And the release of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report on antisemitism in the Labour Party (see our next editorial), met by Corbyn’s if anything low key factual response – “one anti-Semite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party” – was an opportunity to act.

And once this battle started, with the class interests at stake, it was going to be fought through to the end. “It is a huge move for Labour”, enthused The Guardian, the house newsletter for the Blairite capitalist wing of the Labour Party (30 October). “It shows Mr Starmer’s willingness to take a tough decision, his calculation that most of the party will back him, especially on this issue, and his preparedness to start to chart a very different course for the Labour Party” from the Corbyn era.

The interests at stake

As we wrote in our March editorial during the Labour leadership contest, warning of the role that Starmer would play if he won, the ruling class had been “spooked by the experience of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party” (Socialism Today No.236, March 2020).

“Corbyn’s win in 2015 threatened the historic victory they had achieved with the qualitative transformation of the Labour Party into Tony Blair’s capitalist New Labour. This was both an ideological and organisational transmutation. The socialist Clause Four was replaced with a paean to the ‘enterprise of the market’, while the channels for the working class to challenge pro-capitalist leaders, particularly through the trade unions, were systematically dismantled”.

“The new political order established”, we went on, “lasting over two decades, alongside and linked to the failure of the trade union leaders to resist, achieved real material gains for the capitalists. Wages’ share of gross domestic product in 1980, for example, stood at 61%, compared to below 55% today – an annual transfer from the working class of £130 billion or so”.

“The surge to Labour in the 2017 general election, in particular, filled the ruling class with fear. It was a glimpse of the mass enthusiasm and confidence that would have been unleashed if a Corbyn-led government had come to power, potentially pushing it to go even further than it intended against the capitalists’ interests. ‘Corbynism’ embodied the possibility for socialist, working class political representation to be re-asserted. The capitalists are determined that the opportunities provided by December’s election outcome to exorcise this dread prospect are fully seized”.

And so Starmer prepared his counter-revolution – with the still not fully materialised economic and social consequences of the Covid crisis adding urgency to the capitalists’ need to secure a reliable alternative to the Johnson government.

First, the shadow cabinet was purged, and Corbyn supporters amongst the party’s staff, always a minority, removed. The Corbyn-backing former Unite union official Jennie Formby was replaced as general secretary in May by David Evans, previously an assistant general secretary under Tony Blair who had championed the measures to “marginalise Old Labour” trade unions within the new New Labour party.

Then in June Rebecca Long-Bailey, the candidate closest to Corbyn in the leadership contest was peremptorily sacked. It was also in June that Starmer and his supporters on the NEC voted to bypass Labour’s constitution – which requires rule-amendments to be put to a full conference for approval – and change the method for electing the nine Constituency Labour Party (CLP) representatives on the NEC to a single transferable vote (STV) system, ensuring that no slate could win all the positions.

The clean sweep by pro-Corbyn members in the NEC CLP election in early 2018, along with the appointment of Formby to replace the arch-Blairite Iain McNicol and the general strengthening of Corbyn’s position after the 2017 general election, was the lowest moment for Labour’s capitalist establishment wing and its grip on the party machine. It was at this point that the reactionary leaders of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council jumped in. They organised a protest outside parliament against ‘left-wing antisemitism’ joined by 50 Labour MPs and peers, to muster a new fightback by the right which has reached its fruition now.

Starmer’s NEC voting-system change summer manoeuvre paid off. Even on a reduced turnout, with registered Labour Party membership falling by 56,000 since the start of Starmer’s leadership, the broadly pro-Corbyn ‘Grassroots Voice’ list secured the most votes in the recent biennial elections for the NEC CLP places. But from a nine-nil majority in the previous election in 2018, the CLP section of the NEC now has just a five-four majority against Blairites of assorted hues.

With other smaller component sections – the shadow frontbench, MPs, councillors, BAME Labour, etc – and the right-wing led UNISON, GMB and USDAW unions giving a clear majority to the right, the Starmer-reliable Margaret Beckett MP was installed as NEC chair at the first meeting of the new committee on November 24. This prompted a protest walkout by 13 Corbyn supporters at the blocking of the expected assumption to the post of the outgoing vice-chair, the president of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), Ian Murray.

The situation could not be clearer. The Blairites are back – in control of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), council Labour Groups, and the party machine; and sterilising the membership and all the remaining democratic avenues in the party. So what should the forces – in the trade unions and amongst young people, in and outside the Labour Party – inspired by Corbynism in its insurgent days, do now?

Whither the Corbynistas?

The ruthless attack on Corbyn has not been met with equally implacable opposition by all of those who assured us that they ‘supported Jeremy’ when the going was good. Fifteen members of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour parliamentarians did not sign a group statement opposing Corbyn’s initial suspension – although a number of these signed a subsequent statement, issued on November 18, supporting the NEC panel’s decision to reinstate Corbyn to party membership and calling for Starmer’s withdrawal of the whip to “be swiftly reversed”.

This latter statement was backed by 27 Labour MPs plus Claudia Webbe, currently sitting as an Independent pending a court case, and four peers. It was not signed by, amongst others, Labour frontbenchers Sam Tarry, Imran Hussain and Rachael Maskell, and shadow cabinet members Marsha de Cordova and Andy McDonald. The presence of Andy McDonald in the shadow cabinet was one of the reasons cited by supporters of the misnamed ‘Broad Left’ in the RMT transport workers’ union for why the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), of which the RMT is a component part, should not resume standing candidates in elections, a position that they lost on the RMT national executive. But if this ‘friend of the union’, as they called him, cannot stand up to Starmer now to defend Jeremy Corbyn, how could there be any confidence that he would stand up to Starmer’s pro-capitalist policies in the future?

But others have challenged Starmer, including the 13 NEC members who walked out of the 24 November meeting. They comprised the union representatives from Unite – including the assistant general secretary Howard Beckett – the rail workers’ unions ASLEF and TSSA, the Communications Workers Union (CWU), the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BAFWU), and the FBU, alongside five CLP representatives and the Youth Rep, Lara McNeill. The question here, though, is what are they proposing can be done to reverse the tide?

Ian Lavery MP has spoken of “the opportunity of a leadership challenge”, accusing Starmer of turning the party into a “tin pot dictatorship” (The Times, 20 November). But the Labour Party rules stipulate that, “where there is no vacancy” – if Starmer doesn’t oblige by resigning to facilitate a contest – a potential challenger “must be supported by 20 per cent” of the PLP, which is 40 MPs.

Corbyn himself only managed to get on the ballot paper in 2015 by a number of right wing MPs, including Margaret Beckett, David Lammy and Sadiq Khan, ‘lending’ him their nomination. That won’t happen again!

And, of course, the Blairite-dominated PLP can always trump up some charges to withdraw the whip from anyone backing a challenge – the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) has already submitted complaints against 16 Labour MPs, demanding “justice for the Jewish community”.

It was another of Corbyn’s mistakes as leader, in his determination to conciliate rather than break with the pro-capitalist right, not to end the MPs’ veto over who can be a leadership candidate, by instituting a qualifying threshold based on CLP and trade union nominations only.

This relates to the other strategy of the Labour lefts fighting for Corbyn’s readmission to the parliamentary whip, of legal action. The PLP is arguably not a legal entity – the shadow home secretary, the barrister Nick Thomas-Symonds, maintained that “membership of the PLP is in the gift of the leader and the chief whip” (The Times, 20 November), and the decision to withdraw the whip from Jeremy Corbyn was signed off by the chairman of the PLP, John Cryer MP.

The Corbyn-supporting MP Chris Williamson – suspended, reinstated, and then re-suspended in 2019 – won a favourable court ruling against the “reopening of a case that was not otherwise procedurally unfair or obviously wrong”, but was still debarred from standing as a Labour candidate in the 2019 general election. And now the EHRC is using its legal authority to impose on Labour a so-called independent procedure for complaints of antisemitism, giving the capitalists another lever to further fortify their agents’ hold on the party.

The biggest danger in this situation is that disillusioned with the onward march of Starmer’s counter-revolution, the forces of Corbynism will dissipate as such constitutional and legal rear-guard actions grind on. Not only has Labour’s membership fallen to 495,961 since Starmer’s leadership began, as revealed in the number of ballots issued in the November NEC elections – from a peak of 564,433 under Corbyn – those participating in the elections fell by almost half, to 129,549, compared to 2018.

Rather than limiting their fight to one prescribed by the weighted rules and procedures of the Labour Party and the capitalist courts, the Labour lefts could play a pioneering role. With the left-led trade unions at the core of a fightback, they could turn the battle over Corbyn’s suspension into a movement to help create a new mass vehicle for the political representation of the working class.

That is the broad historic task that it is necessary to begin now.

Seizing the time

Starmer’s move against Corbyn has been described variously in the media as his equivalent to Tony Blair’s ‘Clause Four moment’, referring to the abolition of Labour’s socialist clause in 1995, or Neil Kinnock’s ‘Militant moment’ at Labour’s 1985 conference. This was the notorious attack made by the then Labour leader on the 47 Liverpool city councillors heading a mass struggle in the city against Margaret Thatcher under the decisive leading influence of Militant, the predecessor organisation of the Socialist Party.

Compared to those times the objective situation is actually more favourable for a new formation to grow. We followed our role in the Liverpool struggle from 1983-87 with the leadership of the mass anti-poll tax campaign, which brought down Thatcher in 1990. But that was against the historical background of the unfolding collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe and the ideological triumphalism of capitalism that followed.

The Stalinist regimes were a terrible caricature of genuine, democratic socialism, their totalitarianism responsible for the rotting of the state planned economies on which they rested. But their demise was used to ‘prove’ that socialism was unworkable and that the capitalist market was the only viable way of organising society. It was an objective defeat, ideologically, for the international working class, which had its impact for a whole historical period on the confidence of even the most active, politically conscious workers in the possibility of socialism. It affected the combativeness of the trade unions and, with Britain leading an international trend amongst social-democratic workers’ parties, the transformation of Labour into Blair’s capitalist New Labour.

It is a different situation today, however, after the experience of 13 years of Blairism in power and eleven years of austerity following the financial crash of 2007-08. And now the Covid crisis, revealing the inability of ‘the market’ to meet the needs of both working and middle-class people, has opened up a new era. If even ten or twenty left Labour MPs and the left-led unions seized the moment – with the support probably of at least a group of councillors in most areas – they could transform the political situation.

The BAFWU, pertinently asking “who exactly are Labour representing at the moment?”, have announced a membership consultation “ahead of any motions to the annual conference to disaffiliate” from Labour, stating that the union feels “further away from having a political voice than ever” (BAFWU statement, 20 November).

The CWU, demanding the whip be restored to Jeremy Corbyn, has expressed its “concerns over whether the current direction of Labour is truly representing the policies that Labour has previously agreed in supporting CWU members” and will discuss a paper on the implications at its next national executive meeting.

At its meeting on November 26 the powerful London Transport regional council of the RMT, facing a coming battle with the Blairite London mayor Sadiq Khan responsible for Transport for London, called for the national union to “consider supporting an alternative candidate on a no cuts programme”. “This could be an RMT member”, the regional council argues, “or another bona fide anti-cuts candidate”.

What better way would there be to meet Starmer’s counter-revolution, protect London’s working class against new attacks, and provide a rallying point to the millions previously enthused by the promise of Corbynism, than to draft in Jeremy Corbyn to stand for mayor of the largest city in Europe? But even if that cannot be achieved, there should anyway be the widest possible challenge to the Blairites at the ballot box in next May’s elections, with TUSC available as an electoral banner for all those prepared to fight.

Starmer’s move against Corbyn was a gamble, not even a strictly necessary one to accomplish his broad goal of restoring Labour as a reliable tool for capitalism, given how embedded now the right’s control is of all the levers of power in the party.

But it will only be made to rebound on him by a resolute will to act by every fighting trade unionist, working class community and social movement activist, and socialist militant.

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December 2020