Is there a future for activists outside the Labour Party?

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The question of a parliamentary road to socialism has never been more important than now, but has it reached a dead end? Socialist Review asks Labour Party members, activists and campaigners for their assessment.

Socialist Review posed these three questions: 1. Do you agree Starmer is using the EHRC report to attack the left generally and Corbyn’s suspension is the first salvo in this? How serious do you think the attack will be? 2. Seamus Milne and others have argued the left should break away from the Labour Party and form a new, left wing version. What are your thoughts? 3. After the defeat of Corbyn and the take over and agenda of Starmer, is the Labour Party still a parliamentary road to socialism?
Moshe Machover, longstanding Israeli academic and writer:
Sir Keir is engaged in a purge of the left in the Labour Party. The EHRC report is used by him as a cudgel. Anyone who dares to question this flawed report — or to point out the obvious fact that allegations of ‘antisemitism’ in the Labour Party have been grotesquely inflated for political purposes — may be hauled in front of the Starmer Chamber. Truth is maligned as heresy. There is little political space in Britain for another social-reformist party, somewhat to the left of the Labour Party. Attempts to set up such a party have led nowhere. What is needed is a mass revolutionary socialist party that will not speak about some vague “post-capitalism” but strive explicitly for socialism under the democratic rule of the working class.
The fissiparous, sectarian and bureaucratic traditions and practices of the radical left must be superseded by unifying open democratic dialectic. There is no purely parliamentary road to socialism; nor is there an exclusively extra-parliamentary one. On the road to socialism the working class and its allies must walk on two legs. As for the Labour Party, it has never been on any kind of road to socialism. As best it has followed a parliamentary road to a reformed capitalism; at worst it wanted to ‘modernise’ capitalism by privatisation.
Asa Winstanley, editor of the Electronic Intifada website:
This is the start of a new offensive against the Left. Since Starmer was elected, the Israel lobby’s pressure has intensified. And the official Labour Left has done virtually nothing to fight back, giving him the signal to remove the whip from Corbyn. What Corbyn said was factually correct, but he later issued a statement which back-peddled: ‘To be clear, concerns about antiSemitism are neither exaggerated nor overstated.’ The following day, Starmer removed the whip. Corbyn should not have taken back what he said.
Jewish Voice for Labour:
Moving against Corbyn and large numbers of his supporters was entirely premeditated. We do though need to be clear that from the beginning the appalling attacks on Corbyn (from the Party’s right, from external bodies with an agenda, from the media and the whole establishment) were never just about Corbyn. It was always about all of us. And now war has been declared and battle has been joined. A lot of the sound and fury has been about antisemitism. This is not the place to go into the ways in which antisemitism — a topic of deadly seriousness — has been misappropriated as a political lever and factional tool.
However, its latest bonus delivered to those who want the party purged of leftists has centred on an innocuous comment by Corbyn following the publication of the EHRC report. Starmer seized on these remarks, since vindicated by the Party’s own disciplinary procedures, as an excuse to suspend Corbyn, and when that didn’t work, to remove the Labour whip. There can surely be no doubt that in Starmer’s game plan this scenario ends with Jeremy’s expulsion. Jeremy was certainly no master of political tactics.
But Starmer is now showing a quite spectacular degree of political ineptitude, with an aptitude for boxing himself into corners. He has repeatedly played the chicken game — making unnecessary advance commitments so that everyone can see that he will not, cannot budge. He did that during the leadership campaign when he accepted the Jewish Board of Deputies’ 10 pledges [ten conditions the Board has stipulated must be met to address their concerns about antisemitism in the party] within nanoseconds. Similarly, he pledged himself to accept all the recommendations of the EHRC Report sight unseen.
Not only that, he offered publicly to be judged on his success in tackling antisemitism by whether ex-MP Louise Ellman would return to the party — in effect inviting her to name her price. He seems to want to posture as a strong and decisive man of action. So, when his suspend Jeremy strategy unravelled he had no exit strategy. Struggling to deliver on his promises he upped the anti once more, by blatantly breaking the rules about interfering in disciplinary matters (a case for referral to EHRC?) and violating the standing orders of the Parliamentary Labour Party to boot. The consequence of all this has been to fan the flames of grassroots resistance, till then being held back with difficulty by General Secretary Evans’ serial gags, into open revolt. The reasonably strong showing for the left in the NEC elections, resulting in five of the six Grassroots Voice candidates winning seats as CLabour Party representatives, is hopefully a sign that the grassroots left can fight off this attempted suppression of member democracy and the impending abandonment of socialist principles.
Jacqui, former Labour Party member, Bristol West branch:
As soon as the report came out it was obvious what was going to happen, even though a lot were surprised that Corbyn was suspended. The news later that the NEC wanted to let him back in but Starmer refused to give him back the whip, that is pretty shocking. Starmer will stop at nothing. He’s worked out that he’s got to get rid of the left, which is so ironic in Bristol West because our numbers went right up to 4000 after the election of Corbyn as leader. I only joined Labour in 2015, after Corbyn was elected and the day he was it just seemed like a real massive turning point for you if you were a socialist. It seemed like something was going to happen.
Everyone felt incredibly optimistic. Basically, Bristol West transformed itself, became a huge CLP with lots of very active members and now we know that loads of those members have left. I left and lots of others did too. Its such a shame but obviously Starmer is very keen to get rid of us. The other thing is, in the 2017 election on the doorstep people thought the manifesto was fantastic, that was my experience, same in 2019, except we were badly hobbled by the party’s Brexit position. But generally, there’s a huge audience for left wing ideas. In Bristol West, the sitting MP, Thangam Debbonaire, has never acknowledged the huge number of people who joined and who were prepared to go out and campaign for her and hugely increase her majority.
But she’s a right winger and she’ll never acknowledge that. She thinks its all down to her personally. I can see why lots are calling for a breakaway. Personally, having been in the party for five years I feel quite cynical now about parliamentary politics. I don’t think reformism is ever going to be able to offer us any solutions. Because of that I feel much more drawn to trying to be active outside of that. Maybe I would join if there was a really decent socialist party to vote for but the problem is, you just know they’re going to get pulled to the right all of the time. For me, I’d rather try and be as active as possible as I can in my trade union and be as active as I can in local campaigns, as I have since I left the Labour Party.
I’m not sure it’s viable to have another party. I can’t see how parliamentary road to socialism can happen with the system as it stands. Be brilliant if it could but I feel much more drawn to be an activist outside of the Labour party at the moment.
Is it enough to be active in campaigns generally, or is there a need for a centralised, grassroots political party?
I think there is a role for a grass roots party, definitely. At the moment the left outside of the party is suffering from being quite small. It would just be brilliant if it grew and I’d definitely join if that happens. I work in the NHS and that’s the really big thing that I want to campaign around. I’ve been a nurse for nearly 41 years, I’m about to retire. That really is the biggest thing for me, the lack of funding for the NHS and that where I want to be campaigning over the next couple of years. That creeping privatisation has only accelerated during lockdown. I’ve just done some training for a school of nurses — none of them were employed by the NHS.
To finish, I do think what Bristol West have tried to do to defend Corbyn is great, but I just think they’ve got to bring it out of the Labour Party because they’re keeping it under raps because they’re so scared they’re all going to be expelled. So, when your focus is just being in the Labour Party its hopeless because no one else knows what’s going on. If we weren’t under lockdown we’d needed to have had a big demonstration to defend Corbyn, but these times we need to have a big online meeting in Bristol. I have suggested that to various people and they’ve said “Oh no, we can’t do that, we mustn’t make it any worse”. I think what they’ve done is fab and I’m proud of Bristol West. But if you don’t fight in the open Starmer will just get more and more on the offensive against the left. He clearly sees that this is his chance to get rid of Corbyn — and Corbynism.
A former Labour Party member from Birmingham:
I do strongly believe its an attack on the left and I think its quite sad really. The left in the party think that by appeasing the Israeli lobby they’ll go away but all it does is embolden them more. Margaret Hodges’ behaviour tells the story. Nobody’s coming out, including Corbyn’s supporters themselves, and saying what this is really about. Corbyn almost wants to be too nice, and the time is passed for being nice. You can’t appease these right wingers. Its an attack and its to silence people. To speak out is to be labelled antisemitic and some are more concerned to stay in the party than speak their mind. I joined the Labour Party because of Momentum.
I was going to Momentum meetings and a lot of the people from that time, from Momentum, are now in positions of influence in the party in the Birmingham area, and they are the ones ruling out of order discussion of the criticisms of Starmer and defending Corbyn. So, I think what’s the point of having a position in the Labour Party as a left winger when you’re just doing what the right wing would do. So its splitting the left in Birmingham. They started doing a lot of great stuff in Birmingham. It’s as if as soon they got to be Councillors and chairs of CLabour Partys and things like that they’ve lost their fight. It seems like their real agenda was just to get positions and they thought that would be OK and would get rid of the Right.
But the Right just retreated and still control regional office and the like, still pack selection committees for MPs and Councillors and so on. I’ve left the Labour Party. I don’t think there’s any reason to stay in it. The idea of reforming the party to suit the left is not going to work. Corbyn was the best shot and he’s gone. If a group of left MPs left en masse it might work. They wouldn’t have to be restrained and run the risk of being undermined by the right all the time. There’s a number of good grass roots MPs across the Midlands, in Coventry with Taiwo Owatemi, in Leicester and the like. They speak their minds and they’re good constituency MPs but the worry is if they don’t break away there’ll be manufactured means of deselecting them at the next election. There’s no future for them staying in the party. I don’t think it ever was. I’ve never believed that Parliament was going to change anything but I do think its’ better to have socialists in power than non-socialists. I’ve always believed you’d need a strong movement outside of parliament. And I think that was the good thing about Corbyn and McDonald. They actively supported struggles in the beginning.
Siobhan Lennon-Patience in Weymouth, former member of South Dorset CLP sent us this in response to our questions:
Starmer is making use of the flawed EHRC report to remove Corbyn and his supporters. This is not just about the suspension of Corbyn but the ongoing expulsions and suspensions of Labour Party members, such as the recent suspensions of Bristol West CLabour Party members who had openly supported Corbyn. In doing so it has meant that any critical analysis of the EHRC report has been curtailed. The weaponising of anti-semitism in this way should be of real concern to all those who are committed to fighting racism in all its forms. However, this is not the only way that the Labour Party leadership at national and regional levels are attacking the left.
For example a Labour Party branch, Kingswood, were told that they could not donate £3,000 to the community and tenant’s union ACORN and to local food banks in the area as it was deemed to be an inappropriate use of funds. I can understand the concern that a split in the Labour Party at this time could prove electorally damaging, one only has to recall the damaging effect of the purging of the left in the 1980s which served to give strength to Thatcher. What the labour left have to face however, is that the party, under the leadership of Starmer will only ever be a ‘don’t rock the boat’ party, serving only to defend capital and make limited change within a system. Many Labour members feel a genuine fear now when speaking out for the rights of Palestinians for fear of being labelled anti-Semitic.
The Labour Party has inhibited serious discussions about Israel, the zionist movement and the Palestinian predicament. This is a significant reason why many now feel that they are better able to argue for justice outside the party rather than from within. Speaking personally I also feel utterly betrayed by the party machine which willingly took my limited money (I am on carers allowance) and then actively worked against the interests that core Labour supporters had in getting Labour elected. I am deeply hurt and angered to know that money was funnelled to seats where candidates were anti Corbyn.
However, I think that Corbynism gained momentum not because of the strength of the left within Labour but because it emerged in conjunction with the ground swell of peace and social justice movements from outside the party which finally found a Labour leader that people could get behind. It is there that the strength of the left lies, in the movements standing up and making the case for antiracism, solidarity, peace, social justice and socialism.