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Labour has a long history of nourishing then nullifying socialism in Britain — inside and outside the party itself. But unlike its European social democrat siblings, its link to the unions means it is still an tool for the working class — so long as we act, argues NICK WRIGHT writing in the Morning Star

AS THE left quit a meeting of Labour’s NEC over Starmer’s continuing purge we are reminded that left-right divisions in the working-class movement have a long history.

Matteo Renzi — the former leader of Italy’s Democratic Party (PD) and inspiration for a right-wing faction that split from it earlier this year — gave us last weekend an illuminating insight into the thinking of right-wing “social democrats” today.

To all round incredulity he tweeted: “In 2021 we will celebrate the anniversary of the Livorno split with a great event for many young people, where I will invite Tony Blair. Because the left is either reformist or loses and Joe Biden’s victory proves it.”

Livorno is the Ligurian port city where, in 1921 the Socialist Party divided and Italy’s Communist Party was born. Lenin commented that the Italian comrades were “taking off a dirty shirt and putting on a clean one.” 

We can think of Renzi as figuratively donning again that soiled shirt now stained with the blood of Iraq’s children.

We can note that the PD and its various fragments do rather less well electorally than the Italian Communist Party did before it was trashed by its “Eurocommunist” leadership.

The most significant element in Keir Starmer’s response to the decision by the disciplinary panel to reinstate Jeremy Corbyn’s party membership was his assertion that not only was he leader of the Labour Party but also leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

In making this distinction he was not only dressing his arbitrary act in refusing Corbyn the whip with a spurious authority but was giving emphasis to the convention that Labour members of Parliament comprise an entity independent of the party as a whole and not bound by the same rules.

That rules — whether those contained in the party’s rule book, the standing orders of the Parliamentary Labour Party or even the as yet unformulated measures that will flow from the EHRC report — should condition his interventions in this whole process seems to have escaped this noted human rights lawyer and supposed forensic advocate.

The whole process is, of course, an episode in the never ending, occasionally muted and presently intensified battle for the control of the party.

The problem for Starmer and the forces that stand behind him is that while he has the office of the leader — won on a promise of party unity and fidelity to Corbyn’s policies — and has been able to reassert total control over those parts of the party apparatus that temporarily slipped from the right’s hands during the last few years he cannot command the unconditional loyalty of the party’s membership any more than Corbyn could claim the loyalty of the PLP.

Indeed, in pitching his leadership challenge on the basis that he stood for party unity and the progressive policies adopted under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, he made the conditional basis of his tenure absolutely clear.

It is precisely because this implied contract with Labour’s membership has been trashed that he has been forced to buttress his personal regime and act outwith the party’s constitutional framework.

Labour contains a whole bundle of contradictions. It was the trade unions — both those long established and the newly insurgent unskilled unions — who founded the party. It has always commanded the loyalty of many socialists. The Marxists of its affiliated British Socialist Party who later provided the main impetus for the creation of a unified Communist Party played a key part in its formation and fell out, as did the Italian communists, around the issue of imperialist war.

Sixty years ago Ralph Miliband identified Labour’s sickness as what he called “ambiguity.”

He quoted RH Tawney’s 1932 insight: “The Labour Party is hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could because it does not know what it wants.”

Miliband’s analysis started with an observation which has a contemporary relevance: “…if it is true that the Labour Party itself suffers from ambiguity, its leadership and particularly its leader, do not. At the risk of seeming to trivialise great issues, it is therefore with the leadership that one must begin.”

And so we must.

The father of the two present day Milibands (who represent two different political traditions in Labour) was discussing Hugh Gaitskell. He was the right-wing leader whose failure to get Labour to abandon its socialist objectives didn’t stop the party’s long retreat from an anti-capitalist posture anymore than the existence of the socialist Clause IV prevented the long train of betrayals by Labour leaders.

Clause IV read: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

The affinity of this with the aim adopted around the same time by the Communist Party is clear: “The aim of the Communist Party is to achieve a socialist Britain in which the means of production, distribution and exchange will be socially owned and utilised in a planned way for the benefit of all.”

Blair succeeded in removing Labour’s totemic phrasing — which gave leftists a broad conspectus of socialist ambition and process — and replaced it with an anodyne formula from which Jeremy Corbyn’s team brilliantly extracted the slogan: “For the many not the few.”

Labour leaders have a high casualty rate. George Barnes refused to resign his ministerial position after the Great War and was expelled. He was replaced by Ramsay MacDonald who became the first Labour premier in the 1924 minority government and was later expelled after forming a coalition with the Tories. William Anderson succeeded him but was twice defeated as MP, the second time by the miners’ Communist MP Willie Gallacher.

Arthur Henderson had two bites of the cherry, first succeeding Keir Hardie and then again succeeding the traitor MacDonald.

Before Corbyn, Labour’s most principled leaders were Keir Hardie and the two leftwingers George Lansbury and Michael Foot. Clement Attlee who led Labour’s post-war reforming administration was a cold warrior who took Britain into the Korean War and Nato.

Labour under Foot enjoyed a double-digit lead over Thatcher which disappeared when a part of Labour’s right wing split to form the SDP and diminished further with the the Malvinas/Falklands Islands conflict.

This unhappy century-long saga shows that where domestic progress has been achieved it has been stunted by imperial war and that Labour has a recurring tendency to pick warmongers as its leaders and for left-wing progress to be sabotaged by right-wing breakaways.

Starmer’s election brought to an end four years in which Labour was led by a popular figure thrust into leadership by forces free of the procedures developed over decades to insulate leadership and policy-making from popular pressure.

Last week Boris Johnson announced a massive increase in military spending and coupled this with a reimposition of the public-sector pay freeze.

The military spend is designed to integrate Britain more fully into Joe Biden’s pursuit of the bipartisan policy he shares with Trump to ramp up conflict with China. The pay freeze is designed to drive down wages overall including those in the private sector in order to prop up profit levels. We cannot say that either were opposed with any great energy by Labour.

The defeat of the Labour left is a defeat for the left as a whole and the key issue is what to do about it. The strategic aim of the Labour right is to demobilise and demoralise the left in the party and induce a passive acceptance of the new regime.

In this it is aided by the lack of human interaction, activity and discussion that Covid-19 compels and this is reinforced by strict supervision by regional officials which results in some activists and office holders becoming panicky about protest. The passivity of the parliamentary left is a disappointment.

Nevertheless many constituency parties and affiliated unions condemned Corbyn’s suspension and now Starmer’s high handed refusal of the whip. In union branches and online the mood is unforgiving.

But Starmer’s tactics are working and Labour’s membership has dropped by about 50,000. Not all of this is Starmer-stimulated but it is worrying.

Because Labour is almost unique in having basic working-class organisations as constituent parts of the party it has always maintained a more organic connection with workers than many continental parties and is thus more stable and still enjoys a core of electoral support that is the envy of its sister parties in other countries.

The reconquest of Labour cannot be successful if the working-class movement is at a low ebb and the need to is to revive a mood of insurgency that fuses the spontaneity of the Black Lives Matter movement with the energy and organisation of Stop the War and People’s Assembly and the power of the trade unions.

But not much is possible in parliaments without remaking the parliamentary Labour Party as the servant of the membership rather than its master.

That is only possible when Labour MPs are compelled to face reselection.

Labour’s membership makes its rules at conference and the most creative minds in Labour’s left now must devise a strategy to make MPs accountable.

One thought on “The reconquest of Labour means a mass-movment insurgency 

  1. Great piece, thank you Nick. The title lacks an “e” in movement and the description of Attlee should presumably read “cold war warrior.”

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